Ahead of his Pelléas with the SSO, the maestro talks French music and modern opera – just don’t mention the R-word!

This is your 40th year in Australia, What keeps you coming back to Sydney?

I always had a great time with everybody, and the orchestra is very good. I made good friends in the Sydney Symphony, but I’ve been working with the Melbourne Symphony and also in Perth. I know the whole country, I’ve been everywhere – in the centre, in the Northern Territory, the Bungle Bungles. I’ve been in the Blue Mountains and I also went to Brisbane and Hobart on one of those ABC tours, but now I go to Sydney exclusively. Melbourne is a great city, but I prefer Sydney in terms of the people, the art of living, the restaurants, the situation of the quay and the bridge and the Opera House and Concert Hall. I just love it.

What was it that convinced you that conducting was the thing that you most wanted to do?

It was really an accident. I was studying violin at the Conservatory – this was in my teens – and I was playing the violin in an amateur orchestra in...