Interview: Speranza Scappucci on conducting Don Giovanni

speranza scappucci

First published in The Herald on 9 October, 2013

There’s been plenty of drama off-stage at Scottish Opera recently, with the shock resignation of the new music director Emmanuel Joel-Hornak and growing concerns over Alex Reedijk’s general steering of the company. Meanwhile preparations have been under way for the season’s opening run of Mozart’s Don Giovanni and there’s no small pressure upon it: now more than ever, Scottish Opera needs to earn some positive headlines and to divert attention back on-stage.

Luckily (for them and us) the new production should do the trick, at least in the short term. Sir Thomas Allen returns to direct for the fourth year running with the same designer (Simon Higlett) who did classy things with The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute. Jacques Imbrailo – the 35-year-old South African baritone who shot to attention as Glyndebourne’s Billy Budd in 2010 – takes on the title role in a cast that also includes Susan Gritton and Scottish soprano Lisa Milne. So far, so strong.

Conducting from the harpsichord is Speranza Scappucci, a name that few will recognise and whose conducting credits are even fewer. The company took a risk to engage such an unknown quantity for such an important production (indeed, for one of only three mainstage productions they offer this season). But on this punt, at least, they might just be right.

I’ve arranged to meet Scappucci between rehearsals and am greeted by a fun, fiery woman with a huge smile and a mass of curly red hair. That she’s energetic is obvious from the get-go; that she’s passionate and confident is clear after just a couple of minutes’ conversation.

“Most opera conductors get to the podium via one of two routes,” she explains. “You can be a symphonic conductor first and your approach to opera will probably be more orchestral. Or you can get into it the way I did it: without having a clue that you’d end up on the podium.”

Scappucci started out as a pianist. She grew up in Rome and was taken to the opera young – she’d seen La Sonnambula and Werther by the age of seven – but even younger, age five, she began sitting in on her big sister’s piano lessons. “Our teacher was an elderly woman from Trieste. She’d lived through the period when the city was under Austro-Hungarian rule and had Mozart running deep in her blood. If I look back now I can see that a lot of my ideas about how to phrase music come from her.”

Scappucci went on to study piano at Rome’s Conservatorio Santa Cecilia and New York’s Julliard School. It was her sheer Italianness that got her into opera. “Singers at Julliard would ask me for help with Italian pronunciation. Then it became a real passion – I loved the life behind the scenes of constructing an opera production.” Out of college she coached singers and worked as a répétiteur (an opera company’s rehearsal pianist). She worked in Salzburg, Rome and Vienna; at the Met, New York City Opera, Chicago’s Lyric Opera. She spent six summers at Glyndebourne – “an amazing place where the focus is always the music,” she says – and prepared new productions for the likes of Zubin Mehta and Daniele Gatti. But the most influential figure was Ricardo Mutti. It was from him, she says, that she “learned how to look at music rather than just how to move my arm”.

But all the while she never forgot something that her chamber music teacher at Julliard had said on the day of her graduation recital. “He took me aside and told me, ‘remember, Speranza: stay behind the scenes as long as it takes, but you were born to be on the stage’.”

That chance came a couple of years ago when she got a call from the head of music at Yale University, asking whether she could conduct Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. The opera school needed someone who could work with young singers and teach them how to deliver recitative, Scappucci says. “I’d felt confident conducting big choruses from the piano, so even though I’d never stood on a podium, I knew that my arm was working. I just needed to try it.” She didn’t open a single conducting manual or watch herself conducting in the mirror. “Once you’ve directed from behind the piano for so long you know what works,” she shrugs.

I ask her why, when her career as a répétiteur was going so well, she wanted to make the shift to conducting? “At some point I felt that the piano was not enough,” she replies. “The ideas kept coming. I’m comfortable in a conducting role, with all the humility that comes with it. I’m really glad that I went through so many years behind the scenes because that’s how you build the experience; today I stand on the podium and I’m confident that I know Don Giovanni because I worked on the score with zillions of singers, from students to big stars.”

Scappucci might be confident, but she’s far from blasé. She says that despite her past experience of coaching Don Giovanni she bought a brand new score when she was hired to conduct the Scottish Opera production and pretended that she’d never met the opera before. “When Maestro Mutti returns to a work he’s conducted a hundred times he still studies the score intently. There might be one tiny detail he hadn’t notice before.”

Female conductors have been in the spotlight recently after controversial comments made by the Russian conductor Vasily Petrenko that orchestras “react better when they have a man in front of them” and that “a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things”. Does Scappucci feel that gender has ever impacted her career either way? “I don’t think so,” she says. “All the work I’ve done as a vocal coach hasn’t happened because I’m a women; I was always hired for the quality of what I was doing. And in my short career as a conductor it’s been the same. Hopefully that will continue to be the case.”

When I ask why she thinks there are vastly fewer women than men on the professional conducting circuit, she just shrugs. “Because women got to the podium later than men. Now it just needs time. What makes you good at what you do is knowledge and studying, and whether you can communicate. In my opinion, that kind of talent comes gender and race free.”

Don Giovanni opens at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, on October 15