Composer and Conductor Anton Coppola at 100: Fortissimo

Tuesday, March 21, 2017 - 12:00 AM

Anton Coppola and his wife Almerinda. Anton Coppola and his wife Almerinda. (Fred Plotkin)

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!

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Comments [9]

Fred Plotkin from New York

Readers: thanks for your response to this article about Maestro Coppola. He is indeed a special individual and it is appropriate that he is doing his big concert on the 150th anniversary of Toscanini's birth. And, Les from Miami, look for a Toscanini article on the big day.

Mar. 24 2017 07:41 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Many thanks for this illuminating post about a great musician and his family whose biography deserves to be read by a world-wide music-loving audience that this website provides. His knowledge and authentiticy are in short supply nowadays, I think. I also feel doubly grateful not only for this article but for the comments from one and all including those who know and have worked with the Maestro. If only the concert on 25 March (Toscanini's birthday)could be recorded for posterity! Before now, I only knew that Eduardo Petri was the boys' chorus conductor for Toscanini's concert broadcast of "Otello" in 1947 with Ramon Vinay in the title role. Now I know more. And about Gennaro Papi, who I believe always conducted from memory... correct me if I'm wrong...there's a CD of his conducting a 1934 Metropolitan Opera matine'e of "I Pagliacci" with Giovanni Martinelli as Canio and Lawrence Tibbett as Tonio that documents the art of all.

Mar. 24 2017 10:53 AM
Linda Granitto from Brooklyn

My father taught at Manhattan School of Music for many years--Italian, French, and Diction for Singers. We attended an opera performance at the school one evening in the early 1960s, when I was about 6 years old. Of course we went to see Maestro Coppola afterwards, where he reveled in the enthusiasm of well-wishers. I don't remember the opera, but will never forget that he gave me a generous glass of cognac!!! How wonderful to read this!

Mar. 22 2017 06:44 PM
Edward Alley from Sarasota,FL

Excellent article, Fred! During WW2, Coppola was assigned to a tiny (likely less than 20 member) Army Air Corps band in the small, dusty ranch town of San Angelo,Texas, my home town. Being only 9 or 10 at the time, I didn't know him, but a few years ago when he was conducting for Renee Fleming in a Tampa Opera concert, at the reception I introduced myself and said, "I have three words for you...San Angelo, Texas." He quickly replied, "Good God! You could have said ANYTHING but that!" Then we had a good laugh. A good man and a great conductor. Viva maestro!

Mar. 22 2017 01:07 PM
Hernan Garreffa from Naples, Italy

Thank you very much for the interview Mr. Plotkin!, I remember very well Maestro Anton Coppola. When I was Principal Oboe at "La Verdi Orchestra" (Milano, Italy) many years ago, Maestro Coppola conducted us. We did a recording together with Mrs Angela Gheorghiu. We recorded a cd "Puccini", I have beautiful memories from him, excellent conductor, incredible person also! I wish Maestro Coppola years of happiness, plenty of beautiful music and love!
Hernan Garreffa
Principal Oboe Reale Teatro San Carlo di Napoli
Naples, Italy

Mar. 22 2017 03:31 AM
Dr. Thomas Parente from Westminster Choir College of Rider University

Maestro Coppola was my conducting teacher at the `Manhattan School of Music during the middle 70s. If memory serves me correctly he had assigned us to learn the well know choral piece "Alleluia" by Randall Thompson. He had dictated every gesture, They were so intricate that no one in the class could fully master them. Maestro Coppola (To this day I cannot imagine calling him anything but "Maestro") was unsparing in his criticism of each student which resulted in tears with several of the students. He was a task master and it had to be perfect - no possibility of the slightest compromise. Every gesture had to be there including the "strappare" which was a whip like gesture!. When my turn came I was terrified. Fortunately, the class ended at that moment. Spared! So I practiced in front of a mirror for hours and hours until every gesture including my "strappare" was impeccable - or so I hoped. The next class started with me. By then I could do it in my sleep. So I conducted with everything I had. When I finished he paced and paced with his hands clasped in the Italian manner behind his back at the back with his hands clasped behind his back of the room where enormous poster of him conducting hung reminding us of his formidableness. Terror reigned in my heart while I watched the master search for the words that would strike me down for my feeble effort. Complete silence ensued as the class awaited my verdict. After what seemed like an eternity he finally uttered sotto voce only two words - "it's perfect". That was it! Well I couldn't believe it. I almost feinted with relief and joy. What a class - what a maestro. To this day whenever I get the opportunity to conduct I ask myself - how would the maestro react and then redouble my effort. Gracie tanto per tutto, Maestro Coppola!

Mar. 21 2017 09:15 PM

I had the great pleasure of working with Maestro Coppola only once, a hastily put-together Traviata in Dayton about 37 years ago! Cast included John Anderson, Dom Cossa and the legendary Roberta Peters. I remember him as a man of great energy and charm. And humor!!! The performances were stellar. Toi, toi, toi on March 25 and forever. Happy birthday Anton, and thanks for a memory I have shared many times over the years!

Mar. 21 2017 09:18 AM
Vivienne DeStefano from Brooklyn, NY

Incredible Fred! Such a beautifully written biography of Maestro Coppola. They are truly a gifted family, but I had no idea that uncle Anton was so accomplished. Thank you for shining a loving spotlight (as only you can) on this remarkable centenarian.

Mar. 21 2017 07:58 AM
Concetta Nardone from Nassau

Wow. What a history.
Thanks Fred.

Mar. 21 2017 07:54 AM

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