Il Magnifico

Maestro Anton Coppola celebrates his 100th birthday. We are throwing one heck of a party.

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1917 was a big year.

The first woman was elected to Congress and the U.S. Navy appointed its first female petty officer that year as well. President Wilson declared war on Germany and Congress agreed, thus entering the United States into World War I.

In France, Giacomo Puccini premiered La Rondine in Monte Carlo on March 27, 1917. Little did Puccini know that just six days prior a little boy had been born in the Italian ghetto of East Harlem who would, as of right now, be the oldest working Puccini master in the world.

On March 21, 1917, Anton Coppola arrived to Italian-American parents in a country that was not yet a superpower. He grew up in East Harlem with six brothers, a clan of men who made the Coppola name (and its spin-off names) as indelible to America’s artistic history as the Great War was to the history books. The line of Coppola descendants have been nominated 23 times for Academy® Awards, and Anton, our beloved first artistic director of Opera Tampa and international classical music icon, survives as the oldest living conductor who still composes religiously and devotes his life to opera.

A Puccini master, Maestro Coppola was taught by one of Puccini’s own students, so he embodies a direct lineage to the great composer. “He knows everything, has everything in his head. So he doesn’t need to reference the score – he knows Puccini better than any score,” says Straz Center President and CEO Judy Lisi, who began her professional relationship with Maestro Coppola early in her career at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven, Conn. Lisi, herself an operaphile, launched an opera company at the Shubert that partnered with Yale’s opera master’s program. There she met Maestro. “We were doing a production with Yale students, so I met Maestro and said ‘why don’t you help me start an opera company?’ He said yes, and that’s how it all started,” Lisi says.

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Scenes from Maestro Coppola’s original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, which premiered at The Straz in 2001.

In their eight years in Connecticut, Lisi and Maestro Coppola produced 48 operas together, their creative power ending when she took the helm here. However, it wouldn’t be long before Lisi heard opera’s siren song wafting from the pristine concert hall stage in Morsani Hall. “When I stood on the stage, I thought ‘oh my gosh, they built an opera house.’ There was no formal professional company at The Straz, and I just knew what I wanted to do. It had been ten years since I’d worked with Maestro, but I called him and said I wanted to start an opera company in Tampa, and I couldn’t do it without him.”

Coppola, affectionately known as ‘the little general’ for his tough demands in rehearsal and no-nonsense communication style, barked at her, “Judith! I was waiting for this call!”

In 1995, Opera Tampa premiered with Puccini’s masterpiece, Madama Butterfly, under Maestro Coppola’s baton and the beaming, tear-filled eyes of a packed house at Morsani Hall.

The ensuing years brought triumph, glory, honor and exaltation to the opera season, growing an ardent following for Opera Tampa and an ongoing infatuation with Maestro Coppola’s brilliant gift at culling the best from performers and serving up one dazzling opera production after another. A crown jewel of Coppola’s tenure at The Straz was the world premiere of his heartfelt, contemporary, original opera, Sacco and Vanzetti.

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A Sacco and Vanzetti program, and other gems, from the Straz Center vault.

Just a lad when the two Italian-American anarchists were tried for a murder-robbery that occurred in South Braintree, Mass., Coppola carried the seed of his opera about the case for decades before it began to take form. The case, considered a gross miscarriage of justice toward immigrants that resulted in the electrocution of both men in 1927, landed in the trial-of-the-century category and certainly embedded itself in the collective conscious of Italian-Americans in particular. Coppola’s opera, an examination of the men’s humanity and a closer look at themes of justice, opened to rave reviews in 2001. “I told him we would do the opera, and we did,” Lisi says. “It was a huge hit. It got great reviews. To this day, I remain very, very proud of that opera and of the fact that the Straz Center produced it from scratch.”

This past summer, The New York Times caught up with Maestro Coppola in his Central Park West apartment, where he has lived since 1956, for a spotlight in their charming “Character Study” feature. In the article, writer Corey Kilgannon draws a deft portrait of the diminutive, silver-haired composer working in longhand at an old, green folding cardboard table at a window overlooking the park. Coppola is, Kilgannon notes, penning an original work for an upcoming event for Opera Tampa. Coppola has already completed one work for the event, an ode to a tree, titled “The Tree and Me.”

The event, of course, is our ever-popular Opera Tampa Gala, this year spectacularly themed in honor of Maestro Coppola’s 100th birthday. Maestro will conduct a concert of some of his favorite works as well as originals – including “The Tree and Me” and the work-in-progress captured in the Times. Selections from Maestro’s masterwork, Sacco and Vanzetti, round out the program.

Of course, you can expect a fair showing of Puccini.

“In all this time working together,” Lisi says, “we have become dear, dear friends. People come into your life and enhance it and enrich it in ways that you couldn’t dream. I’ve been fortunate to have this friendship with Maestro. He knows Puccini, he knows Verdi, he knows opera unlike anyone else. He made Puccini real for me. It’s not just notes on a page or an emotion captured by an orchestra or singer. He is among the greatest of the great transmitters of what it is all about.”

This video was created for Maestro Coppola’s farewell concert when he retired from Opera Tampa. See his return to The Straz at Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young on Saturday, Mar. 25.