Il Magnifico

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

coppola-trib

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.

sacco-vanzetti-2001

sacco-vanzetti-2001-crowd-scene

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.

img_8167

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 stage in Morsani Hall at Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young on Saturday, Mar. 25.

“Opera is Emotion”

An intimate interview with Opera Tampa artistic director and conductor Daniel Lipton

maestro-lipton

We are hot and heavy in the thick of opera season at The Straz, with Romeo & Juliet and Cinderella (La Cenerentola) behind us and the grand dame Tosca in rehearsals for April performances. We are fortunate to be able to boast that one of the most respected men in the opera world serves as artistic director and conductor for Opera Tampa, our resident opera company. A true man of the world, Maestro Daniel Lipton shuttles around the globe wherever great opera can be found: Paris, Sydney, Milan, London . . . and, of course, Tampa. He has worked with such opera companies as the Zürich Opera, Deutsche Oper, Opera Ontario, Orquesta Sinfonica de Colombia, and received the international accolade of Conductor of the Year in Europe for two consecutive years.

Caught in the Act caught up with Maestro Lipton to talk about this season with Opera Tampa and what excites him about the form and the future for opera in the Tampa Bay region.

CITA: Will you give us some insight into opera from your point of view?

DL:  My intention is to always present the highest quality possible, and with the success of last season, we knew we had an opportunity to keep growing. This year we are doing more with trying to bring the greatness of opera to everybody, from aficionados to newcomers. With everything going on in the world, everybody needs something positive in their lives. The magic and music of opera leads people to incredible emotions for the time they are with the performance. That magic operates on everyone—some people may negatively approach opera because they have never been to a live performance. On TV, it’s not the same. Opera is emotion. It’s never about something commonplace, not a “pass me the salt” art form. It reaches people deeply, and as someone becomes more familiar with an opera, it reaches deeper.

CITA: You’ve been around the world and seen so much opera—what’s off the charts and different out there and are you bringing that to Tampa?

DL:  Every time I see something of a high level that’s not been produced in Tampa, I think ‘we should bring this to Tampa.’ It would be nice to organize something special with some of the soloists I’ve seen, bringing them to Tampa. Also, all over the world new composers are making new work, bringing new music to opera audiences. There’s contemporary music by some wonderful young composers, and that’s the future—new Americans and other composers doing new things in the opera field. It’s very exciting. Tampa is on the map. Our auditions this year—we had exceptional singers. We’re establishing a reputation, and famous people are asking to come and sing in Tampa. That’s also very good for us.

CITA: What are you most excited about with the season we’re in right now with Opera Tampa?

DL: Here I have such an opportunity to work with a great team, and we have everything going in such a positive direction with Opera Tampa. We are all on the same wavelength and have the same kind of passion. The team here is just terrific. You don’t find that in other opera houses. There is a certain openness, so each person feels important and each talent is appreciated on its own. That’s a tremendous gift—to work in the kind of atmosphere we have here. So, I’m always the most excited about getting to work together for these operas. To work with such positive people is wonderful, and, in our case, our orchestra loves opera and playing opera—they are marvelous players.

A Cinderella Story

cindy-collage

Left to Right: Charles Robinson illustration inspired by Perrault’s version; Oliver Herford illustration inspired by Perrault’s version; Alexander Zick illustration inspired by the Brothers Grimm version.

Folk and fairy tale scholars estimate there may be 1500 different versions of the Cinderella tale, the earliest originating in Greece and China.

In Greece, the story is called Rhodopis, in which an eagle snatched Rhodopis’ shoe and transports it to the lap of the king of Egypt. In China, it is the story of Yeh-hsien and although she has no fairy godmother, a magical fish helps her along, and a golden shoe identifies Yeh-hsien to a prince who wants to marry her.

kauffmann_print

The origins of the the ancient Greek fairy-tale figure Rhodopis may be traced back to the 6th-century BC hetaera Rhodopis.

The Algonquin Indians have a version called “The Rough-Face Girl,” and in west Africa, the heroine is called Chinye. The tale survives in cultures spanning the globe, with the star known by local noemclature including Vasilisa in Russia, Angkat in Cambodia, The Turkey Girl in the Native American Zuni tradition and, in Mexico and in Mexican American traditions, she is Adelita and Domitila.

The most recognized American version comes from French lawyer and writer Charles Perrault, from a story he published in 1697: “Cendrillion, ou la petite pantoufle de verre” or “Cinderella, or the Little Glass Slipper,” a version that included a fairy godmother, a pumpkin carriage and a pair of glass slippers.

Rodgers and Hammerstein took that version and wrote a made-for-TV musical in 1957 for a very talented young actress and singer, Julie Andrews. The story was remade twice, once in 1965 with Lesley Anne Warren and again in 1997 with the singer, Brandy, as Cinderella and Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother. In 2013, the stage version of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s CINDERELLA debuted on Broadway for the first time ever, featuring a new book by Douglas Carter Beane and direction by Mark Brokaw. It appeared at the Straz Center in 2014.

The operatic telling of Cinderella’s rags-to-riches journey debuted in 1817 with music by Gioachino Rossini and a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti. Here, the outcast step-daughter goes by Angelina (aka Cenerentola,) her Italian name, and tears out of the ball without any glass slippers (or fairy godmother) at all. However, she does last the whole opera as a comic turn on the tale, finishing with a fancy flourish of an aria – certainly befitting a princess.

See Opera Tampa’s production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola February 10 and 12.