“They make these vehicles for giants," said Anton Coppola, 94, cautiously stepping down, with assistance, from a van outside the Channel 28 studios across from Raymond James Stadium. • Coppola, a diminutive 5 feet 2, had arrived for the first appointment of what would be a nearly 12-hour day, an interview to talk about his concert of operatic farewells, the second of which is this afternoon, to mark his final season as the artistic director and conductor of Opera Tampa. • It's an occasion to look back on Coppola's triumphs — and even some regrets that he sold himself short — in a wide-ranging career that has taken him from the children's chorus in the 1926 U.S. premiere of Puccini's Turandot to Broadway to opera companies all over the country to an appearance in nephew Francis Ford Coppola's film The Godfather: Part III. The venerable conductor and composer, known as "Maestro" to all, is the only artistic leader Opera Tampa has ever known. With his vast knowledge of everything that goes into the art form, he will be hard to replace.
On the set of Positively Tampa Bay, Coppola was asked the question of the day by the perky host, Lissette Campos. "Are you sure you're ready to retire?"
"Not completely," said Coppola, who has likened retirement to death. But now, at a remarkably advanced age for an opera conductor — he turns 95 on March 21, a birthday he shares with J.S. Bach — he is giving up his post with the company he has led for 17 years.
"I decided to retire because I thought if I continued it would be obscene," Coppola said later, typically unsentimental, the skeptic at his own retirement party. And, in fact, he has one more production to go before putting down his baton for good in the Tampa Bay area, Verdi's grandest of grand operas, Aida, to be performed in April.
Conductors tend to last a long time, perhaps because of the workout they get on the podium, but few have matched Coppola's longevity. "(Arturo) Toscanini stopped at 87," he said. "(Leopold) Stokowski stopped at 90 — and died soon after." (Actually, Stokowski lived another five years.)
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After the interview, Coppola was driven back to the Marriott Residence Inn, not far from the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, where he had rehearsals scheduled in the afternoon and evening. His wife of more than 60 years, Almerinda, was with him.
Mrs. Coppola, a former ballerina, can be quite protective of her husband's time and energy. The night before, when I had called to say hello, from the background she warned him not to talk too long.
Before heading over to the center, Coppola took a seat in a sunny part of the lobby to talk about his program of operatic goodbyes, like the final scenes from La Boheme and Falstaff.
Coppola's favorites are works of Puccini and Verdi. "What better ending can there be than the ending of Otello," he said of Verdi's penultimate masterpiece, and then quoted the last words (from Shakespeare) that Otello sings before stabbing himself, racked with guilt for murdering his wife, Desdemona:
"I kiss'd thee ere I kill'd thee: no way but this; killing myself, to die upon a kiss."
The maestro laughed when I suggested that was pretty dark for a fond farewell. "I thought of it poetically," he said. "I think Otello is the sacred Bible of Italian opera. And then Verdi went and crowned it with his great comedy, Falstaff. There he was, in his 80s, writing Falstaff, just a fountain of ideas."
Coppola had a thriving career in the '50s as a Broadway conductor, and his program includes I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face, the final song of My Fair Lady. When he was music director of The Boy Friend, the musical in which Julie Andrews made her U.S. debut, he made one of his best moves by buying a unit in a co-op apartment building on Central Park West, where he and his wife still live.
"I paid $13,000 for that apartment," he said, marveling at the inflation of New York real estate. "Now I'm sitting on $3 million."
Coppola regards his greatest achievement to be Sacco & Vanzetti, the opera he wrote, both music and libretto, that Opera Tampa premiered in 2001. Despite being well reviewed, the opera about two Italian anarchists executed for murder in 1927 — an idea the conductor-composer was encouraged to pursue by his movie director nephew — has not gotten a second production.
The conductor is fatalistic about his opera. "I think about it the way Wagner thought about Lohengrin," Coppola said. "Wagner looked at the score of that opera and said, 'I wrote this 17 years ago, and I still haven't heard it.' It may be that 17 years from now Sacco & Vanzetti will be played and appreciated. Of course, it won't matter to me anymore, because I won't be around."
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Dressed in a lavender Brooks Brothers shirt, tan scarf around his neck, canvas book bag in hand, Coppola entered the intersection on Ashley Street, which is the bane of his existence in Tampa.
To go from the hotel to the Straz, he has to cross that broad, busy thoroughfare, unable to walk fast enough to make the green light and praying not to be hit by the cars that speed into downtown off the interstate. At his age and enfeebled condition (from arthritis), curbs loom like mountains. He makes the slow, treacherous journey on the arm of a friend, like that of his longtime assistant and rehearsal pianist, Paul Dorgan.
Before rehearsal, Coppola had a meeting with Judy Lisi, president of the Straz and founder of Opera Tampa, and Frank McClain, director of the concert. A tenor had the flu, and Lisi was scrambling to find a replacement familiar with a scene from Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, whose premiere Coppola conducted at Seattle Opera in 1970.
Lisi has not announced future plans for Opera Tampa, preferring to keep the focus on Coppola's departure until after Aida. "This is so hard for me," she said. "Maestro and I are very close. But everything has a beginning and an end."
In some ways, Coppola is the Johnny Appleseed of opera in the United States, having spent much of his career away from the major classical musical centers, putting together productions in places like Tampa, Cleveland, Salt Lake City, New Orleans and San Antonio. He sometimes expresses regret that he didn't aim higher, and can be harsh on himself for roads not taken.
"It could have been different if I had been less greedy," he said. "If I had attached myself to a really important agent, the kind who has leverage and can open major doors for you, perhaps I would have gone in a different direction. But why should I pay 10 or 15 percent to somebody? I was working all the time. I didn't need someone to find a job for me.
"Once I conducted an Un Ballo in Maschera in New Orleans and a big agent came down to see me. His name was Tony Russo, very big. He saw me conducting and he said, 'Maestro, why don't you come with me? I can have you in Paris opera, Berlin opera.' I said, 'Who needs you, Tony?' Mistake.''
But those decisions are long in the past. Today, Coppola laughs at the route his career took. "So I'm king of the regional opera companies. What's wrong with that? I feel good about it. I made my contribution. Remember one thing. The word 'maestro' doesn't mean conductor; it means teacher. I think I've taught a lot of people how I think they should go about performing opera. I take pride in that. And the singers always tell me, 'We learn so much from you.' And there is a deep satisfaction to that."
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For almost six hours, Coppola led two rehearsals. Seated on a stool, keeping time with a pencil, the conductor sang along with every part, his gruff voice a constant undercurrent to the music that filled the rehearsal hall.
"Gerry, right there you've got to just feel it,'' he said to tenor Gerard Powers, singing the part of Otello. Powers, who has been in the Opera Tampa productions of Carmen and La Rondine, loves the depth of experience the conductor brings.
"Maestro has done these operas hundreds of times, and he knows exactly what works and what doesn't," the tenor said. "And he knows what he likes, too, and that's important. He's always going to stick to the traditions, but he'll break a few if he doesn't like them. And that's what he did toward the end of the scene, when he said, 'Oh, no, don't even pay attention to any of the notes there. It's all you, make it heartfelt.' ''
One of the productions that Coppola looks back on with affection is the Romeo et Juliette that he conducted in 2006. Soprano Elizabeth de Trejo — then going by the name Rachel Watkins (which is what Coppola continues to call her) — sang Juliette in the Gounod opera, and she went on to perform in four more Opera Tampa productions. She was back to sing in the farewell concert.
"I'm actually trying not to think about it too much," de Trejo said. "I don't want to get too emotional about it. I'm trying to treat it like it's just another day at the office. But it's a very big deal. He's been my musical mentor in a lot of ways."
At the end of the rehearsals, it was about 9 p.m., and Coppola was one of the last to leave. With all the changes still to be made in the program — it was running too long — and only a couple of days before the concert, a less seasoned conductor might have been anxious. But the maestro has seen it all.
Once, during a Tosca in Cleveland, Cavaradossi was singing the aria just before his death when a bat flew from the rafters and hovered around the tenor's mouth. "Imagine trying to sing with that," Coppola said, laughing at the memory.
"We're human beings," he said. "Sometimes we're good. Sometimes we're better. Sometimes we're not so good. We never know when we walk onto the podium if it's going to be a good show or not. We can't tell, because we're human beings."
John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or [email protected]