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Anton Coppola, Opera Tampa’s founding ‘Maestro,’ dies at 102

Mr. Coppola was a renowned conductor, composer and performing arts legend in Tampa Bay and beyond.

Anton Coppola, the founding artistic director of Opera Tampa who was known simply as “Maestro” in Tampa Bay and beyond, died Monday at his New York City home. He was 102.

Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts confirmed Mr. Coppola’s death in an email to the Tampa Bay Times. She did not disclose the cause of death.

“He was my mentor and taught us that age is irrelevant to energy and creativity,” Lisi said. “He was a treasure to me and a gift to Tampa.”

Mr. Coppola’s career spanned decades, from a boys’ choir in East Harlem, N.Y.; to leading Army bands during World War II; to playing oboe for the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra; to conducting orchestras and leading opera companies around the country. He conducted for Luciano Pavarotti in La Boheme and Julie Andrews in The Boy Friend; and for 15 years directed the symphony and opera departments at the Manhattan School of Music.

“The word ‘maestro’ doesn’t mean conductor; it means teacher," Coppola told the Times in 2012. "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.”

Maestro Anton Coppola celebrate his 100th birthday by conducting a concert of his own compositions at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 2018.
Related: Anton Coppola, Opera Tampa's artistic director, reflects on best achievement

It was in the northeast that Mr. Coppola met Lisi, a Juilliard-trained singer who persuaded him to work with the theater and opera company she was running in New Haven, Conn. "A little Napoleon,” she would call him, diminutive in stature but demanding of excellence. When she moved south in 1992, hoping to start a new company at the debt-ridden Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, she brought Mr. Coppola with her.

“I don’t know if I would have done it without Maestro,” Lisi said in January. “If didn’t have the relationship that I had with him, I don’t think I would have done it.”

Related: Opera Tampa at 25: A 'crazy dream' that made it, but what comes next?

A few years after Opera Tampa debuted in 1996, the company took its first big creative swing in the form of Sacco and Vanzetti, a new opera composed by Mr. Coppola. The opera captured the story of the two Italian immigrants whose controversial 1921 murder conviction became a global news story.

Reviews were mixed, but Mr. Coppola would regard it as the highlight of his career. And it did bring the nascent company some national attention, helping it grow even more.

“Good singers wanted to come down here,” said Opera Tampa artistic director Robin Stamper. “They wanted to work with Maestro Coppola in a beautiful auditorium.”

During several minutes of a standing ovation, Opera Tampa conductor and founding artistic director Anton Coppola blows a kiss to the audience in 2012 upon his retirement. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The name recognition didn’t hurt. Anton Coppola’s brother Carmine was the Oscar-winning composer for The Godfather. Carmine Coppola’s son Francis Ford Coppola was the film’s Oscar-winning director.

Anton Coppola also worked on the music for The Godfather Part III and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and while conducting on Broadway, worked on musicals with stars like Eartha Kitt and Carol Lawrence. In 1963, Mr. Coppola was nominated for a Tony Award for his work on Bravo Giovanni.

Related: At 100, Tampa's opera king Anton Coppola celebrates a life's work

Mr. Coppola retired from Opera Tampa in 2012, but came down from New York a few more times. In 2018, at the age of 100, he returned to Opera Tampa to conduct selections from Sacco and Vanzetti and other works. In the audience were several of his famous relatives, including Francis Ford Coppola, grand-niece and director Sofia Coppola and grand-nephew and actor Nicolas Cage.

So mindful and active was Anton Coppola for that concert, he premiered a new ending he’d written for Puccini’s unfinished Turandot. A year later, Opera Tampa premiered a full new work from him, Lady Swanwhite, based on a story by Swedish playwright August Strindberg.

Related: Anton Coppola, 101, is ready to debut his latest opera, 'Lady Swanwhite'

Among Mr. Coppola’s talents was writing reductions, or versions of opera scores scaled back for smaller orchestras. Opera Tampa purchased the rights to his reductions and now licenses them for performances around the world. Last year, operas in New Jersey, North Carolina and Ohio performed Mr. Coppola’s reductions of La Boheme, Tosca and Rigoletto.

In late January, Mr. Coppola told the Times his Opera Tampa years were “the most constructive, the most artistically satisfying of my somewhat lengthy career.

“As I look back, in retrospect, I’m a little bit sorry that I resigned," he said. "Maybe I was being a little bit premature. Because I still feel, at least artistically and emotionally and in every which way, still capable of performing as I did before.”

Related: Anton Coppola: A well-conducted life

At the time of his death, Mr. Coppola was still composing. A friend had given him a book of poems that he was setting to music. He’d also just written an “almost autobiographical” screenplay that he hoped to send to some producers, “including my famous nephew, and see if it takes off from there.”

He didn’t see himself returning to Tampa, however, not even for a farewell tribute. He was content to live and make music in his New York City apartment overlooking Central Park.

“I’m almost 103 years old,” he told the Times in January. “And fortunately, I’m defying all the rules of longevity, aside from a few aches and pains and a loss of some mobility. I walk with a cane and a walker. But I sit at my desk and write, compose, put pencil on paper, whatever thoughts occur to me.”

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