1. Stage

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

Anton Coppola was 10 when they died in the electric chair.

Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed on Aug. 23, 1927. The murder convictions of two Italian immigrants sparked worldwide outrage. As a boy in East Harlem, Coppola had heard his father and friends talking about the case around the dinner table. Seventy years later, he wrote an opera about the case.

Are you following the math? The trial of a century was almost a century ago. On Tuesday, Coppola turned 100.

On Saturday, the legendary musician who helped shape Tampa's opera culture will conduct selections from Sacco and Vanzetti at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, part of Opera Tampa's annual gala. The founding artistic director of Opera Tampa will likely be joined by members of his famous family, including film directors Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola.

"It gives me great personal satisfaction," Anton Coppola said, "to see that the company that I helped develop is thriving and, I think, in good health."

Coppola's career spans roughly 80 years and includes stints as music director for the Broadway musicals that introduced Julie Andrews, Eartha Kitt and Paul Lynde; conducting at major opera houses and, briefly, in a scene in The Godfather Part III, directed by his nephew. The man most associates refer to simply as "Maestro" has visited the Tampa Bay area just once since retiring from Opera Tampa in 2012.

Flying in from New York to lead an orchestra at his own birthday bash might seem a like a lot. But Maestro is just getting started.

This two-hour concert also features a world premiere of an alternate ending Coppola wrote for Turandot, Puccini's unfinished opera about a princess who kills would-be suitors. Puccini died in 1924 with two final scenes roughly sketched out, but leaving room for doubt about the composer's intentions.

"I decided, 'If Puccini was not sure what the ending would be, I'll write one,' " Coppola said. (It's COP-pol-lah, the maestro will tell anyone who accents the wrong syllable.)

He had been turning over the idea for decades, never satisfied with the happily-ever-after ending supplied by Franco Alfano. As with his own opera, there's a personal connection here too. In 1926, he sang at the Metropolitan Opera with the children's chorus in the United States premiere of Turandot.

"He started in 1926 in the children's chorus at the Met, and at 100 years old he wrote a new ending," said Judy Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz. "You can't make that stuff up."

The bond between Lisi and Coppola goes back 30 years and is built around opera. Lisi, a serious singer who studied at the Juilliard School, wanted to launch opera out of the Schubert Theater, the arts nonprofit she was running in New Haven, Conn. She knew of Coppola only by reputation, but persuaded him to come aboard.

"I always called him the Pied Piper of opera because he performed all over the country," she said.

Lisi left Connecticut in 1992, over Coppola's protests, to take over as president of the former Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Lisi pulled the Tampa venue out of debt, then parlayed that achievement with a request. Would the board support her vision of starting an opera company?

From her end, there was only one potential deal breaker. She got on the phone with Coppola.

"He said, 'I'm there. I will be there to start that opera company with you,' " she said.

Opera Tampa launched in 1995 with Madama Butterfly. Within a year, Coppola was at work composing his own opera.

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Coppola speaks with a forcefulness not typically associated with centenarians, as if he were ordering food in a crowded deli. Stories tumble out with every milestone ticked off.

He was born March 21, 1917, in the Bronx, the fifth of an Italian toolmaker's seven sons. A few years later, the family moved to East Harlem. Agostino Coppola wanted each child to play a musical instrument; Anton gravitated to the piano.

For years in childhood, he heard rumblings about Sacco and Vanzetti. The pair, both political anarchists, were accused of killing two men during a robbery. His father said it was sad that a couple of fellow Italians had gotten into trouble. The buddies were more vocal.

"They said the trial they were getting was a kangaroo trial," Coppola said. "That it was farcical and completely unjust and laden with prejudice and discrimination."

He made his way through the music world, serving as a band leader for the Army during World War II, then conducting. He was a conductor at Radio City Music Hall when he met Almerinda Drago, a ballerina. They married on his 33rd birthday. They're still married.

Diminutive and demanding, he got results with his exactitude.

"He was a little Napoleon," Lisi said. "People used to be afraid of him. But he's mellowed significantly over the years."

Sherrill Milnes, a renowned baritone who worked with Coppola many times, agreed.

"He could be tough, but you have to be tough to be understood," saidMilnes, 82. "A conductor is a dictatorship. It has to be a dictatorship, and in that way he was a great leader."

After a successful run as music director of the comedy revue, New Faces of 1952, which propelled Kitt and others, Coppola was tapped to conduct a British musical making its debut in New York, The Boy Friend.

After the first rehearsal going over songs on the piano, he said, "I went home and told my wife, 'There's a young girl, she's only 19 years old, and she can sing and dance and do everything. That girl will be a great star, I'm telling you right now.' And her name is, of course, Julie Andrews."

Broadway segued into decades of opera, including a bright moment, conducting the powerful tenor, Mario Del Monaco, in a production of Othello. Second-highest on his memory hit list was Sacco and Vanzetti. Encouraged by Francis Ford Coppola, he wrote a synopsis, then a libretto.

"What I intended to do was not try to prove their innocence or guilt, because that is a gray area," Coppola said. "What I think I emphasized was, were they given a fair trial? And the answer is no."

He worked on the score between conducting gigs. It took five years to finish.

That is how it works with him. Things take time, he spends time, and those things get done. It was the way with Turandot, which Coppola will not spoil except to say it ends differently from the fairy tale version. Seven opera singers will be on hand to sing at Saturday's concert.

The concert's remaining piece reflects the family name in a big way. Coppola will roll out a medley he crafted out of sound tracks from Francis Ford Coppola's movies. Several of which, including the Godfather series, were written by Carmine Coppola, Anton's older brother and Francis Ford Coppola's father. The film director is supplying the wine from his winery for a pre-concert reception.

Coppola will head back to New York and resume his routines — writing at the piano, pushing his walker through Central Park an hour each day, building up strength for that next project.

One bucket list item might have to wait a while. It would be nice, Coppola acknowledged, if someone would bring Sacco and Vanzetti out of mothballs. The Straz center produced it in 2001, in a lavish production. Critics and audiences raved.

"Of course I would like to see another performance of it, at least before I go away forever," Coppola said.

"I don't want to wait 40 years," he added with a raspy little laugh. " I won't be around at that time."

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