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Conductor Caught in City Opera’s Changing of Guard

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Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” is an opera about passing the mantle of authority from one generation to the next.

Ironically, Sergiu Comissiona, who will conduct the New York City Opera production of the work tonight and Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, is himself a casualty of just such a changing of the guard at the New York-based company.

Brought in to serve as music director by general director Beverly Sills in 1987, Comissiona turned in his resignation following last year’s announcement that his boss--Sills--was resigning Jan. 1.

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But there is a further turn of the screw.

Comissiona had originally replaced conductor Christopher Keene, who was fired, insiders said, because he did not get along with Sills. (Both Sills and Keene have recently denied that, however.)

And who is taking over Sills’ job? Christopher Keene, whose tenure as general director of City Opera will begin March 15.

Comissiona agreed that his and Sills’ departures were “not separate” events.

If Sills had stayed, “I would have stayed,” the 60-year-old Romanian conductor said in a recent interview from New York.

“This is very normal in any change in administration,” he said, but he immediately added that the brevity of the tenure was not normal in his life.

“It was very short, the shortest of my life,” he said, reeling off a personal history that includes 7 years as music director of the Haifa Symphony in Israel, 9 with the Goteborg Symphony in Sweden, 17 years at the Baltimore Symphony, 9 years with the Houston Symphony and 10 years in Holland with the Stockholm Philharmonic. (He held some of those posts concurrently.)

“Obviously,” he said, “this was not a full chapter.”

Comissiona was brought in to upgrade the company’s orchestra, which had been considered a weak link in its productions. (City Opera will appear with its own orchestra in Orange County, plus a few local free-lance musicians.)

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“I can’t say my plans have been realized. That would be impossible in 2 years,” he said.

But he does believe that “standards of orchestral performance (are) definitely up. They have improved in the matter of rehearsals, matter of productions, styles, cycles, repertory, and I have paved a way for continuation of these standards.

“I got wonderful cooperation from the City (Opera) orchestra, chorus and soloists. And I enjoyed very much the fact I continue to conduct here.

“I am satisfied. I’m never happy.”

Yet Comissiona is the soul of courtesy about what still needs to be done at City Opera. “It is not fair to my successor to say what was unfulfilled and what I did not have time to fulfill,” he said. “There are a lot of hopes that I did not fulfill, but I have nothing to add. I will leave it to the new administration, which is extremely imaginative.”

Comissiona said his relationship with City Opera has not been severed, however. He will conduct about 38 performances next season, including new productions of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Schoenberg’s “Moses und Aron” and a double bill of two works by Ravel--”L’Enfant et les sortileges” and “L’heure espagnole.”

“I’m hoping my City Opera (relationship) will continue in 1990,” he said, adding that he is also talking to other companies.

Comissiona said working with stage director Lotfi Mansouri on “Zauberflote” is a team effort.

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“He is so musical and has so much understanding and imagination that his requirements have been minimal,” he said. “I think it was a two-way cooperation with this production. . . . He inspired me in many moments in his decisions. I hope my conducting gave him some insights into the music. As with a good soloist, you always find ways to make two-way communication.”

In Mansouri’s staging, “Sarastro is a double figure: a father figure and a godfather figure at the same time,” he said.

“All the magic--the Zauber --comes from the gods, but I think Sarastro is a human too, and his guidance is something like (that of) a good granddaddy.”

At first, Comissiona had misgivings about using supertitles for the production: “I was a little snobbish before and felt they would be distracting. There is always a little laugh when you address this famous line, ‘ A woman cannot be trusted .’ But I prefer always to do an opera in the original language--which is a plus--and I don’t think the public is disturbed by a translation. Their participation and attention is much more acute.”

After Orange County, Comissiona will fly to Rome. Later plans include assignments in Baltimore, Sydney, Australia and Madrid. He plans to return to the county to close the Pacific Symphony’s 11th season on May 23 and 24, 1990.

He will become music director of the Helsinki Philharmonic in Finland in 1990.

“I enjoy much of the travel,” he said. “Meeting new people and orchestras, it’s a challenge.”

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At the same time, he knows his limits and, for instance, expressed no grand illusions about making his mark as a composer.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “I think I am a good conductor, but a lousy composer.”

Sergiu Comissiona will conduct New York City Opera’s production of Mozart’s “Die Zauberflote” at 8 p.m. today and Friday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, in Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $52. Information: (714) 556-2787.

ADDED INTELLIGENCE: The perennially youthful musicologist and self-described “failed Wunderkind” Nicolas Slonimsky, 94, will give a talk and demonstration at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Fine Arts Gallery on the UC Irvine Campus. Admission is free, but seating is limited. As usual with the impish Slonimsky, expect the unexpected.

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