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In the Coppola family, Anton Coppola celebrates a long life and career

Anton Coppola is the ageless conductor. At 93 going on 94 (his birthday is March 21), Coppola continues to conduct opera long past the normal retirement age even for conductors, who tend to be pretty durable. Early this month, he was in Texas to conduct the San Antonio Opera production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. On Thursday, he will conduct an Opera Tampa concert, part of a gala at which legendary tenor Placido Domingo will receive the Anton Coppola Excellence in the Arts Award. For 16 years, he has conducted every Opera Tampa production, and in April, he will be back in Tampa to prepare Verdi's La Traviata for performances April 29 and May 1 to wind up the season. • Recently, LifeTimes interviewed Coppola from his apartment on Central Park West in New York, where he lives with his wife of more than 60 years, Almerinda, a former ballerina. They have two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Here are excerpts of the conversation.

John Fleming, Times performing arts critic

Your longevity is incredible. Do you know of any other conductor who was still working at 93, going on 94?

No one. Toscanini stopped at about 87, I think. Hugo Fiorito was the conductor of New York City Ballet, and he went on to about 88 or 89. But nobody went as far as I'm going.

I interviewed Mel Brooks the other day. Mel is 84, so he was still in knee pants when your career was under way.

I worked with Mel on New Faces of 1952. He used to imitate me by waving his arms like a mad conductor. It was a revue on Broadway, and he wrote some of the skits. That's the show that initiated the careers of Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde and Carol Lawrence. The show was a big hit, and I went on from that to do The Boy Friend, with Julie Andrews.

You have quite a Broadway resume, don't you? You were nominated for a Tony Award in 1963 for conducting Bravo Giovanni.

Oh, yes, I'm the original crossover. In Bravo Giovanni, (opera singer) Cesare Siepi made his Broadway debut in what was supposed to be as successful as South Pacific, except it didn't work out that way, because the show wasn't that good.

But you always had your sights on opera conducting?

I had been conducting opera since I got out of the Army in 1946. When I was with a Broadway show, I always made it clear in my contract that I would be released if I had any opera engagements. And then I'd go back to the show.

What's the difference between conducting an opera and a Broadway show?

It's the dressing room. When I conduct an opera, I get the No. 1 dressing room. When I conduct a Broadway show, the stagehands hammer a nail down in the boiler room and say, "You can hang your coat there."

Let me get back to longevity. What is the secret, really?

Well, I suppose genes. My mother, when she died, was 88 years old, and there was not a line on her face. She had the complexion of an 18-year-old. I suppose it's also our Mediterranean diet. Pasta e fagioli! Beans and macaroni. My wife and I really like vegetables. Broccoli, spinach. It's always pasta and something else. Coated with olive oil.

What concessions to age do you make?

Now, because I have a slight touch of arthritis, I sit all the time. So does (conductor James) Levine at the Met (the Metropolitan Opera). I just can't stand that long anymore. Why should I? In the old days, it was usual for conductors to sit on a stool.

You've conducted so many operas. Which ones stick in your memory?

I think one of the most important was an Otello with Mario del Monaco. A Faust with George London.

(Luciano) Pavarotti sang La Boheme with me. San Francisco Opera in 1969. Dorothy Kirsten was Mimi.

He was a slender, handsome guy. And by the way, he was highly disciplined. There were no disagreements of any kind. I gave him some dynamic corrections, to which he acquiesced completely.

Was Pavarotti the greatest tenor in your lifetime?

I would say so. It was not only the beautiful voice. But what he had going for him was explicitly clear diction. He made the words mean something. As opposed to somebody like Joan Sutherland, who sounded like she was vocalizing all the time.

What about Placido Domingo?

His Otello was the greatest thing I ever saw. First of all, his complete immersion in the character was exemplary. He was a great actor. He didn't just stand and sing. To introduce him for the concert, I'm going to play an excerpt from Otello.

Your own opera, Sacco & Vanzetti, was premiered by Opera Tampa in 2001. Was that your crowning achievement?

It certainly was. That was the greatest moment in my career. Here for the first time I expressed myself and not someone else's thinking.

Any inquiries for future productions?

All the time, but it's all talk. Even in Italy.

You would think Italian opera houses would want to do it.

It's about two Italians who were unfairly crucified in an internationally famous trial. It was written by an Italian-American, and it's the first bilingual opera in English and Italian. But nothing ever comes of it.

That's the history of Sacco & Vanzetti, as of now.

You've conducted every Opera Tampa production. Where does the company stand now at 16 years old?

I think it will attain more importance as it goes along. What is in the way of it developing more dramatically is the economic crisis we're in.

The times are hard. So the company has had to tighten its belt. If times were different, we would have expanded to four or even five productions a year.

Ever had any discussion about your stepping down with Judy Lisi (president of the Straz Center, which operates the opera company)?

Judy has always said, "You, maestro, you tell us when you don't want to do it anymore.''

What do you tell her?

I haven't told her anything yet. Why should I? I just came back from San Antonio and conducted three highly successful productions of Figaro. Naturally, there is going to be a time when I can't anymore. Then I'll step down.

What you're suggesting is retirement. That word doesn't exist in my vocabulary. I feel no diminution of my creative powers, or my interpretive powers.

Finally, you've got one last opera to conduct. Would it be by Puccini or Verdi?

I think that I would want to finish my career with Verdi's last masterpiece, Falstaff. This was his way of saying goodbye, and he finishes with that wonderful fugue, where he says everybody's a fool and the world is made up of dunces.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

IF YOU GO

A Night of Stars

Anton Coppola conducts the Opera Tampa concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Morsani Hall of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. Featured will be tenor James Valenti and soprano Angela Meade, both on the Metropolitan Opera roster, plus other singers, the Opera Tampa orchestra and chorus. Opera legends Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes will be on hand. $19.50-$89.50. Tickets to an Opera Tampa gala, including a postconcert dinner on the stage of Ferguson Hall, are $275. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free, 1-800-955-1045; strazcenter.org.

ed Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. photo.

A remarkable career

As a 9-year-old, Anton Coppola performed in the 1926 U.S. premiere of Puccini's Turandot, as a member of the Metropolitan Opera children's chorus.

In 1965, he conducted the world premiere of Jack Beeson's Lizzie Borden at New York City Opera.

Coppola conducted Luciano Pavarotti as Rodolfo in La Boheme with San Francisco Opera in 1969.

In 1970, at Seattle Opera, Coppola led the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men.

For The Godfather, Part III, directed by his nephew Francis Ford Coppola and released in 1990, Anton Coppola conducted the score and played an opera conductor.

The first Opera Tampa production, Madama Butterfly, was conducted by Coppola in 1996.

Coppola's Sacco & Vanzetti was premiered by Opera Tampa in 2001.

A notable genealogy

Among Anton Coppola's family:

• Brother of Carmine Coppola, composer and flutist.

• Uncle of Francis Ford Coppola, director; and Talia Shire, actor.

• Great-uncle to Nicolas Cage, actor; Sofia Coppola, director; Jason Schwartzman, actor.

In the Coppola family, Anton Coppola celebrates a long life and career 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 3:30am]

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