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Maestro Coppola's opus

A longtime conductor and member of the famous artistic family, Anton Coppola has poured himself into composing a new opera - an expensive, Godfather-sized opera - premiering this month in Tampa.

By JOHN FLEMING

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Anton Coppola has been a conductor for more than 60 years. He wrote the score and libretto for
his opera Sacco and Vanzetti and will conduct the premiere.

TAMPA -- Anton Coppola has been a conductor for more than 60 years. Now, at the age of 83, he is less than two weeks away from achieving a rare feat: conducting the premiere of his own opera.

Coppola's Sacco and Vanzetti, for which he wrote the score and libretto, also is a milestone for the Tampa Bay area. With a huge cast, including 24 principal singers, the Florida Orchestra in the pit and a $700,000 budget, the opera's debut on March 16 at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center marks probably the largest single performing arts project ever produced in the bay area.

Inspiration for the opera goes back to 1927, a year Coppola remembers as if it were yesterday. Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. Show Boat opened on Broadway.

But what most captured the 10-year-old Coppola's imagination were the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti.

photo
[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]
Banners at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center promote the coming premiere. The Sacco-Vanzetti case was a cause celebre in the 1920s.
"I grew up in an Italian neighborhood in East Harlem during the '20s," he said. "For the paisani, the plight of Sacco and Vanzetti was a part of their everyday conversation. It was discussed around the dinner table by friends and relatives. I think that somewhere in the deep recesses of my subconscious the story was lingering."

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, both Italian immigrants, were executed for the murder of a shoe factory paymaster and guard during a robbery in the Boston area in 1920. The trial of the acknowledged anarchists became an international cause celebre. Questions about the court's anti-Italian bias and the men's guilt or innocence -- never decisively determined -- resonate today in legal, social and political issues ranging from the fall of communism to O.J. Simpson's murder trial to immigration policy.

"These men affected society," Coppola said. "As a result of their trial, our jurisprudence system was changed. The way our society treated people who are different, who are disruptive, was changed."

photo The Sacco and Vanzetti score includes Neapolitan-style songs and other popular music from thetime of the trial.

[Times photo: Thomas M. Goethe]

In late January, Coppola was preparing a production of La Boheme in Cleveland. Between rehearsals, he spent all his time in his hotel suite, proofreading and making corrections in a stack of orchestra parts for Sacco and Vanzetti.

Coppola is a tireless worker with more energy than colleagues half his age. "This proofing has gone on and on," he said. "The composing was almost the easiest thing."

He has kept up his passion for opera literally since the time of Sacco and Vanzetti.

At age 8, he was in the Metropolitan Opera's children's chorus, appearing in the U.S. premiere of Puccini's Turandot. The cast included such legendary singers as Maria Jeritza and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi.

"At the Met, I was always the smallest one," said Coppola, still diminutive at 5 feet 2. He was befriended by Gennaro Papi, a conductor who had worked as a rehearsal pianist for Puccini.

"He sort of became my musical father," Coppola said. "In those days you could slip the Met doorman a dollar, and he would let you in. I would run immediately to stand next to the pit and watch Papi conduct. Afterward he would invite me to discuss with him whatever I needed to know. This was invaluable, the kind of education you can't buy."

Coppola was 18 when he conducted his first opera, a Works Progress Administration production of Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila on Staten Island. It was the start of an amazingly versatile career that has ranged from vaudeville to musical comedy to academe, but always with a focus on opera.

He has conducted standard works like La Boheme and Madama Butterfly and Aida countless times. He has led important premieres, such as Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men and Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden. He had a tenure on Broadway that included three years as music director on the first national tour of My Fair Lady. He taught for 15 years at the Manhattan School of Music.

Over the past two decades, Coppola has been a fixture in the pit of many American opera companies, conducting productions regularly in Cleveland, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Orlando and elsewhere. He has conducted all eight of the operas produced at TBPAC by president Judith Lisi in the past five years.

"This man has been one of the absolute fathers of opera in the United States," said Anne Ewers, general director of Utah Opera. "How he handles singers, his interpretation of the score, his inspiration to orchestras -- he's brilliant."

* * *

Coppola's illustrious family had a role in the creation of Sacco and Vanzetti. As the fifth of seven sons of a toolmaker who emigrated from the south of Italy in 1905, he looked up to his older brother Carmine, a virtuoso flutist who played in the NBC Symphony under Toscanini. Carmine went on to compose music for a number of films by his son, Francis Ford Coppola, director of the Godfather trilogy.

Anton also had a role in his nephew's epic. He conducted the performance of Cavelleria Rusticana that concludes Godfather III with a sequence of Cosa Nostra killings interwoven among the arias.

"It was Francis who originally asked me to compose music to go with a TV documentary he wanted to make about Sacco and Vanzetti," Coppola said. But after the director heard his uncle's music, he encouraged him to make an opera out of it. The documentary was never made.

Coppola began working in earnest on the opera five or six years ago. It was not his first attempt at the form. Years ago he wrote a short comic opera that was never produced.

Whenever he had a week or two between conducting engagements, Coppola would compose at the apartment he and his wife, Almerinda, have lived in for nearly half a century. Overlooking Central Park, it's on the fifth floor of a co-op building opposite Tavern on the Green. One of their neighbors is Carroll O'Connor of All in the Family fame.

photo
[Photo courtesy of Anton Coppola]
Almerinda Coppola, the conductor's wife, was a ballerina at Radio City Music Hall. They married in 1950.
"Anton's opera has been a part of our life for a long time," Almerinda said. "He started with just an aria or two, and then he got more involved. Francis was always very gung-ho for him to go on to make it into an opera. Anton just fell in love with his opera. I think he feels it's another step on from his conducting now that he's composed his own opera."

Anton and Almerinda's life together is a remarkable story in itself. They met when he was an assistant conductor at Radio City Music Hall and she -- also a first-generation Italian-American -- was a ballerina in the company. After they married in 1950, they were often on the road as Anton conducted Broadway tours. Their son, Bruno, was born while dad was conducting The Most Happy Fella in Chicago; daughter Lucia was born while he was conducting My Fair Lady in Boston.

Bruno, a Yale grad, lives in London, where he is a real estate investor and independent filmmaker. Lucia, who graduated from Swarthmore, is a choreographer and dancer who lives in Paris with her husband, actor and director Paul Golub (son of painter Leon Golub), and their two children.

All of the Coppolas, including Francis, plan to attend the premiere of Sacco and Vanzetti.

* * *

It was two years ago, when Anton Coppola was conducting Tosca at the performing arts center, that he and Lisi went out to lunch. "She told me, "Maestro, I want to hear your opera,' " he said. With Lisi "speaking as the Godfather, it was an offer I could not refuse."

Coppola sees Lisi as his benefactor. "Wagner had Ludwig II, this insane king of Bavaria, to produce his operas. I have Judith."

Lisi laughed when Coppola made the same wisecrack at a meeting of the opera guild. A onetime singer, she previously produced operas with him conducting when she ran the Shubert Performing Arts Center in New Haven, Conn. She says Sacco and Vanzetti will put Opera Tampa on the cultural map.

"It is a big deal for us, because we're a young company," she said. "We will have a quality recording made, and we hope to rent the production to other opera companies.

Coppola discussed premiering his opera with other companies, but with 14 scenes plus a prologue and a cast of 75 (including chorus and supernumeraries), its hefty price tag gave them pause. A typical budget for a regional opera production is about half Sacco and Vanzetti's $700,000 budget.

"That's why we didn't do the premiere," said David Bamberger, general director of Cleveland Opera. "It's just beyond what we could raise for it at the moment. The number of principal singers is extraordinary."

Then there's the uncertain fate of any new opera. Not many operas premiered in the past decade have even received second productions, much less entered the repertoire.

"The odds aren't great. They never have been," Bamberger said. "If you've composed one big hit in a career, you're already one of the great composers of opera."

* * *

As Coppola likes to say, an opera has to sing, and putting the Sacco-Vanzetti case to music was fraught with pitfalls.

"I had to make sure this didn't become a political diatribe," he said. "How to make it sing? Why is Tristan und Isolde so great? It sings. Why is Wozzeck so great? It sings."

Before composing the bulk of the opera, Coppola immersed himself in the voluminous research and writing on the case, starting with a visit to the public library in New Orleans, where he was conducting. A notable source for his libretto, which he largely wrote before the music, is The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti, a book by Felix Frankfurter, then a Harvard Law School professor.

Frankfurter, who became a Supreme Court justice, and other intellectuals such as Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos and H.G. Wells challenged the fairness of the trial. The judge was accused of being prejudiced against Sacco and Vanzetti, and the prosecution's case was based on dubious eyewitness testimony.

Coppola also consulted with authorities on the case, professors of American and Italian history at several colleges in the Northeast.

"One thing they advised was not to point the finger at their guilt or innocence, because nobody really knows," he said. "Deep underneath, I think that maybe, just maybe, Sacco was guilty. Vanzetti, no question about it, was absolutely guiltless."

Other treatments of Sacco and Vanzetti -- such as Maxwell Anderson's play about the aftermath of the case, Winterset -- have tended to exonerate them.

"I try to show that there were two sides to this thing, that these men were, after all, anarchists," Coppola said. "They were against our way of life, but they were honest in their belief. Unfortunately, there was a crime and two men were killed. Were they responsible for it? We don't know."

Coppola had to rewrite history to make Sacco and Vanzetti sing. He compressed the two-month trial into a 25-minute courtroom scene. He covered the men's years in prison, along with all the legal twists and turns their appeals took, in a few scenes. He fictionalized a suitor for Sacco's wife, Rosina.

"I had to find ways to make it lyrical," Coppola said. "So I had to invent. I telescoped many events. I put words in somebody's mouth that came from somebody else's mouth because it worked better for me."

He had to guard against being too respectful of the facts and letting them bog down the musical drama.

"I think I avoided that," he said. "I bent the facts to suit myself. Wherever I felt it necessary to change a specific fact, I did. History doesn't necessarily make a good opera. Boris Godunov is the best example. A great opera, but it's historically inaccurate. But who cares? If you want a history lesson, go to college and take History 101."

It is rare for an opera composer to write his own libretto. Verdi always had a literary collaborator. So did Puccini. Among the immortals, only Wagner wrote score and libretto.

Gian Carlo Menotti is one modern-day composer who writes his own librettos. John Harbison did both score and libretto for The Great Gatsby, which premiered at the Met in 1999, and many critics thought he should have sought help on the script.

"I never considered another librettist," Coppola said. "That was suggested when I was first working on it, but I threw cold water on that suggestion immediately. I said this is my conception. It's going to be my way all the way through. Good or bad, it's going to be my opera."

Nevertheless, Coppola has made extensive changes in Sacco and Vanzetti since starting work with director Matthew Lata about a year ago. They held 10 days of workshops with principal cast members at a New York studio in January.

"I would say we have cut 30 or 40 percent of the opera since starting on the project," said Lata, who got to know Coppola when they teamed up on a Yale University production of Falstaff in 1999.

"Anton knew he wrote far too much music, but he is a wonderful pragmatist, a real theater guy."

Still, Sacco and Vanzetti runs more than three hours. Length is relative, Coppola said. "If an opera's no good, even 15 minutes is too long. If it's good, it's not long."

A couple of aspects of Coppola's opera potentially are innovative. For one thing, with 14 scenes plus a prologue, many principals in multiple roles and a chorus that does more than just stand and sing, it may resemble musical theater as much as opera.

Also, since Sacco and Vanzetti spoke little English, the libretto has English and Italian parts (all to be projected on supertitles). The score includes popular Italian music from the time. An Italian band plays during a Christmas Eve party scene.

"What we have here are two cultures -- Italian and American -- that are side by side and in conflict with each other," Coppola said. "So what I did is identify the two cultures musically."

Coppola got a master's degree in composition from the Manhattan School of Music, and he has written a string quartet, a symphony, a short comic opera, a violin concerto and art songs over the years, but none has received major professional performances or been recorded.

"I think the music will surprise people," Lata said. "Maestro can write in many styles. He uses recurring themes that represent characters, a love interest, anarchy, violence. He writes Neapolitan-style songs, a tarantella, a rustic dance and other music he incorporates within the operatic idiom to create a cross section not only of the period but of the culture. I think it's extremely effective almost as a collage."

The composer himself is reluctant to characterize his score, but he acknowledges that a lifetime of conducting masterpieces has undoubtedly influenced his style. "I'd say you will hear Puccini influences melodically; you will hear harmonic influences that are Debussyian," Coppola said.

* * *

After conducting La Boheme in Cleveland, Coppola came straight to Tampa, with only an overnight stopover at home in New York, to begin Sacco and Vanzetti rehearsals Feb. 19. The cast awaiting him has many of his favorite singers.

"Every time I work with him, like a great work of art, I learn something new," said baritone Vernon Hartman, who has known Coppola for 25 years. "He's one of the last of the true old school conductors who knew everything. You don't catch him bluffing or faking, and we work with lots of conductors who fake and bluff and learn their shows in the pit, if at all."

Coppola is sympathetic to the plight of the opera singer.

"Here he is on that stage with loads of makeup and a heavy costume," he said. "He has to sing, he has to kiss the soprano on the third beat, he has to stab the baritone on the fourth beat, he has to jump out the window on the second beat of the next bar. He has to do all this from memory, and he's supposed to give you some semblance of acting. And at the same time he has to pierce a sonic wall called an orchestra.

"He's different from a stage actor who can say "To be or not to be' any way he wants to. The opera singer has to do it the way the composer wrote it. He is boxed in by the tyranny of the music."

Coppola wrote several of the characters in Sacco and Vanzetti with specific singers in mind, such as the anarchist Carlo Tresca for baritone Theodore Lambrinos and the lawyer Fred Moore for Hartman.

One of the first scenes Coppola wrote was about Moore, a Californian, being called in by the anarchist leadership to represent Sacco and Vanzetti.

"I think the sign of a great composer is the ability to evoke character clearly in the music," Hartman said. "That helps a director, that helps an actor. In my part, the western themes are very beautiful, and they really help me as an actor in knowing how to move, what to feel, what to think."

Coppola presides over three rehearsal sessions a day, running until late at night at the performing arts center. Then he walks to his room at the nearby Holiday Inn to work on the never-ending job of proofing and correcting orchestra parts.

Every other morning, he talks on the phone with his wife, who will join him in Tampa the Sunday before the premiere.

"Naturally, Anton is a little apprehensive, but he just loves what he does," Almerinda Coppola said. "I sense his moods to the nth degree, and he's very happy."

* * *

At a glance: Anton Coppola's Sacco and Vanzetti will be premiered March 16-18 in three performances by Opera Tampa at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $19.50-$55.50. (813) 229-7827 or (800) 955-1045.

All in the famiglia

ANTON COPPOLA

Born 1917

Conductor and composer

[Photo courtesy of Anton Coppola]

photo
CARMINE COPPOLA

1910-1991

Brother of Anton

Virtuoso flutist, composed music for Godfather trilogy

[Photo: Paramount Pictures]

photo

FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA

Born 1939

Son of Carmine

Film director best known for Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now

[AP file photo: 1996]

photo

TALIA SHIRE

Born 1946

Daughter of Carmine

Actor best known for Godfather and Rocky movies

[AP file photo: 1995]

photo

photo JASON SCHWARTZMAN

Born 1980

Son of Talia

Actor best known for Rushmore

[Photo: Touchstone Pictures]

SOFIA COPPOLA

Born 1971

Daughter of Francis Ford

Director of The Virgin Suicides; actor in many films, including Godfather III and Star Wars: Episode 1 -- The Phantom Menace

[AP file photo: 2000]

photo

photo NICOLAS CAGE

Born Nicolas Kim Coppola in 1964

Nephew of Francis Ford

Academy Award-winning actor for Leaving Las Vegas

[AP file photo: 1997]

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