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Speranza Scappucci conducting a rehearsal for The Barber of Seville.Taylor Long/COC

Occasionally, Hollywood makes a sensational biopic focusing on a rarefied profession, and audiences take the depiction as fact. The film Tár, starring Cate Blanchett as a brilliant, polarizing female conductor on one of the world’s leading podiums, is the latest example of this.

As is often the case, however, reality is far more compelling than fiction.

Take Speranza Scappucci, the Italian conductor set to step onto the podium for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Macbeth. Her precise ear for how the music in the pit should interact with the action on stage is one reason she’s a highly sought-after conductor of Italian operas.

Just listen to her breakdown of the Piangi, fanciulla duet from Rigoletto, which she recently conducted during her Metropolitan Opera debut, and you’ll appreciate how much passion she puts into crafting a scene. This attentiveness extends well beyond the podium, as it takes some administrative know-how to make the most of the ever-shrinking rehearsal hours afforded by North America’s opera houses.

Scappucci’s previous visit to Canada was for Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, also staged by the COC. She returns now for another Italian masterwork wherein Giuseppe Verdi’s dramatically adventurous orchestration meets one of the most murderous plots in the English theatrical canon. The challenge with Seville was finding something new in some of the most recognizable pieces of operatic music. With Macbeth, it’s the text that’s canonical, and so Scappucci instead has to mine for intrigue in the most minute crevices of the music. She is up for the challenge.

On a coffee break in between tightly scheduled rehearsals for Macbeth (April 28-May 20), Scappucci discussed her approach to the podium, corralling the music of a Shakespearean opera and what ensembles can do to better support the next generation of female conductors.

What is your approach to bringing the music of Macbeth to life?

In theatre, you have the text, and that has to be your driving force; you can’t change it. I was doing a scene with the chorus the other day – the finale of Act Two – in the E major key, which you normally associate with more jolly music. Yet hell has just broken loose: Macbeth has seen the ghost of Banquo. In the text of that scene, he’s going mad, strange things are happening, ghosts are walking the Earth – and yet the music is in E major. So I asked the chorus to sing it with a lighter, more airy sound. Suddenly it becomes this really eerie moment that can leave you breathless. And so that’s where my approach and interpretation as a conductor comes in.

What’s your philosophy when it comes to interpreting the score like that?

It’s not that I’m putting my stamp on the score, it’s just that I’m meeting the moment. This score has so many big moments that are in a major key, so you have to reinterpret what’s written on the page slightly. Yes, Verdi wrote it like that, but it’s up to you to make it sound the way he maybe wanted it. I’m actually being true to the music, but I have to interpret what’s written in order to make it come alive.

What moment in Macbeth fascinated you the most as you studied it?

One is in the first act, in the duet between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth when he’s just killed Duncan. Throughout the whole scene – from the monologue to the duet – Verdi sets the strings to play with the mute on. It’s about 10 minutes of music where the whole scene is muted. In the score, when they sing, 90 per cent of the time it’s written con voce repressa [with a repressed voice] and sotto voce [low voice], meaning Verdi was experimenting back in 1863 with these fairly modern sounds. And so, this whole duet of Macbeth being scared for what he just did, and Lady Macbeth trying to convince him it’s okay, should all be whispered. And sometimes you hear it not done like that, just sung loudly. For me, musically, it only works if the voice matches those eerie muted strings.

Another moment, which I think is spectacular, is the sleepwalking scene in the fourth act. Basically, Verdi, with just four elements, creates this mad scene. We have, again, the mute and the strings, and then this rhythm – da da dum dum dum tin – which is Lady Macbeth’s hands trying to get the blood off. Then there’s the semitone, which is exactly the same sound she heard in the first act when the owl in the night is singing. In music we call it perpetual motion, and throughout the whole scene she relives every moment of the opera. So that’s something to listen for.

Tár has certainly catapulted the topic of female conductors to public consciousness, but what do you foresee as the next step toward better gender parity on the podium?

Now that there’s more awareness, I think that a lot of girls know that it’s possible to become a conductor. The next step would be to have more women at the administration level, in charge of artistic choices. Looking at the artistic directors, casting managers and general directors of symphonic institutions, it’s very rare to find a woman in these roles, making the decisions. There’s a lot of talk about trying to have gender equality, not only on the podium but also with directors and composers. But then when you look at the seasons, there’s still such a big imbalance there. That said, you shouldn’t hire people just based on their gender, or to meet a quota. The talent and preparation have to be there, whether you are a woman or a man.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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