The man who calls himself "the Grandpa Moses of opera directors" jumps onstage, grabs a sword and brandishes it high above his head with victorious finality.

"Like that," says Frank Corsaro to warrior mezzo-soprano (Della Jones), rehearsing a scene from Handel's "Alcina," which opens tonight at 7 at the Wiltern Theater as the fourth Music Center Opera production in this inaugural season.

"Cap the moment. Show the murderer's triumph. We want real excitement," he exclaims. But in the course of an hour, neither this bit of business nor anything else suggests the maverick status the 62-year-old director has sustained for nearly two decades.

Corsaro, after all, is the mastermind of a "Boheme" whose toy vender sells dirty postcards (at Hunter College in the 1960s), a "Rigoletto" that converts the Duke's court into a place of debauchery, a "Butterfly" showing Pinkerton and his naval cohorts as drunken revelers, and a "Faust" that brings Marguerite to a gallows ending rather than her redemptive apotheosis.

Now, of course, he must share the critical slings and arrows--as well as the kudos--with such operatic rethinkers as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, Peter Sellars and Jonathan Miller. To some extent, it was Corsaro who ushered in this era of the director and that he led the American crusade against opera as stand-and-sing costume parties.

"'What always motivated me," says the Italian-American who learned to read music as a Catholic choirboy in the Bronx, "was finding the realism that surely lurks behind (opera's) cardboard characters. Yes, they sing. But that's not enough. There's no point in staging a vocal circus and bypassing physical drama. Our imaginations should be visually fueled, not left with a code of rituals." He has been criticized, however, for distorting musical values.

Today, Corsaro explains, the paths have been cleared for more daring, inventive production concepts and, even with objections from certain quarters, directors generally take a freer hand. But he still finds himself facing problems, different ones.

Trying to work in "a system that confuses big business with the performing arts" is what he names as the biggest stumbling block.

"Basically," says Corsaro, "there are two kinds of opera--the pre-packaged, pop-up, all-star variety that accomodates the 'how-late-can-I-arrive-for-rehearsals?' personalities, and the less celebrated, better prepared and thought-out efforts that take the art form seriously.

"I avoid the first kind as much as possible. There's little satisfaction in becoming an industry. By that I mean a director associated with, say, the latest, starry Salzburg extravaganza and all the accompanying royal pomp."

Instead, Corsaro works at Glyndebourne, where he has casting options that do not preclude unknown singers. He recently staged Prokofiev's "The Love for Three Oranges" there and next is set to do Ravel's pair of one-acters, "L'Heure Espagnole" and "L'Enfant et les Sortileges."

The Corsaro "Alcina" opening tonight is essentially the same production he did two years ago in London at Spitalfield's Church.

"That wonderful ancient church was in the middle of a market," says Corsaro, with hands describing the teeming area, "and it approached (being) a theater in the round. To transport the whole thing here involves lots of strategic changes. But happily there are no serious compromises.

"We still have what I consider essential--human-scaled music drama that depicts the madness of these lovers (Alcina and Ruggiero), all their excesses, in a context of erotic interplay. Alcina is obsessed with her power and her role as seductress. She's narcissistic, self-serving, full of ambivalence and just like some high-placed types you see today.

"I get the feeling that Mozart knew this opera well. It seems like the black, vengeful side of 'Cosi fan Tutte.' What I've tried to create for it is a fusion of high stylization and psychological truth."

After "Alcina," Corsaro will return to Music Center Opera for "Cenerentola" next season and the double bill of "Cavalleria Rusticana" and "Pagliacci" with Placido Domingo the following year. But he vows not to join "the instant opera" crowd.

"Because Domingo puts this company's welfare high on his list," the director explains, "he promises to be here for a substantial rehearsal period for 'Cav/Pag.' So we will finally get to work together. Sometimes it's possible to break bad habits."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World