By John Fleming
TAMPA — Conductors tend to be durable. Arturo Toscanini didn’t retire until he was 87, and Leopold Stokowski kept conducting into his 90s. But a 100-year-old conductor?
Meet Anton Coppola, a conductor and composer who hit the century mark on March 21, a birth date he shares with J. S. Bach. Four days later, he led a two-hour concert for Opera Tampa titled “Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young.”
“Never before in the annals of the arts has this happened,” said Judy Lisi, general director of Opera Tampa and CEO of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts as she introduced Coppola before he walked onto the stage, aided by a violinist from the orchestra. Gingerly, the conductor mounted the podium in Ferguson Hall, a 1,000-seat venue that was full for a gala honoring him.
Coppola, the founding artistic director of Opera Tampa who retired five years ago, conducted the orchestra, a dozen singers, and chorus in his own music, including a generous selection from his magnum opus, the opera Sacco and Vanzetti. He also introduced his alternate version of the finale of Turandot, which was profoundly appropriate given that at age 9, Coppola – as a member of the Metropolitan Opera’s Children’s Chorus – performed in the 1926 U.S. premiere of Puccini’s last opera. The cast included such legendary singers as Maria Jeritza and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, with Tullio Serafin conducting.
The March 25 concert was also a tribute to Coppola’s illustrious family, including a rhapsody for flute and orchestra evoking his late older brother, flutist and composer Carmine Coppola. Family members on hand for the tribute included his nephew (Carmine’s son), filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, and the conductor’s great niece, filmmaker Sofia Coppola – who made her debut as an opera director last year in Rome, staging La Traviata – and grand nephew, actor Nicolas Cage.
Coppola, who first conducted an opera at 18 – Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila in a Works Progress Administration production on Staten Island – has had an amazingly long, versatile career on the podium. His Broadway conducting resume in the 1950s and ’60s included the 18-year-old Julie Andrews’ American debut in The Boy Friend, as well as his Tony Award nomination as conductor and music director of Bravo Giovanni!, starring Cesare Siepi.
He conducted important opera premieres, such as Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden at New York City Opera in 1965 and Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men at Seattle Opera in 1970. For decades, he labored in the vineyards of regional opera, conducting countless productions of La bohème, Il trovatore, Carmen, and other standard repertoire for companies in Cleveland, New Orleans, Cincinnati, Salt Lake City, Charlotte, Orlando, Tampa, San Antonio, and elsewhere. His personal highlights include an Otello with Mario del Monaco, a Faust with George London, and a Bohème with Luciano Pavarotti and Dorothy Kirsten.
Coppola has a long association with Opera Tampa’s Lisi. The two first worked together in the 1980s when she was head of the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn., and recruited him to produce operas there. In Tampa, she leveraged her position as CEO of what became the Straz to found the opera company, which is part of the performing arts center, and brought in Coppola to become the artistic leader. He conducted Opera Tampa’s first production, Madama Butterfly, in 1995, and brought down the curtain on his tenure with Aida in 2012. (Daniel Lipton succeeded Coppola as artistic director.)
Opera Tampa staged the 2001 premiere of Sacco and Vanzetti, conducted by Coppola, who also wrote the libretto about the Italian-American anarchists who were convicted of murder in the “trial of the century.” It took place when Coppola was growing up in an Italian neighborhood in East Harlem; he was 10 when the men were executed in 1927. Sacco and Vanzetti’s guilt or innocence has never been definitively determined, and their case is still relevant to legal, social, and political issues such as the death penalty, individual rights, the power of the state, and immigration policy. One of Coppola’s regrets is that the opera has not received a second production, in spite of positive reviews for the production directed by Matthew Lata in Tampa. The sprawling size – with more than 20 principal singers and a large chorus in the cast of 75, the premiere ran more than three hours – is a hindrance.
At the Coppola tribute concert, Jeffrey Springer reprised the role of Nicola Sacco, which the tenor originated, in powerful scenes with baritone Mark Walters’ Bartolomeo Vanzetti. Tenor Cleyton Pulzi sang a catchy Neapolitan-style ballad called “Antico amor,” performed at a Christmas Eve gathering of anarchists. Soprano Diana McVey was a poignant Rosina Sacco, trying to hold the family together with her husband in prison. Mezzo-soprano Jessica Ann Best delivered an intense eulogy as socialist firebrand Mary Donovan. On display were some of Coppola’s typically witty touches, like the accordion that he deftly worked into the score.
Lisa Houben sang the title role in Coppola’s completion of Turandot, which is customarily performed with Franco Alfano’s brief final duet, drawn from sketches by Puccini, who died before finishing the opera. “In a radical departure from the familiar legend, the Princess Turandot is not transformed into a loving woman by a kiss,” Coppola wrote in a program note. “Instead, it strengthens her fanatical resolve to inflict an implacable revenge on all those would-be suitors who brutally assaulted her ancestress, Louling, thousands of years ago.” Coppola’s version has mostly Puccini’s music, but the text is longer than in Alfano’s happy Hollywood ending, and Ping, Pang, and Pong make an appearance to provide commentary. To a blast from the orchestra, Prince Calaf (Springer) is beheaded, like the others before him who tried to solve Turandot’s riddles.
Houben, Walters, and other singers in the Coppola fete appear in Opera Tampa’s season finale, Tosca, April 7 and 9, with Lipton conducting.
Colleen Blagov was the excellent soloist in Fa-Fa-Do, Coppola’s 20-minute piece for flute and orchestra that plays with Francis Ford Coppola’s initials as the musical notes F-F-C. Subtitled “Life with Father and Music,” it was an homage to the relationship between Francis Ford and Carmine Coppola, a virtuoso flutist who played in the NBC Symphony under Toscanini and went on to compose music for a number of movies by his son, including The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now. The score quotes flute standards like Debussy’s Syrinx and a trumpet theme from The Godfather. Anton also had a role in his nephew’s cinematic masterpiece. He can be seen conducting the performance of Cavalleria rusticana that ends Godfather III, with Cosa Nostra killings interspersed among the arias. Fittingly, wine from the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in California was served during the dinner after the concert.
Encores were a baritone aria about Bernalda, the family’s ancestral hometown in southern Italy, and a serenade to Coppola’s wife of 67 years, Almerinda, a onetime ballerina seated in the hall’s front row and to whom the conductor blew a kiss. The concert ended with a sing-along of “Happy Birthday” to the ageless maestro.
John Fleming has written for Musical America, Opera News and other publications. For 22 years, he covered the Florida music scene as performing arts critic with the Tampa Bay Times. –