Anton Coppola is the luckiest guy in the world. At least that is how he views the life he has led and continues to lead.
The maestro, born on March 21, 1917, and who determined his given career path during the first decade of his existence, is slated for “one last hurrah” when he conducts a final concert on March 25, 2017, in Tampa.
“I am blessed with good health. I am excited to give this concert because it’s a summation of my life’s work. Ever since I was a kid, all I have known is music,” he told OperaWire in an exclusive interview. “It’s been my life-long passion.”
The Birth of a Passion
Coppola, who is the uncle of famous film director Francis Ford Coppola, grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn to two Italian parents. He spoke Italian at home and learned to play the piano.
One night, his mother took him to the opera for a performance of Gounod’s “Faust” and his life’s destiny was sealed.
“I was sitting up there in the second balcony and when the lights came down I saw the figure of a little man walk into the pit and start to wave his hands. When all this wonderful music was coming out, I turned to my mom and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” he proclaimed. From there music became his obsession. He joined the Met’s children’s chorus and was part of the first American production of “Turandot” with Tullio Serafin conducting. He also started to study opera scores avidly.
His education was furthered by a chance encounter driven by his uncle.
“My uncle was an opera fanatic. He was a barber and every time, after he closed his shop, he would head over the Metropolitan Opera,” Coppola noted. “He was a dedicated stage-door Johnnie and they absorbed him. He knew everyone backstage.”
One of the people his uncle knew was conductor Gennaro Papi, who had been Puccini’s favorite rehearsal pianist.
After a performance of “La Bohème,” Coppola’s uncle took him backstage to meet the maestro. Fortunately, Coppola was carrying a copy of Puccini’s score in his hands. Papi didn’t miss a thing, questioned the boy about the score and then had him perform some of it.
“He asked me, ‘Why do you have that score?’ I said, ‘Because I’m going to conduct it one day,” Coppola narrated.
Papi was so impressed with the young boy’s playing that he committed to helping him in a way people can only dream of.
“He told me, whenever he was conducting to go see it and then we could discuss the performance after,” the 100-year-old maestro explained. “It was the height of the depression and all you had to do in those days was slip a dollar bill to the doorman and he would let you in. So I went as much as I could.”
He would stand by the pit and then the two would meet at a “seedy hotel on 54th street.” The relationship went on for three years and changed the young Coppola’s life.
“It’s the kind of education you can’t buy anywhere!” he proclaimed. “But it was luck. Again, Lady Luck smiled on me.”
Puccini became a major topic of study between the two, with Coppola learning about how the famed Tuscan composer often changed his mind about what he had previously printed in the score.
“Puccini was not a conductor, so a lot of stuff he wrote was not always what he truly meant in performance,” Coppola explained. “So in the intermezzo in ‘Madama Butterfly, ’ he would write something like an eighth note to 144 in 12/8 time. Every conductor would take that a little faster. But Papi told me that Puccini actually wanted it a little bit slower. Sometimes he printed a forte but then later would want it piano.
“To a certain extent, my familiarity with Puccini’s score is from the horse’s mouth,” exclaimed Coppola, noting that Puccini would become a major component of his creative life.
Another important takeaway from his time with Papi would alter Coppola’s immediate future.
“Papi also told me to play an orchestral instrument and learn how to play in an orchestra. You get an extra dimension from being an instrumentalist and being in the pit,” he added. “So I arbitrarily chose the oboe. I got very good at it only because I practiced like an idiot.”
He would audition for Radio City Music Hall and became the first oboist at 19-years-old.
But World War II forced him out of that career and into becoming bandmaster for four years in Texas.
“After the war, I was determined more than ever to launch my career as a conductor,” Coppola narrated. “And then lady luck smiled on me again.”
Taking the Baton
The San Carlo Opera was touring all over the U.S. and parts of Canada after the war when someone called Coppola to give him some big news. “They said ‘The conductor that is out with them now is having issues with management. I recommended your name to the head of the company.’ So I went to San Francisco and joined the company.”
He toured for six months, performing almost daily. On opening night, a performance of “Carmen,” a special guest got a chance to see the young maestro in action.
“The manager of Radio City Music Hall was there and he called me. He told me he was impressed by my performance and then asked me to join the company.”
During the next few years, he would continue his ascent in the music world and get married.
From there he would embark on the career that he always wanted, working with the greatest singers in history including Roberta Peters, Sherrill Milnes, Kurt Baum, Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill and Eba Stignani, whose “voice was an organ.”
When reflecting on some of his most memorable experiences, the maestro immediately gravitated toward a story regarding Verdi’s “Otello,” “the sacred bible of Italian opera,” with one of its greatest exponents, Mario del Monaco, in Hartford, Connecticut.
“He was a fabulous Otello,” the conductor noted. “During the love duet, Verdi writes it piano. But Mario always sang it forte. So I told him, ‘Mario it’s piano.’ And he said, ‘I know maestro. But I can’t sing it piano.’ He sang everything big. That was his vocal equipment. But it was so intense and theatrical. He was a true Otello even if he didn’t do exactly what Verdi wanted.”
But he also had to some challenges to overcome.
One such difficulty revolved around the great mezzo Fedora Barbieri. He was slated to conduct Saint-Saëns’ famed “Samson et Delilah” in French but faced one major issue with his mezzo-soprano.
“She always sang it in Italian,” he remarked. “So she came to my office to study. After a few pages, she turned to me and said, ‘Maestro, forget it. I will sing it in Italian.’ She could not sing it in French. So she sang it in Italian and everyone else sang it in French. It worked out.”
That story has a happy ending, but some didn’t, even though they featured legends.
One such instance revolved around a production of “Boris Godunov” starring Italo Tajo in the Rimsky-Korsakov version of Mussorgsky’s score.
“I remember feeling it was all wrong. It became an Italian opera,” he stressed. “I usually go to the dressing room and congratulate the singers. But this time I couldn’t. I couldn’t honestly tell them it was a wonderful performance because it was not. Italo sang it like he was King Phillip in ‘Don Carlo.’ The Slavic aspect was completely missing.”
Speaking of Verdi’s famous opera, Coppola’s first experience conducting the work was also among the crucial moments in his career. Coppola was asked to conduct the work for the first time for a small company that wanted to one-up the Metropolitan Opera, which was slated to premiere a new production under general manager Rudolf Bing.
Coppola felt that he didn’t have enough time to make it work, but went about his work as best as he could.
As the opening night drew near, Coppola found out he was not going to be able to have a dress rehearsal. He talked to the impresario but was refused and opted for quitting. He eventually got his way, but only for two hours the night of the show.
“The opera is a little over three hours of music so two hours is definitely not enough time. So I could just tell them where I was shifting my tempi and how I was conducting,” he explained. During the first act, a flutist made a minor error, which Coppola didn’t think much of.
But the impresario did not feel the same way.
“Walking up the steps during intermission, the impresario was there waiting. He asked me if I heard the mistake. He asked me, “Do you know why it happened?’ I said, ‘Human failure.’ He said, ‘No. It was my fault for giving you a rehearsal. Let me tell you, young man, that when you rehearse an orchestra, you lull them into a false sense of security. Whereas if you don’t rehearse, they stay alert and don’t make mistakes.’ That was a lesson I never forgot.”
While reflecting on the past brought about wonderful emotions for the maestro, what excited him most was considering the upcoming performance, his “last hurrah,” which will include his own compositions. Among them are a fantasy called FFC in honor of his famous nephew and excerpts from an opera he composed a few years ago.
But the piece that is arguably the most hotly anticipated is Coppola’s own finale for Puccini’s “Turandot.”
The composer infamously died prior to completing his last opera, leaving behind sketches for the ending that he labored to complete. Franco Alfano completed the ending, but no one has ever been truly satisfied with the outcome.
“Everyone says that it’s not Puccini. Of course, it’s not Puccini! When Luciano Berio wrote an ending he said he would be writing Luciano Berio. Because truth is, nobody writes like Puccini!” exclaimed Coppola. “Alfano’s is a Hollywood Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer ending. It’s satisfying and works well. Everyone’s happy. But it didn’t satisfy me.”
So for years, he considered what kind of ending would work the opera which he considered Puccini’s greatest.
His conclusion? Discard the libretto.
“What happened with Adami and Simone was they reverted to verismo. It’s a fairy tale, something Puccini never did before, and then all of a sudden what we get is a ‘Girl of the Golden West’ ending. They kiss and go off into happily ever after,” explained the composer. “I wrote my own libretto. I stayed with the fairy tale. The ending I have is that she refuses him. She had a maniacal obsession with her brutalized ancestor. That wasn’t going to change so quickly. So she executes him anyway. Then I re-introduce Ping, Pong, Pang again and they comment on how it’s just another execution.”
Musically he adhered to the composer as much as possible.
“I took areas of Puccini’s music from the first two acts and appropriated them. My score is a tapestry of Puccini’s music except for a few modulations. But overall I kept to the harmonic confines of the opera.”
…And New Beginnings
Most of Coppola’s most famous family members have become major artists in the world of cinema. But he recently got the opportunity to immerse one of them into the world of opera.
A few years go, his great-niece Sophia Coppola, director of such films as “Lost in Translation” and “The Bling Ring,” was offered to direct a production of “La Traviata.” So she dutifully came to her uncle for some advice because she had no idea what she was actually getting into.
“Sophia knew nothing about opera at all. She speaks no Italian. So she came to me and told me that she had been invited to direct opera. She says, ‘What’s it about?’” he revealed.
So he sat her down, gave her his score, wrote out translations and gave her a recording.
“She didn’t know what a Cabaletta or stretta was. I explained it all to her,” he explained before delving into how he had to alter her entire directorial perspective as well. “I told her that she couldn’t even think cinematically when directing it. Opera is the most artificial form of theater there is. In the movies, people can turn to one another and talk softly, loudly, whichever way you want. In opera, people sing and they have to pierce a sonic wall known as the orchestra.
“By the end of our time together, She went with a firm belief in how she was going to treat the opera,” he exclaimed before revealing that she brought him a DVD of the end result. “I thought it was beautiful and I am very proud of her work.”
These days the Maestro goes to the opera once in a while, when he gets invited. Despite having seen some of the greatest singers of all time, he still gets a kick out of the artistry taking shape in today’s opera world.
“Back then, people would just stand up and sing. There was no acting,” he noted. “But audiences around the world are accustomed to the movies and TV. They expect something more elaborate. I think it’s actually better the way they’re doing some things now.”
Older audiences lament the changes in vocal styles, noting that things were always better before. But not Coppola.
“Every age says ‘Those were the days.’ I don’t know how true that is. They only think that. There are always great singers. You hear great singers today like [Diana] Damrau or [Kristine] Opolais or Jonas Kaufmann or Roberto Alagna. Elina Garanca. I think that opera is in very good hands.”
Opera has been very lucky to have been in his hands for so long.