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Opera on Florida’s Gulf Coast: A Report

Coppola's Sacco and Vanzetti at Tampa Opera
Verdi's Oberto at Sarasota Opera

by Laurie Shulman © 2001

Ask most Americans what was the trial of the century - the twentieth century- and they’ll probably suggest O.J. Simpson’s in a knee-jerk reaction. For several generations preceding our own, however, the answer would have been the Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1926. Italian immigrants who lived outside Boston, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were apprehended after a double murder and theft at a shoe factory in April 1920. They were tried and convicted in June 1921, and executed by electric chair after numerous appeals on 22 August, 1927. The case created an international uproar, prompting accusations of prejudice against immigrants, persecution on the basis of political beliefs (both defendants were avowed anarchists), and a corrupt justice system. Modern scholars and researchers now believe that both men may have been innocent, and that Vanzetti certainly was.

The Italian-American conductor and composer Anton Coppola came of age in the 1920s. He remembers discussions after dinner among his parents and their friends, all Italian immigrants, discussing the case heatedly. The topic haunted him for years, and he finally set it to music as an opera last year. The world premiere performances took place 16-18 March at Opera Tampa; the composer conducted the Florida Orchestra. Matthew Lata directed.

Coppola’s opera Sacco and Vanzetti, which appears to have been a lifelong labor of love, consists of a prologue and two acts. The libretto is in two languages, or three if you count the Italian dialect of the title roles. The production employed supertitles for both English and Italian, and the bilingual approach lent a surprising and welcome element of realism to the production.

From the opening measures of the overture, Coppola showed himself to be a polystylist and an eclectic, of cultures, of musics and ideas. One hears allusions to popular Italian tunes such as “Carnival of Venice” in his music, but also references to Broadway in the 1920s, Tchaikovskyan heart-on-sleeve, and an occasional flirtation with screaming dissonance. (The executions toward the opera’s close were brutally effective in that regard.) Both music and staging emphasized a collage of violence and death, providing a subtle undertext that this was a way of life in the 1920s. Emile Fath as Vanzetti and Jeffery Springer as Sacco showed strength and sensitivity in their difficult and demanding roles, although Springer (who had been hospitalized for dehydration just days before opening night) sounded a bit pinched in his upper register.

Matthew Lata’s production made extensive use of newspaper banner headlines and ancient photographs of run-down neighborhoods. In the key crime scene sequence, he used footage from an Italian film made in the 1970s about the case; Coppola scored that scene for orchestra alone. One impressive first act scene employed an on-stage Italian banda, serving as a catalyst for both romantic plot development and an animated crowd sequence expressing solidarity among anarchists.

Coppola apparently came into his two-and-a-half week production cycle prepared to cut, but not to revise. Although he acknowledged he had shortened the score considerably, the opera, which had an 8:00 p.m. curtain, did not let out until 11:30 on opening night. It could stand more trimming, particularly a static scene among such Boston female literati as Katharine Anne Porter and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

The future of operas such as Sacco and Vanzetti is uncertain. Opera is expensive to produce, and opera topics derived from actual historical events demand a composer who can bring its human elements to life. “You have to make it soar lyrically, and find the moments to do it,” Coppola observed at a press conference in March. “Otherwise it becomes a dry history lesson.” His success in this opera was mixed, in large part because the dramatic thrust was waylaid by its length. Opera Tampa, however, did a splendid job in mounting the production and bringing Matthew Lata’s imaginative staging ideas to life. The Florida Orchestra played more than creditably in the pit with a new and unfamiliar score. Sacco and Vanzetti was an ambitious undertaking. This is clearly an opera company to watch.

Opera Tampa’s 2001/2002 season includes Die Fledermaus, Basically Bernstein (including Trouble in Tahiti and other concert performances), and Rigoletto. Call Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center at 813/222.1000 or

* * *

Sarasota, about an hour and a half drive south of Tampa, has an ambitious opera company of its own. This spring, the Sarasota Opera reached the halfway point in its presentation of all Verdi’s music undertaken in 1989. The 2001 offerings included the Requiem and productions of Falstaff and Oberto, conte di San Bonifacio. The latter, Verdi’s first opera, was too rare an opportunity to miss, rather like having the chance to see a production of Wagner’s Die Feen. First performed at La Scala in November 1839, Oberto is a tale of love, virtue, deception, and revenge, all familiar topics in Verdi (and indeed in opera). The plot has a father/daughter relationship that foreshadows those of Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra. Not surprisingly, the score has more than its share of oom-pah-pah accompaniment and some bland segments. Nevertheless, the seeds of genius are present. In the most impressive ensemble, a dramatic quartet, the music unfolds one vocal line at a time, rather than in polyphony, until each character has had his say. While this hardly approaches the mastery of the Rigoletto quartet, the gift is there.

The Sarasota troupe performs in a little jewel of a opera house, reconstructed from a 1926 Mediterranean revival theater and seating only 1033. Unfortunately, the singers did not capitalize on the potential for dramatic intimacy possible in such a space. For the most part they oversang, apparently too accustomed to giant opera houses and directors constantly telling them to project. As a result, Mariana Karpatova as Cuniza, Roy Cornelius Smith as Riccardo, Rosa Baker as his daughter Leonora (yes, another Leonora), and Halina Avery as Cuniza’s confidante Imelda, all pushed, strained, and occasionally bellowed, resulting in an unfortunate imbalance with Victor De Renzi and the Sarasota Opera Orchestra. The exception was Kevin Short in the title role. His warm, rich bass-baritone did much to redeem a vocally flawed performance.

Sarasota has a reputation for interesting, if traditional, stagings. Director Dale Morehouse (well known to Dallas audiences as Director of Opera at SMU), Scenic Designer John Farrell, and Costume Designer Howard Tsvi Kaplan delivered an opulent and visually appealing production that drew applause from the capacity audience every time the curtain rose on a new scene. In a work that is so unfamiliar, realistic, colorful and richly detailed stage sets are most welcome. With all the Eurotrash spareness and shadows we have seen in recent years, it was a pleasure to get acquainted with this unfamiliar opera, here garbed in a way that Verdi and his librettist, Temistocle Solera, would have recognized.

The Sarasota Opera’s 43rd Season in February and March 2002 includes Il trovatore in the 1857 French version (as Le Trouvère); Lucia di Lammermoor, Così fan tutte, Ariadne auf Naxos, and a special concert entitled An Evening of Verdi Choruses. Tel. 941/366.8450 or

Founded in 1992 by Virginia Richey Abdo and Dr. James T. Wheeler, the Wagner Society of Dallas has had an active presence in the musical life of Dallas since that time. As the WSD continues to grow and expand, it is having a wider and wider influence among musicians and performing arts institutions in North Texas, as well as with music lovers throughout the Metroplex area. The Wagner Society of Dallas is now creating a presence on the internet as a tool to promote the music of Richard Wagner, and classical music in general, to the widest possible audience. Through the medium of its own web page, regular meetings, participation in musical events in the Dallas area, and attendance at opera performances across the country and around the world, the Wagner Society of Dallas is becoming an important source of Wagner information on the World Wide Web.

For More Information Contact:

Wagner Society of Dallas
P.O. Box 25201
Dallas, TX 75225-0201
Web Address:

The Wagner Society of Dallas

PO Box 25201
Dallas, TX 75225-0201
(214) 363-6070

Virginia R. Abdo and
Dr. James T. Wheeler

email: WSD@

Digital Photos on this website, unless otherwise noted,
copyright Edward P. Flaspoehler, JR

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Many Wagner Society of Dallas members fondly remember Sheila Jones Harms, who was an active member of the organization, and who presented many interesting programs and recitals over the years.

Now, WSD member Ed Flaspoehler has completed his biography of Sheila, called The Cold War Soprano: Memoirs of a Singer-Spy.

If you are interested in opera and fine singing, Sheila's biography will surely be of interest to you. Not only will you get an inside glimpse of what it takes to become an opera singer, and learn about the world of opera in Post- WWII Vienna, but, because Sheila and her husband Werner, were also CIA agents, you will get a look at the Cold War from a personal point of view.

You can get a copy of Ed's book on the internet at

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