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Maestro Anton Coppola celebrates 100th birthday by conducting more original compositions

Maestro Anton Coppola waves as he receives a standing ovation Saturday, March 25, 2017 at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Several Coppola family members including Maestro's nephew Director Francis Ford Coppola, great-niece Sofia Coppola along with his great-nephew Nicholas Cage were in attendance for the performance.
Maestro Anton Coppola waves as he receives a standing ovation Saturday, March 25, 2017 at the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. Several Coppola family members including Maestro's nephew Director Francis Ford Coppola, great-niece Sofia Coppola along with his great-nephew Nicholas Cage were in attendance for the performance.
Published Mar. 27, 2017

TAMPA -- Four days after his 100th birthday, Anton Coppola conducted a two-hour concert Saturday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, the much anticipated highlight of a fund-raising gala for Opera Tampa.

The concert (Coppola Conducts: 100 Years Young) feted Coppola in the way he likely appreciated most -- by allowing him to honor his family, his Italian heritage and his life's work, including his 18 years as Opera Tampa's founding artistic director.

It began with a tribute to film director Francis Ford Coppola, the conductor's nephew. Francis Ford Coppola was in the audience, as were his daughter, director Sofia Coppola, and nephew, actor Nicholas Cage, all Oscar winners.

But on this night, there was only one star in the room. Coppola tottered onto the in Ferguson Hall stage to a standing ovation, acknowledging the crowd with a wave. He turned around, sat facing the orchestra and got to work.

Family connections ran equally deep in the program itself. Coppola titled the opening number Fa-Fa-Do, a reference to the musical notation represented by his nephew's initials, with a parenthetical addition, Life with Father and Music. "Father" refers to the late Carmine Coppola -- Anton's older brother and Francis Ford Coppola's father -- who wrote the film scores for several of Francis Ford Coppola's films, including The Godfather its sequels and Apocalypse Now.

Anton Coppola believes that Francis was influenced artistically growing up hearing his father play the flute and composing music.

"Coppola and music go together," the maestro said after the concert. They are synonymous."

His direct style to-the-point personal style contrasts with the sweeping and romantic grandeur of his music, apparent in all three of the evening's works. After memorable moments from his nephew's films, including the doleful trumpet solo in the Love Theme from The Godfather, Coppola rolled out a particularly adventurous move -- an alternate ending to Puccini's Turandot.

"I claim to be the last living link to Puccini," Coppola told the Times, citing his work with conductor Gennaro Papi, who had served as Puccini's rehearsal pianist. Puccini died in 1924 with Turandot's final scene unwritten. Papi helped Coppola gain musical insights into Puccini's work. Even more important, a letter written by Puccini expressed uncertainty about how the opera about an "ice princess" embittered by the fate of her ancestors should end. Audiences have not had to wrestle with that question, thanks to the ending supplied by composer Franco Alfano (itself highly edited), which resolves the opera by having Princess Turandot fall in love with Calaf, her mysterious suitor.

That is a happy ending, especially for Calaf, since Turandot had all of her other would-be suitors executed. But Coppola never thought it was what Puccini wanted. Puccini, instead, has expressed interest in having the opera reflect the reflect the myth of Tristan and Isolde, ill-fated lovers who died separately of grief.

It was grand, the music stitched together with musical motifs elsewhere in the opera. As orchestras go, this one was on the small side, but that hardly mattered. Over the course of his career, Coppola authored "reductions," or amendments allowing orchestras to play with fewer instruments, for 30 operas. The Straz Center curates the collection, which is still in demand by other opera companies. A chorus bolstered the especially dramatic moments.

"My passion will melt your icy paradise," tenor Jeffrey Springer sang in the role of Calaf.

"With an obscene kiss, a forceful kiss, you think to dominate the princess of the celestial kingdom?" Lisa Houben replied as Turandot. A stunned chorus muses about the good man the princess sent to his death.

The crowd slipped out to intermission (and complimentary wine from the Francis Ford Coppola's California winery), some reflecting on what they had just seen.

"I'm a Hollywod guy, I like happy endings," said Aaron Fodiman, who publishes Tampa Bay Magazine. "But there's something to said for, 'You know what? Let's look at all different aspects.' I thought it was fascinating he took on that."

"It's another twist," said Daniel Lipton, who succeeded Coppola as Opera Tampa's artistic director. "But Puccini might have wanted it that way."

Selections from Sacco and Vanzetti, an opera Coppola spent five years writing, took up the second half. Springer, who played Sacco when the opera debuted in 2001, was back to reprise the role. Baritone Mark Walters sang stirringly in the role of Vanzetti, both men portrayed as working class immigrants fighting back against exploitation and prejudice, notably at the hands of law enforcement. (Walters, Houben and Stefanos Koroneos, who narrated the action stage left in a white suit, will appear in Tosca April 7-9, Opera Tampa's season closer.)

That family connection also runs through Sacco and Vanzetti, and not just because Coppola grew up hearing about case, a cause célèbre in the 1920s and well beyond. The initial idea of setting it to music came not from him but from Francis Ford Coppola. In a recent interview, the maestro recounted a call from his nephew in the mid-1990s. He wanted to do a television documentary about Sacco and Vanzetti, giving the case the kind of retrospective director Ken Burns had afforded to the Roosevelt family.

Carmine Coppola had died, and he wondered if Anton was interested in giving it a try. When Francis was in New York a few months later, Anton was ready.

"Of course he had a grand piano in his (hotel) suite," Coppola said. "So I played some things and he said, 'Oh my gosh, you're writing an opera here.'"

Other projects soon caused Francis Ford Coppola to pull away from the project. But the spark in his uncle had been lit.

"He got me so excited with his remarks that I read every book I could possibly read about Sacco and Vanzetti," Coppola said.

Scenes on Saturday included meetings among Sacco and Vanzetti's contemporaries at the anarchists' hall; arias expressing an unseemly love for Rosina Sacco (Diana McVey) by immigrant Manno Branchini (Cleyton Pulzi); each man's protestations of innocence coupled with a willingness, even eagerness, to die regardless.

"Were it not for this trial, we might have died a failure," Vanzetti sings in his last hours. "But we are not failures, Nick and I. This is the triumph of our lives."

Coppola conducted with equanimity, his right hand with the beat or just ahead, to speed them up. Patrons roared at the conclusion, but Maestro was not finished.

He had two encores planned, both original compositions. The first was a tribute to Agostino Coppola, his father, who emigrated from Southern Italy in 1904. It was a confluence of Italian folk music and classical styles, helped by Nina Wegmann's accordion.

The second encore was by far Coppola's most intimate composition, a serenade to his wife, Almerinda. His 100th birthday March 21 was also their 67th anniversary with the former ballerina.

A waltz tempo underscored each syllable of her name, Al-mer-in-da. The conductor formed the words on his lips as he moved the baton, and once or twice let loose a rare smile.

The crowd again stood and cheered. From the podium, Coppola touched his fingers to his lips and threw a kiss to Almerinda, who was sitting in the front row.

There would be one more encore, as Straz Center president and CEO Judy Lisi invited the audience to sing Happy Birthday to the maestro. Cardboard cannon exploded with a deep pop from the balconies, showering silver streamers on the crowd.

The maestro bounced the credit over his shoulder with a wave to the orchestra. For the first time, he squinted at the upper balconies one side to the other. Coppola climbed down the steps and started to walk offstage in short, resolute little steps. Halfway there, he paused for one last wave to the crowd before walking backstage.

Contact Andrew Meacham at ameacham@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.