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

The maestro got the idea for the opera from his nephew, Francis Ford Coppola. It debuts Saturday in Tampa.
Published Feb. 7, 2019

TAMPA — Anton Coppola arrived in the hotel lobby exactly on time, leaning on a walker. He led the way to a small conference room, uttering no pleasantries. He sat and immediately got down to business.

Something about him commands the utmost attention, an alertness and focus by eye contact and tone. He led Opera Tampa through 17 seasons with the same demeanor — one that, coupled with his height of barely 5 feet, drew comparisons to Napoleon. He retired seven years ago at 95. Two years ago, the opera built its annual gala around his 100th birthday, where he conducted parts of an opera he had written, Sacco and Vanzetti, and debuted his revised ending to Puccini's Turandot.

A month before his 102nd birthday, Coppola is back to unveil what he has been working on since, Lady Swanwhite.

He speaks emphatically and in an almost hoarse voice, jabbing the air with his index finger.

"The theme of the opera is redemption, how the power of love can transform an evil-spirited woman into a benign soul," he said, floating the word "benign" in a weightless little arc. He adapted the story from Swanwhite by Swedish playwright August Strindberg, the first and most important of his "fairy plays."

Coppola has been staying at the Residence Inn for two weeks, a few blocks from Opera Tampa at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. He has attended rehearsals daily, his schedule mirroring the company's 12-hour days.

If you're having trouble digesting those numbers, you are not alone.

"He's going and going like the Energizer bunny," said stage director Melissa Misener, 44. "You should see the cameras. Everybody's got their phone out taking pictures because everybody's just astonished."

"He gets around like he's 22," said Keisha Martin, who works the hotel's front desk and sees Coppola and his wife, Almarinda, daily. "She's always kissing him. They're such a sweet couple."

Like Strindberg himself, Coppola is both romantic and realist, darker than Disney.

"I prefer Grimms' fairy tales, which can be cruel," he said.

The idea for the opera germinated in 2017, weeks after the gala, with a package from his nephew, film director Francis Ford Coppola.

"He sent me this short drama by Strindberg," Coppola said. "He said, 'Uncle, I think this is an opera.' "

His nephew had done the same thing in the late 1990s, when he suggested composing an opera around the Sacco and Vanzetti case.

"History repeats itself," Coppola said. "He's the one who peppers my imagination."

In the story, the childlike Swanwhite struggles under the thumb of an oppressive stepmother, who opens the show threatening her servants with a whip. A king she has never met wants to marry her. But first she must be taught the royal etiquette, for which her father has dispatched a handsome prince. Strindberg's play is dreamlike in a sad, disturbing way, but ends on an uplifting note.

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Coppola's adaptation sticks with the moral of redemption and the fate of the prince. But he skips the overtly romantic conclusion, in which Swanwhite breathes life back into him through love.

"I dismiss that completely," he said. "I want it to end with a question mark."

He composed it in his New York apartment overlooking Central Park, at a card table, rarely venturing to the piano.

"Debussy wrote all of those fabulous compositions he composed away from the piano," he said. "Which is the opposite of Puccini and Wagner, who obviously wrote at the piano. Mozart wrote everything from his mind. As he's shooting pool with somebody, he could write a symphony."

His days start at 7 a.m. and end at midnight. Coppola walks in the park, weather permitting, and enjoys a vodka martini at 7 p.m.

He had no plans to produce Swanwhite until last spring, when Straz Center president Judith Lisi paid him a visit. The 2018-19 Opera Tampa season had been set, Lisi said, but she changed it after she heard Coppola play some of the score he had written.

He revised and expanded the libretto. He also cast the show, finding his Swanwhite in soprano Maria Brea during an opera performance in New York.

"I heard her and I thought, 'That's my girl,' " Coppola said.

In an age when "collaboration" has become a buzzword, in which artists subject works in progress to workshops or critiques, he works "by myself in my room, and I wrote what I wanted to write. I didn't ask anybody for his opinion. Maybe I should have but I didn't. We'll see what the results are. I think the reaction is going to be polite applause."

The thought made him laugh.

"And a little bit of bewilderment," he added. "'What the hell is this thing about?'"

With a chamber orchestra and no chorus, the 90-minute Swanwhite is as spare as Aida, his final production at artistic director in 2012, was grand, including a real camel on stage.

Jorge Parodi, who has guest conducted several times, will conduct. It's not the easiest thing, turning over the reins, but Coppola swore that the gala would mark his retirement from conducting and he's sticking with that decision.

That doesn't mean he won't give Parodi a nudge now and then, maybe to slow something down a little or pick something up. Asked if he considers himself a dictatorial conductor, Coppola said, "Is there any other kind?"

Several family members are expected to attend the opera, including Francis Ford Coppola and his daughter, Sofia Coppola, who won a screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation.

If age has taught him anything, it's to not expect perfection even while striving for nothing less. He's currently reading a biography of Leonardo da Vinci, who proceeded slowly and analytically. To demonstrate, Coppola pointed to a hotel painting on the opposite wall depicting a zebra stripe pattern.

"He might work on that painting for a few hours. And then next day he would come back and say, 'Ah, no, no, that's not it.' And he would rub that off and redo it. I think the reason is that we who create things are never completely satisfied with what we've done."


Lady Swanwhite

7 p.m. Saturday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, 1010 N MacInnes Place, Tampa. $59. (813) 229-7827.