FRED PLOTKIN is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. He is an expert on everything Italian, the person other so-called Italy experts turn to for definitive information. Fred discovered the concept of "The Renaissance Man" as a small child and has devoted himself to pursuing that ideal as the central role of his life. In a “Public Lives” profile in The New York Times on August 30, 2002, Plotkin was described as "one of those New York word-of-mouth legends, known by the cognoscenti for his renaissance mastery of two seemingly separate disciplines: music and the food of Italy." In the same publication, on May 11, 2006, it was written that "Fred is a New Yorker, but has the soul of an Italian."
Composer and Conductor Anton Coppola at 100: Fortissimo
Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 12:00 AM
One of the wonderful aspects of what I do is meeting remarkable people who passionately pursue their life’s work. They live by a set of rules that might not seem conventional but I find their determination to live a life of creative struggle profoundly inspiring.
Recently I visited the composer and conductor Anton Coppola a few days before his hundredth birthday in the Manhattan apartment that he and his wife Almerinda have lived in since 1956. To many people, Coppola is best known as the uncle of the film director Francis Ford Coppola, but the entire family is one of distinguished achievement born of a love for the arts and fostered by an imperative to create things of beauty and value.
We conversed in English and Italian. Coppola is what the Italians call forte. Strictly speaking, that means “strong” but, in fact, it suggests an elderly person who tenaciously stays engaged with the world, often in politics or art, and still has much to contribute and a desire to do so. Italy has had great presidents of an advanced age, such as Sandro Pertini and Giorgio Napolitano, and musicians such as Verdi and Toscanini who were molto forte when they were quite old.
Anton Coppola was born on March 21, 1917 on Chauncey Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, two doors down from the family of Jackie Gleason. When Anton was three years old, the family moved to Manhattan’s East Harlem, a neighborhood that was a melting pot of Jews, Germans, Swedes, and other groups, with a small pocket that was predominantly Italian.
Coppola’s father was born in the poor southern Italian region of Basilicata. His mother was born in Tunisia when it was a French protectorate being built by Italian workers, including Coppola’s bricklayer grandfather. His mother scarcely knew Italy, though his parents spoke to one another in Italian at home. They had seven sons. The father, a toolmaker, insisted that each son learn a musical instrument—Anton learned the piano and Carmine, father of the film director, learned the flute and later played in the NBC Symphony.
Like all Italian families, they gathered at the table for an evening meal. “Monday was soup, Tuesday pasta, Wednesday anything, Thursday pasta, Friday fish, Saturday something light and Sunday a big meal that often included pasta and meat. My father made his own wine in a vat. On Sundays, at dinner, we listened to the radio broadcast, often with Arturo Toscanini.”
When he was a small boy, Coppola’s mother took him to a performance of Faust at a small company. “I remember that a little man appeared, waved his hands and out came music. I said, ‘that’s what I want to do.’” Coppola began piano study at the age of 8 and, by 11, had gravitated toward learning opera scores. At 10, Anton joined the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. His first opera was Turandot, which had just received its Met premiere on Nov. 16, 1926 with Tullio Serafin conducting Maria Jeritza and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. Coppola sang with that cast. The ending of the opera, which Puccini did not complete in his lifetime, was composed by Franco Alfano.
The children’s chorus master was Edoardo Petri who, among his achievements, did the first English-language libretto for the operas in Puccini’s Il Trittico and knew Puccini personally. Petri was particularly impressed with the young Anton Coppola and took him under his wing.
In 1930, Coppola was presented to Italian conductor Gennaro Papi, who debuted at the Met conducting Rigoletto in 1915 and ended his career there with the same work in 1941. He had been one of Puccini’s favorite rehearsal pianists. Papi invited Coppola to attend his performances and then discuss them. Papi encouraged him to copy scores by great composers and, in so doing, discover their genius. He began with Faust. Papi told him to learn another instrument. Coppola chose the oboe and later became first oboist in the orchestra of Radio City Music Hall. Almerinda was a dancer there and he married her in 1950.
Coppola conducted his first opera, Samson et Dalila, at the age of 18 in a production sponsored by the federal Works Projects Administration. “One of the best things Roosevelt did was the WPA. Artists of all kinds made $23 a week. As a conductor, I made $30.” During World War II, Coppola performed with military bands.
For many decades, Coppola conducted opera around the U.S. He performed often with the New York City Opera as well as Cincinnati, Seattle, San Francisco and other national companies. He led the world premieres of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and Jack Beeson’s Lizzie Borden. He also conducted Broadway musicals, including the American debut of Julie Andrews in The Boyfriend in 1954.
In 1990’s The Godfather, Part Three, we see Coppola conducting Cavalleria Rusticana in a scene filmed in Palermo’s Teatro Massimo.
In his youth, it was not easy to be of Italian origin. Italy became Fascist in 1922 and was part of the Axis powers the Allies fought in World War II. Although most Italian-Americans were patriotic, they were often under suspicion. Beloved bass Ezio Pinza was once detained at Ellis Island for two days until he could prove he had no Fascist associations.
When Coppola was a boy, Italian-born Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were convicted of first-degree murder and all appeals were denied despite substantial evidence that they were innocent. “We followed everything on radio and in the newspapers. The judge conducted a kangaroo trial and said ‘I’m going to see those guys burn.’ We Italians were called wops and guineas.” Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on Aug. 22, 1927.
In 2001, Coppola led the premiere of his opera, Sacco and Vanzetti, at Opera Tampa, the company of which he was the founding artistic director. On Mar. 25, Coppola will lead a concert in Tampa with orchestra, chorus and solo singers that includes excerpts from his opera. He will also conduct two new compositions: Fa-Fa-Do (inspired by his nephew Francis), and a new ending for Puccini's incomplete Turandot.
Fans of the television series Mozart in the Jungle know him for his role as a former oboist. Acting, composing and conducting new works at the age of 100: This is what is meant by forte!