Natural Talent
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Natural Talent

Roman conductor Speranza Scappucci is one of classical music’s brightest stars.
By Judith Kurnick
Photographs by Ball & Albanese

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Photographed by Ball & Albanese
Hair & makeup by Affan Graber Malik
Wardrobe by Giorgio Armani
Location design by McGovern Project LLC
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At work at Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège, where she is principal conductor
© Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège
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Scappucci conducts La Bohème for her Dresden debut this month
© Ball & Albanese

THE OPERA WORLD IS LITTERED WITH coaches who would be conductors, people who are wonderful at supporting singers but cannot make music come to life with an orchestra. “There is a false idea that conducting opera is following the singers,” conductor Speranza Scappucci notes. “But the energy must come from the pit. You must of course know the score, but you also have to have a natural inclination with gesture, an instinct for rhythm and a leading personality.

“I am not a wunderkind,” Scappucci declares. “Forty years of studying music is what makes me who I am today.” That is, one of a rare breed of pianist/coaches to ascend to major international podiums. A rising star in both the opera and symphonic worlds, from Europe and Asia to the U.S., Scappucci is an intense, serious woman with a radiant smile who also happens to be passionate about soccer. 

Scappucci will make three major debuts in 2020—at Canadian Opera Company, conducting The Barber of Seville in January; at the Paris Opera, with Rigoletto in June; andat San Francisco Opera, leading Così Fan Tutte in October.

Her calendar last season included La Bohème at Vienna State Opera, Zurich Opera and Semperoper Dresden (a debut); L’Elisir d’Amore and La Cenerentola in Vienna; Maria Stuarda at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées; Tosca at Washington National Opera; and the Verdi Requiem, Aida and I Puritani in her second season as music director of Belgium’s Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège. She also led symphonic concerts in Lucerne, Lausanne, San Diego and Vienna. 

Stefano Mazzonis di Pralafera, general and artistic director of the Opéra Royal, invited Scappucci to Liège after he saw her conduct at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro. “She is one of the most talented conductors I have ever seen,” he says, “and I am old enough to have seen many.” Comparing her to Thomas Schippers, Mazzonis says, “It is natural talent. She gets immediately inside the music. She knows what she wants to communicate, and it’s easy for her to pass this sensation to the orchestra. And then she knows all the possible difficulties for the singers in an opera, because she has learned from the inside.”

NOW FORTY-SIX, the Rome native grew up with parents who loved opera and exposed their daughter to it. She started piano lessons at age five and entered the conservatory of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia at ten. In addition to her musical studies there, Scappucci studied English and French literature, poetry and philosophy in high school and at university in Rome. Toward the end of her studies, she played for pianist Gyor-gy Sandor, who encouraged her to audition for Juilliard’s piano program. There, in addition to her solo piano studies with Sandor, she signed up for chamber music with Samuel Sanders, who became a mentor. Through studying score-reading, as well as playing lots of chamber music and working as an ear-training assistant, she learned how to work with orchestral instruments.

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A bow with Jonas Kaufmann and the Wiener Staatsoper at the 2017 Opera Ball
© Herbert Neubauer/APA Picturedesk via ZUMA Press

AFTER TWO YEARS, Scappucci joined Juilliard’s accompanying program (now known as collaborative piano), where she began working with the song repertoire and opera. She loved the excitement and multilayered nature of opera preparation and enjoyed using her language skills in her work. “As a pianist and coach, you prepare the singers and chorus,” she explains. “You learn every aspect of each opera. The only thing you don’t do is read the piece with the orchestra.” Scappucci decided this would be her path. After her graduation recital, Sanders told her, “Stay behind the scenes as long as you need to, but remember that you were born to be on the stage.”

Coaching projects followed at New York City Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Met and the Glyndebourne Festival. When the Vienna State Opera had an opening for a pianist/coach with expertise in the Italian repertoire, Scappucci won the position and had the encounter that led to the most influential experience of her professional life. In December 2005, Riccardo Muti came to Vienna to lead Le Nozze di Figaro. She asked to be assigned to the project, both for the opportunity to work with him and because she loved playing the recitatives, done on fortepiano. Toward the end of the run, Muti, referring to the way she matched her interpretations to what was happening onstage, asked her, “How did you learn the theatricality?” “I didn’t,” she replied. 

When the maestro’s regular pianist from La Scala became ill during a production he was leading at Salzburg’s Whitsun Festival, Muti invited Scappucci to fill in. “It was an unknown Cimarosa opera with lots of recitativi,” she recalls, “and it was one week before opening night. I had to learn it in three days.” From that experience developed a nine-year collaboration, during which she worked with Muti in Vienna, Salzburg, Rome and at the Met, on his 2010 Attila.

“Without the incredible experience of working next to and with Maestro Muti,” she says, “I wouldn’t be who I am today as a musician and conductor.” Her bird’s-eye view of Muti’s legendary insight into the profound dramatic connection between words and music in the Italian repertoire and many other works inspired Scappucci to develop her own dramatic instincts and the commitment to find the meaning in every aspect of every score. “She has had the experience of so many years of preparing singers, in Vienna and as my collaborator,” Muti says. “She is a very serious musician.” 

Scappucci has absorbed Muti’s dedication to executing the composer’s intentions. “Things creep in over time because of tradition,” she explains. “You have to ask, ‘Why this ritardando, this rallentando?’ You look at the words, the drama, the music, and you come to a decision. Then you can explain to the singers and the orchestra, ‘We are not going to do this, because….’ Some traditions are of course very good. But even in Bohème things are done that Puccini did not write.”

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With Riccardo Muti, during Nabucco in Rome, 2011

At the Rome Opera in 2011, when Muti’s arrival was delayed by illness, Scappucci helped prepare the singers and chorus for Nabucco. After watching her work, the manager of the house took her aside and said, “Why do you not conduct? You can do it.” Her first opportunity came with the Yale School of Music orchestra. “My biggest fear was, what if I’m not prepared enough? But I felt like I had always done it.” In 2013, Francesca Zambello offered her a staged version (with dancers) of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater at her Glimmerglass Festival, with Anthony Roth Costanzo and Nadine Sierra, both relatively unknown at the time, in the cast. A Cenerentola at Washington National Opera followed, and Scappucci’s conducting career took off. 

“I knew of her from the Met, Yale and Juilliard, and it was obvious to me that she was a conductor personality,” says Zambello. “At her first music rehearsal at Glimmerglass, I was impressed by her ability to communicate musical ideas in a vivid and dramatic fashion. I loved her spirit. Her name kind of says it all, doesn’t it?” she adds. (“Speranza” means “hope” in Italian.) 

“Both [the Glimmerglass and WNO] orchestras liked her very much,” Zambello adds. And she admires Scappucci’s “old-school” approach. “Some people zip in and out, but she’s there for the right amount of time to make sure everything works.” 

Scappucci’s understanding of singers, and of the way staging choices can affect musical values, was evident in her handling of the children’s chorus during Bohème rehearsals in Zurich last fall. She told them to come to the front of the stage and sing standing still. Then she moved them back ten feet and had them sing again. Another ten feet. Finally, they moved back to their original stage positions. “It was perfect in every show,” she says.

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In Manhattan, 2019
Photographed by Ball & Albanese

THESE DAYS SCAPPUCCI is based in New York and Vienna. During our interview at her apartment, over tea in cups painted with colorful Dutch folk scenes—a gift from her mother—she takes out the score of Verdi’s mammoth four-act Jérusalem, which she conducted for a run at Opéra Royal that was livestreamed in 2017. Along with typical conducting markings, she has noted where the colors are affected by moods. “So here, it has to be ‘sneaky,’” she says, “because this is a moment of plotting to kill.” 

For Maria Stuarda at Paris’s Champs-Élysées, Scappucci went back and restudied the history of the Tudor family, tracking what is factual in the opera alongside what the creators did to transform the characters and story into an emotionally compelling love triangle. “There are shades of Elizabeth in the opera that are related to her personality as a queen, but so much of what she expresses in the recitativi are feelings about Mary for emotional, not political reasons. This affects the music too. And Mary is, of course, the heroine, the victim. But she was also not an easy person.” 

Speaking of strong women, does she mind that many journalists cannot resist describing her mane of thick, red curls as “fiery,” and her personality too? Not if they take her work seriously. “After all,” she says, “when I conduct opera, I change into red Armani heels for the onstage bows.” But she does bristle when they ask whether female conductors approach the work differently. “Do they ask if male and female violinists interpret differently?” she asks.

Scappucci has conducted at Vienna State Opera, WNO, Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, the Maggio Musicale in Florence, Rome Opera, Teatro Regio di Torino, the Rossini Opera Festival, Scottish Opera, Finnish National Opera, Lisbon’s São Carlos National Theatre and at Lincoln Center in a joint production of Sonnambula by the Metropolitan Opera and the Juilliard School. She has also led the Detroit Symphony, the LA Phil at the Hollywood Bowl, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony, the Tokyo Spring Festival Orchestra, the Vienna Symphony and the Juilliard Orchestra. 

Next season in Liège, Scappucci leads Madama Butterfly, La Cenerentola and La Sonnambula, along with some concerts. Management would like her to do more, but she will be busy elsewhere. “The public would like her to stay forever,” says Mazzonis di Pralafera. “The day she will leave, it will be a shock.” It’s clear he is already preparing himself. spacer

Judith Kurnick  has written on classical music for The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Musical America and European publications. 

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