Speranza Scappucci is one of opera’s rising conducting stars. Since making her debut in 2012 conducting Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Yale Opera, Scappucci has conducted around the world, including at Finnish National Opera, Washington National Opera and Scottish Opera. She did not always know that her destiny was to conduct.
This month, Scappucci makes her LA Opera debut conducting six performances of Puccini’s La Bohème. It’s a piece that Scappucci knows really well (she coached the piece for 20 years), but that does not stop her from finding new things in Puccini’s masterpiece. Scappucci discovers these new things by extensively revisiting the score, as if it’s the first time she’s approaching it.
Born and raised in Rome, Scappucci moved to New York at age 20 to study piano at The Juilliard School. She received a master’s at Juilliard in collaborative piano and went on to brilliant career as a coach and assistant conductor. For 15 years, Scappucci was a familiar face in the world’s top opera houses, coaching both rising stars and famous opera singers, and also working as an assistant conductor for some of the world’s most renowned conductors – Riccardo Muti, Zubin Mehta, Seiji Ozawa, Daniele Gatti, and James Levine.
After conducting a full piano dress rehearsal of Verdi’s Macbeth, while assisting Maestro Muti at the Salzburg Festival, she caught the conducting bug. The rest is history.
When asked about her approach with this production, Scappucci exclaims “My motto is that we have to start from the score.” The score is king, especially with Puccini. “Puccini is one of the most detailed composers,” she continues. In the score, he writes exactly how he wants the piece performed – where he wants singers to slow down, speed up or soften their voices. Throughout the years, some of Puccini’s specifications have been altered or simply lost, because the piece is performed so frequently (it is the third most performed opera in the world this current season). Scappucci’s mission is to bring these details back when she conducts La Bohème.
She does this by being present at rehearsals from day one (a style of working she champions). Rehearsals begin with two to three days of music. Scappucci’s background as a coach comes in handy. She polishes the singers’ take on La Bohème, striving to reach a truthful, “Puccini-approved” interpretation of the piece.
Sometimes, finding the truth that Puccini wrote proves difficult for both singers and members of the orchestra. Puccini’s music is so lush and romantic that it’s easy to sentimentalize. Yet, if every moment in the opera is large and charismatic, the moments where Puccini really wanted a singer and an orchestra to “let go” don’t ring as true. As a conductor, Scappucci leads the orchestra and the singers to find a delicate balance between the realism of the piece – the fast paced orchestration makes the opera more theatrical – and its romantic lyricism – grand, emotional arias, such as “O soave fanciulla.”
This delicate balance is evident in the complex 18 minutes of Act II. Scappucci explains the complexities well with a film analogy: “There’s a large chorus that sing many different parts. Then, all of a sudden, Puccini ‘zooms’ into the crowd to two peoples’ dialogue, and just as easily ‘zooms’ back into a big scene. You have the chorus chatting, and then all of a sudden, you have a conversation between Rodolfo and Mimi, and it’s an intimate conversation. You have to create those moments.” These moments also come quickly during an act that’s a tour de force blend of wonderful, intimate character moments, and sweeping arias – particularly when conducted with Speranza Scappucci’s precision, clarity, and leadership.
While Scappucci may not have always known she would be a conductor, it is clear from her musicianship and passion for the art form, that she has a thrilling career. Conducting La Bohème is only the beginning.
To learn more about Speranza Scappucci, listen to her podcast with KUSC’s Brian Lauritzen below:
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