Q & A: Michele Spotti on ‘Ernani,’ Running His Own Orchestra Before 30 & His Dream Opera

By Mauricio Villa
(Photo Credit; Marco Borrelli)

The talented conductor, Michele Spotti, made his debut at Les Arts conducting “Ernani” on June 7th.

Spotti was also recently named Music Director of the Marseille opera and orchestra, at the young age of 29. He discovered music at the age of three because his grandmother, a musician, told him musical tales. He is married to an oboist, and they already have a one-year-old son.

The conductor had many important debuts this year, besides Valencia, such as the Wiener Staatsoper conducting “La fille du régiment,” with Juan Diego Florez and Pretty Yende as protagonists. And next November he will make his debut at the Opera de Paris with “Turandot.”

Spotti spoke to OperaWire in his dressing room two hours before the opening night of “Ernani” at Les Arts.

OperaWire: You have told the press many times how your grandmother used to tell you stories about music when you were three-years-old. Could you tell me about the influence of your grandmother in your musical studies and the development of your career?

Michele Spotti: She was a splendid pianist and chorus master. I spent lots of days with her in my childhood and she immediately became aware of some music talent in my skills. She confessed to me years later, that I had wanted to become a conductor since I was between three and four-years-old. She was a good musician and an opera lover. She first introduced me to the violin, and after three years of musical studies she “pushed me” into piano ha ha ha… I studied composition a few years later. She gave me a complete musical education.

OW: So, are you a conductor due to true vocation?

MS: Absolutely, yes! My parents were not conductors, as you see many conductors following their parents steps. I wish my son would (laugh). But yes, vocation is the right word.

OW: What attracts you to opera, as so many conductors prefer to work in symphonic repertoire?

MS: I think that the beauty of my job is to have a complete musical education, so I find it silly to prefer symphonic to opera repertoire, or the other way around. I try to do both, fifty-fifty. As I have just become music director of the Marseille Opera and Orchestra, I am planning about doing one opera production and six symphonic concerts. In order to work with new orchestras, it is usually common to conduct symphonic music before they invite you to do opera. The wonderful opportunity of being a Music Director, when you are a young conductor, is that you can fix your own schedule and decide which pieces to play. So, I have a better chance to do Mahler, Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich. It is difficult to conduct these composers when you are invited, as it is usually the chief conductor who prefers to do Mahler himself.

OW: How does it feel to have your own orchestra when you are just 30-years-old?

MS: It is fantastic! And I think I am the first chief conductor in Marseille. There are a few Italian music directors in France now, but that was not very common before. I have a big orchestra with 94 elements, and for example we can do all the programs that have six horns. It is also good for me because I like to manage and organize, not only my own repertoire, but the organization side, the budget, the interpreters, the repertoire. I like to be able to plan years ahead, an artistic run through for years, as we are working now in the 2026 season. I like to discover voices too. They have the Centre de Perfeccionament here in Valencia, which is an opera studio program for your singers, and I will do auditions. They were surprised. But it is very normal for me, when there is a musical academy, to listen to young singers. It is not true that there are no “new voices.” Maybe the technique is different compared to thirty-years-ago, but there are lots of talented people who deserve to be in theaters.

OW: Now that you mention a big orchestra, would you like to plan a whole “Ring cycle?”

MS: Yes! A lot! I am already planning my first Wagner. I speak German, as I lived in Hannover for one year. I work fifty percent of my time in Germany, and I love German culture and literature, and I do love Wagner. And it is not true, as its commonly believed, that Italian conductors don’t do “good Wagner.” I mean, Toscanini, for example, was one of the greatest Wagner conductors. And we have Gatti, or Luisi nowadays. And I will do that. I will start slowly and with a common Wagner title. But I cannot imagine my career without doing a Ring Cycle. Maybe in ten or fifteen years, I will also be physically ready for it. And it is not just a question of physical stamina, but also about knowledge, power and the architecture of the work which is huge. But Don Carlos is really huge too. I did the French version in Basel last year and it was four and a half hours. But once you know the piece, there are always moments when you can find some distress. When I go to the theatre to see opera, I always chose Wagner.

OW: I know that you have conducted some Bel-canto operas, such as “La fille du regiment” in Bergamo 2022. However, some musicians and music critics despise the Bel-canto repertoire which they consider a minor repertoire compared to Wagner, Strauss or even Mozart. What do you think about this statement?

MS: People, who think that, have not studied the score. In “L’elisir d’amore,” for example, every time that something is repeated there is something slightly different in the score. It is the same thing with the “Ernani” score, there are always little differences in the score. And if you can’t find any, your job as a conductor is to make it sound different. In Ernani’s cabalettas, as we do the unabridged version with no cuts, you can make differences in the color of the music or play with more importance to some instrument. And I also encourage the singers to do some variations, but only a few as it wouldn’t be acceptable for Verdi to do lots of variations, as it would be in the Bel-canto or Baroque repertoire. I find that there is a lot of space for creativity, which cannot be found in another repertoire. If you take Puccini or Mahler, the music is so well written that you can find everything in the score, which does not mean that is easier to play. But in this repertoire, there is always a chance to find new colors, when you are only with the orchestra, and then you patch it with the singers. You must follow the singers, of course, and find an accompaniment which is “tailor made” for them.

And this is wonderful in Bel-canto, you can find something different with different singers. I recently did “La Traviata” in Toulouse with two different casts and it felt like two completely different operas when alternating the singers. And I can tell singers are enjoying this “Ernani” a lot because of the variety that we have found in the orchestra. Even when it apparently seems to be a simple writing. There is a lot of Bellini in early Verdi, but you can already feel the power and rhythm of Verdi. You can find all the elements that will conform the mature Verdi operas later. I was really surprised when I started to study the score, because you can find “Trovatore,” “Rigoletto,” “Falstaff,” “Simon Boccanegra,” with a style that reminds you of “Puritani” or “Pirata,” but with Verdi’s personality. I feel very lucky to be working in this score.

OW: As you mentioned the work of the orchestra, what do you think about the “Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana?”

MS: I have no words to describe this orchestra because they are so good, talented and “virtuosi.” They can play whatever you want. If you ask them to play upside down, they would do it ha ha ha… They are hyperreactive and they are always with you. They are always with the singers too, because the tempi, for example, must be very precise. If you go too fast or too slow, the singers will suffer, and you must follow their breaths too. Because Piero Pretti, Angela Meade, Franco Vasallo are great artists, and you have to treat them with “white gloves.”

OW: How long does it take to study a score? Do you have a specific method?

MS: I do have quite a scientific method for opera, as my mind is very scientific. I always start with the libretto because it is essential to understand what is written. Every time you ask the singers to sing a phrase in a certain way, the first thing they say is, “Why?” And the answers are in the libretto. Afterwards, I start working with the piano, then the orchestration and then you mix with the singers, trying to explain our ideas very clearly about how a certain passage should be sung.

For the symphonic repertoire, is a bit different. Even if you have a soloist, or not. I started with the structure, first the macrostructure and then the microstructure. There are some conductors who study by the piano, but I don’t do that. It’s a little bit faster but for me it’s like cooking in a microwave, where the food is heated but doesn’t stay warm for too long. So, if you hear a specific sound in your mind, it will stay there longer.

OW: How is the process of rehearsing an opera? Are you present in all the staging rehearsals?

MS: I am. Especially if it’s a new production. I could renounce to some stage rehearsals if I do the same production in different theaters, but I rather prefer to be present because the cast needs to have the presence of the musical leader. It is quite complicated to manage an operatic work. First, you must be very patient, because if I have to say the same thing three times, I get angry (which is not the case here). We begin with musical rehearsals for singers and piano. That way we start to know each other, and I learn what I can take from the singer or how I can improve their interpretation. Angele Meade has performed “Ernani” several times, while this is my debut in this title, but I can bring new little details to her interpretation.

Then, I participate in staging the rehearsals with piano. It Is important to work with the director, because one of the essential things for the balance of the voices is their position on the set/stage. Because it really bothers me a lot if the orchestra is louder than the singers. It can happen because we are humans after all. The audience deserves to listen to the singers. And you must really work hard sometimes. I did “Don Pasquale,” and it was hard to hear the singers because the set was wide open and had no walls.  I have worked very hard here with Andrea Bernard, the stage director, because the set is quite open. It is not only a question of placing the singer at the very front. It is a bit tricky, because some places are “blind spots” and the acoustics are bad. You have to be on the proper stage with the set to see where the better place for the singer is, to sing certain parts.

I take notes in the score, and then I make the necessary arrangements with the orchestra, from “mp” to “p,” or a decrescendo. I do change a lot of things. And it is important to explain to the orchestra “why,” because they don’t always understand slight changes in dynamics or tempi. In Rodolfo’s aria in “La boheme,” it is written that the orchestra should be play fortissimo when the tenor is singing the high C, in “La Speranza,” and I had a discussion once with the head of the orchestra who did not understand why I wasn’t playing fortissimo. It is the intention and the emotion that should be strong, not the orchestra’s sound. Because otherwise you can kill the tenor’s voice. That was not the case here in Valencia because they are used to working with good conductors like Zubin Metha. If you listen to his opera recordings, for example, the orchestra is always very well balance with the singers. Or, Lorin Maazel who explains what their intentions are clearly. Here in “Ernani,” I postponed the “forte” in the code of the opening choir, one bar after. Therefore, the chorus can end their lines in forte and it is the orchestra which comes in forte. These are little details, but they make a big difference. Everything is strictly calculated, nothing is by chance.

I think that in Bel-canto, the conductor is about 60 percent of the sound result, because you have to manage everything. Sometimes even discussing the set. I did one production where the floor of the stage was covered in carpet, and this material absorbed the sound. So, I had to convince the theatre and the director to remove it in order to improve the sonority. It wasn’t because I’m capricious, it was because of musical reasons. But you can only work with this kind of “big” detail if you are “in” the job. If you arrive three weeks late into the rehearsal process, you will have to accept what you have.

OW: Who is your favorite composer?

MS: I couldn’t say. It would be like choosing between pasta and pizza. In opera, I like Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Bellini. To be politically correct, my favorite composer would be the one I am working with at every moment. I was crazy about Donizetti when I was working with his operas, but right now I am crazy about Verdi. But I was crazy about Bellini, too. I have done “La sonnambula” and “Beatrice di Tenda.” I discovered this last title when I had to step in for a last-minute substitution last year in Martina Franca because Luisi was ill and they called me three days before the premiere. I didn’t know the score and I was at the seaside with my “mojito” ha ha ha. But, I studied the score very quickly. It was crazy. I like to eat slowly, so I like to study slowly too. My minimum study time would be six months. For Mahler’s “Symphony No. 4,” that I will perform soon, I have already studied for six months. I need time to digest, to repeat and to return to the score. Because every time you approach a score, you can find something different. And this is one of the reasons why I never perform without the score. I obviously know it by heart, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to conduct and turn the pages to keep reading. But I have five performances of “Ernani” here in Valencia, and maybe in one of them I hear something that I had never heard before, and with this super reactive orchestra I just look at the musician and then I find this new and different color. I need to find something different every time.

OW: Is there any piece or opera that you would never want to do? Are there any you would love to do?

MS: One of my dreams is Verdi’s “Falstaff.” It is, for me, the perfect match between orchestra, soloist and chorus. If I have to take something to the moon, it would be “Falstaff,” a piece of parmigiano and a Van Gogh painting. I couldn’t tell you an exact composition that I wouldn’t want to do, but I wouldn’t be happy with compositions which include electronic instruments. But maybe this is because I don’t have the knowledge, not because of the instruments themselves.

And if I might say, I will be giving a concert in Marseille playing Mahler’s “Symphony No. 5” and the overture of “Der fliegende Holländer,” which will open a new door for me in my career and I am so much looking forward to it.


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