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A well-conducted life

Anton Coppola shares a birthday with J.S. Bach, March 21, and perhaps that explains his musical eminence. At 87, Coppola continues to be a frequent conductor with opera companies all over the United States. This weekend, he leads Opera Tampa in performances of Puccini's Turandot, which he first performed in as a member of the Metropolitan Opera children's chorus in 1927. Last week, Coppola talked about his career with Times performing arts critic John Fleming. An edited version of the conversation follows.

I WAS IMPRESSED TO HEAR THAT YOU CELEBRATED YOUR 87TH BIRTHDAY IN THE OPERA PIT.

That's right, it was a matinee in Salt Lake City, and I was conducting La Fanciulla del West, which is not an easy score. I felt very good about that. I was actually thinking, "Here I am, 87 years old, I'm supposed to be dead and buried."

CONDUCTORS DO SEEM TO BE LONG-LIVED.

Traditionally, they are. Toscanini worked into his 80s. Pierre Monteux lived a long time. So did Karl Bohm.

I THINK YOU'VE OUTLASTED THEM ALL. TO BE CONDUCTING AT 87 IS REMARKABLE.

I suppose it is, but the thing is, I honestly don't feel any of the creakiness of old age that I'm supposed to feel. Oh, a little arthritis in the small of my back, that's all I feel. I think one of the things that keeps conductors going is that we have to exercise our mental powers all the time. Doing that, I think, contributes to your physical well-being. I mean, I'm constantly using my mind to absorb these scores that I conduct.

WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF BEING AN OLDER CONDUCTOR?

The advantages are, I suppose, accumulated experience and being able to pass it on to others. Just last month, in Salt Lake City, a conductor asked to pick my brain about Tosca. He had been invited to conduct it in Boston. I won't mention his name.

IT MUST HAVE BEEN KEITH LOCKHART (MUSIC DIRECTOR OF THE SALT LAKE CITY SYMPHONY AND THE BOSTON POPS). HE DOESN'T DO A LOT OF OPERA.

Well, then you know. So I ran over the whole score with him. We had a pianist there. I said to Keith, "You just sit there with your score and follow what I do," and then I stood up and conducted the whole opera, and sang it as though it was a performance. As far as I'm concerned, it was the authoritative way to conduct Tosca. He was terribly appreciative; wrote me a beautiful note.

HAS LOCKHART CONDUCTED WITH SALT LAKE CITY OPERA?

He hasn't conducted there yet, but they're going to invite him next year. I think it will be Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I WISH SOMEONE WOULD DO BRITTEN AROUND HERE.

Nobody loves Britten more than I do. He's so original. There's nobody that writes like Britten. And Britten didn't imitate anyone.

IS IT HARD TO GET REGIONAL COMPANIES TO DO BRITTEN?

Yes, in the same way it's hard to get them to do anything other than Cavalleria/Pagliacci, La Boheme and Tosca and so on. They have to go for the bread and butter, the staples, or at least they think they do.

WHICH BRITTEN OPERA WOULD BE THE ONE FOR A COMPANY TO START WITH IF IT HAD NEVER PERFORMED HIM BEFORE?

Probably Peter Grimes. It's the most dramatic. I think it's also the most accessible.

AS FAR AS YOUR BEING 87, WHAT ARE THE DRAWBACKS?

I'm hard put to think of any. It doesn't seem to matter to the opera companies. They keep inviting me back. In July, I'm going to Milan for 10 days to conduct an album of Puccini arias for Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian soprano, for EMI.

THAT'S GREAT. SHE PICKED OUT THE REPERTOIRE?

She did, but I found a piece for her that I think will add a modicum of special interest. It's an aria from Puccini's second opera, Edgar, which was a fiasco, a complete failure. In order to try to fix it, he cut out a drinking song, a brindisi, that I thought would be interesting for her to do. I sent her a copy, and she loved it.

SHE HAS A FORMIDABLE DIVA REPUTATION. HOW DO YOU GET ALONG WITH HER?

She adores me. Maybe she looks up to my venerability.

IS SHE SINGING ANYTHING FROM TURANDOT?

She's going to do three arias, Turandot's aria and two arias that Liu, the slave girl, sings.

WASN'T YOUR FIRST OPERA PERFORMANCE IN TURANDOT?

Exactly right. I was 10 years old. I was in the children's chorus of the American premiere at the Metropolitan Opera in 1927. Maria Jeritza was the Turandot. Tullio Serafin was the conductor.

THAT'S A WONDERFUL LINEAGE TO HAVE. HOW FREQUENTLY HAVE YOU CONDUCTED TURANDOT?

Quite a few times, but it doesn't come around as often as Boheme or Butterfly, even though, in many ways, it's the culmination of Puccini's artistic heritage. For instance, it's very involved chorally, whereas Butterfly and some other operas are not especially noted for their choruses. He was conscious of Strauss and Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel, but everything Puccini did was finally in his own language.

PUCCINI DIED IN 1924 BEFORE COMPLETING TURANDOT, AND THE LAST SCENE WAS FINISHED BY FRANCO ALFANO. WHERE DOES PUCCINI LEAVE OFF AND ALFANO TAKE OVER?

Puccini's last notes were at the end of the death of Liu as the chorus sings a paean of love, adoring her for her sacrifice. I believe that Puccini would not have ended the opera the way Alfano did. In 1921, Puccini wrote a letter to his librettist, Giuseppe Adami, about the final duet of Calaf and Turandot. He said "perhaps a little bit of Tristan . . . and above all, no bombast." He was thinking about when the unknown prince kisses Turandot, and she undergoes an ecstatic transfiguration, like the liebestod in Tristan und Isolde.

ALFANO DIDN'T ACHIEVE THAT.

No, he went for a Hollywood ending. But I'm satisfied with it. You can tell it's not Puccini anymore, but it works.

ISN'T TURANDOT THE OPERA THAT YOUR NEPHEW, GODFATHER DIRECTOR FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA, DREAMED OF STAGING WITH YOU?

How many times did he say, "Uncle, when are we going to get together and do an opera? And the opera I want to do is Turandot." We could never get our schedules together.

WHAT ABOUT HIS DAUGHTER, SOFIA, WHO WROTE AND DIRECTED LOST IN TRANSLATION?

Oh, I loved that movie. Tender and sweet and very autobiographical. That girl in the movie is Sofia. For years, my wife and I would see her at family gatherings, a sweet little thing sucking her thumb in the corner. Obviously she was observing a lot.

DOES SHE HAVE ANY INTEREST IN OPERA?

Not as far as I know.

TURANDOT IS OPERA TAMPA'S ONLY FULL PRODUCTION THIS SEASON. THE REST OF THE SEASON WAS A TOUR OF PORGY AND BESS, A RECITAL BY RENEE FLEMING AND ORLANDO OPERA'S ABDUCTION! HEADED INTO ITS 10TH ANNIVERSARY SEASON, THE COMPANY SEEMS TO BE GOING BACKWARD.

We started with one, we went to two, then to three, but now we're back to one again.

WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

This is a discouraging time for opera, financially. And Tampa just doesn't have the wealthy retirees that support opera like they do in Miami, Palm Beach and Sarasota.

THE MARKETING LEAVES SOMETHING TO BE DESIRED. FOR EXAMPLE, OPERA TAMPA IS DOING TURANDOT THE SAME WEEKEND THAT THE FLORIDA ORCHESTRA IS PLAYING THREE MASTERWORKS CONCERTS.

It probably is too much for the community to absorb. You can't expect people to go to musical events every night.

I THINK THE HIGH POINT FOR OPERA TAMPA WAS THE PREMIERE OF YOUR OPERA, SACCO & VANZETTI. ANY PRODUCTIONS OF IT IN THE WORKS?

It's the opera that everybody loves, and nobody produces. I'm always given these evasive answers if I ask companies if they'll do it.

THAT'S GOT TO BE DISAPPOINTING.

Especially because it was so successful. It should have been picked up by other companies. I don't know what goes against it. I wish I knew.

MAYBE IT'S ONE OF THESE OPERAS THAT WILL BE REDISCOVERED LONG AFTER ITS PREMIERE.

Could very well be. That happened with Cosi Fan Tutte, for instance. It was premiered, it was successful, then it was unheard of for something like 60, 70, 80 years.

I ASSUME YOU DON'T PLAN TO WRITE ANOTHER OPERA.

My wife would kill me.

BUT IF YOU DID, WHAT'S A STORY YOU THINK COULD WORK OPERATICALLY?

Do you know the Japanese movie Woman of the Dunes? I've always thought that could be an opera. It's about an entomologist and a woman who lives in a sand pit. Very allegorical and strange, but it's a love story. What librettists lose sight of is that every good opera has a love story.

YOU ONCE TOLD ME THAT YOU HAVE ALWAYS REPRESENTED YOURSELF IN DEALING WITH OPERA COMPANIES.

That's true. I never had an agent.

DO YOU THINK YOU COULD HAVE CONDUCTED MORE IN NEW YORK OR PARIS OR ROME OR OTHER MUSIC CAPITALS IF YOU HAD?

I blame myself. I was too smug, too satisfied with the fact that I was constantly employed. Were I to design my artistic career again, I would put myself in the hands of an important agent, and I was invited to do that on several occasions. But who needed an agent? Why should I give up 10 or 15 percent of my income when the operas called me anyway? And that was wrong, because an agent can open doors, important doors, for you that you can't open yourself. Outside of a couple appearances with San Francisco Opera and New York City Opera, I haven't conducted for major companies.

ON THE OTHER HAND, YOU'VE BROUGHT OPERA TO A LOT OF COMMUNITIES THAT NEVER HAD IT.

I feel very good about what I think has been my contribution to opera. It's been a very satisfying career.

YOU SEEM CAPABLE OF GOING ON INDEFINITELY. YOU'VE GOT TWO PRODUCTIONS TO CONDUCT HERE NEXT SEASON AS WELL AS OTHER ENGAGEMENTS. HAVE YOU CUT BACK AT ALL?

I'm as busy as ever. The fact that I am active physically and mentally is what keeps me going. If I were to go down to Naples, Fla., and start hitting a golf ball around, in six months I'd be gone.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or flemingsptimes.com.

"Turandot': How to thaw an ice princess

Turandot, Puccini's final opera, is best known for the aria Nessun Dorma, the stirring signature tune of the World Cup and Three Tenors concerts. It's also the composer's most ambitious, exotic amalgam of orchestra, chorus and soloists.

Set in China in "legendary" times, the opera tells of the princess Turandot, who promises to marry a nobleman who can solve three riddles she poses; incorrect answers mean death, and decapitated men pile up around the palace. There's a typically tragic Puccini heroine, the slave Liu, who commits suicide when she is spurned by Calaf, who plays the riddle game and wins the ice princess.

Premiered in 1926, Turandot was one of the last operas to enter the standard repertoire. Puccini died before it was completed, and the concluding duet between Calaf and Turandot was composed by Franco Alfano.

Soprano Pamela Kucenic is Turandot in the Opera Tampa production, staged by Vernon Hartman. Soprano Amy Johnson sings Liu. Tenor Richard Brunner is Calaf. Anton Coppola conducts the orchestra.

Turandot has performances at 8 p.m. today and 2 p.m. Sunday at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. $24.50-$75. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045 or www.tbpac.org.

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