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From the Inside Out

One of opera’s all-time great stage directors, TITO CAPOBIANCO, is still passionate about the art form. by James Kuslan. 

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Tito Capobianco has spent his career pushing opera singers to delve deeper.
Brian Cohen, www.briancohenphotography.com
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At New York City Opera, 1971, during a Carmen dress rehearsal
© Beth Bergman

“I DON'T BELIEVE YOU!”  

The singer who hears stage director Tito Capobianco’s voice-of-God baritone utter those words in rehearsal is being diagnosed, not damned. Capo-bianco provokes his casts to plumb their characters’ hearts by looking deep into their own. Capobianco’s oath to put truth onstage means he takes responsibility for everything but an opera’s musical preparation and execution. Acting, movement, costumes, makeup, sets and lighting testify to his understanding of a work’s meaning. “God gave me intuition,” he says, but then, “You analyze.” 

Capobianco models how a director can scorn convention while still respecting the intentions of composer and librettist. One of New York City Opera’s most innovative directors during its glory days in the ’60s and ’70s, Capobianco, at eighty-four, now prefers teaching master classes and mounting opera productions at conservatories to the pressures of guest engagements in the world’s major houses, where he once “made magic.” Lamentably, few of his productions are preserved on tape.

As a youth, while attending a seminary in his native Argentina to become a Brother of Mary, Capobianco took to heart the imperative of Socrates: “to go inside where the answers already are.” Turning the inside outside is fundamental to his method. Ideally, he says, “Opera is a transformative experience. But you have to metabolize [an opera] before approaching it. Plastered on, it’s fake.”

Capobianco’s opinions bear the authority of decades of leadership (he helmed San Diego and Pittsburgh Operas, as well as other institutions), and his insights spring from experience, not theory. He sang opera, acted in movies and plays and directed in spoken theater, studied ballet, mastered the techniques and technologies of stagecraft. Unlike many directors, he can read an orchestral score.

Surprisingly, it was not its theatrical possibilities that drew Capobianco to opera. “Behind everything is my passion for the human voice. I cannot resist it. This is what motivated me,” he says. Though mad for voice, Capobianco never gave a star permission to “phone in” a performance. Capobianco says that his authoritarian manner in rehearsals is a projection of strength designed to make singers feel safe. “Understand their insecurity. Singers are preoccupied with the technique of singing. They are onstage because they love to sing, not to act. We have to convince them the acting is important. You have to prove that by listening to you, they are better.

“A singer is a problem to be solved,” says the ever-provocative Capobianco. His solution includes discovering where a singer’s psyche intersects with the character by scanting no aspect of a character’s action, music or words. Raised bilingual in Spanish and Italian and possessing a good command of French, Capobianco insists that every word from his singers be persuasive. A singer who commands a composer’s vocal line but not “the feeling that is uniquely the language’s, forget it. I wouldn’t direct a Goldoni play in English early in my career in this country, because I didn’t grasp the language sufficiently.”

How does Capobianco connect singer to text and elicit boldness and nuance? He customizes his approach, with empathy that stems from his own training as an actor. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger is a favorite of Capobianco’s from Pittsinger’s student days at the Yale School of Music, where the director taught while serving as general director of Pittsburgh Opera. An esteemed Don Giovanni, Pittsinger was alarmed during a rehearsal when Capobianco stopped him midway through “Deh, vieni alla finestra.” Capobianco objected that the singing was so beautiful that Giovanni’s pathological need for continual conquest was not coming across. Capobianco directed Pittsinger to lie on a bench and serenade Donna Elvira’s maid with his eyes closed. Forbidden to move—except to lift his head to glance at the window for the appearance of his prey—Pitt-singer discovered the aria to be a communion with the vulnerability and rage that Giovanni’s hubris camouflages, as much as an overt seduction. What Pittsinger uncovered moved Capobianco so deeply that the director left the room.

“Show me your weakness,” says Capobianco. “Then we can control.” To singers who fret that self-exposure will render them ridiculous, Capobianco proffers sly comfort. “I will stop you if you are bad.” 

Capobianco especially rejoices when a singer is ready to build a familiar role from the ground up. He praises Mary Costa for “always [wanting] to do something new.” He scorns inflexible singers as tonto (Spanish for stupid), but he understands that resistance to a novel approach can stem from fear rather than incomprehension. His first encounter with Beverly Sills, at Cincinnati Opera in 1965, was a debacle. Singing all four heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Sills, unnerved by Capobianco’s emphasis on movement, quit during the first rehearsal. Capobianco’s late wife, Gigi, a ballet dancer in their native Argentina, saved the day. Professionally known as choreographer Elena Denda, she frequently collaborated with Capobianco, who adored her as his wife and the mother of their two sons and as his devil’s advocate. Working in private, Denda persuaded Sills she could realize Capobianco’s vision. With Norman Treigle as the villains in a production emphasizing, in Capobianco’s words, Hoffmann’s “macabre fantasy, extremely cruel and, at the same time, romantic,” the opera was a smash. Sills talked City Opera into importing the production. The New York Times in October 1965 raved about it, and Capobianco’s tenure at City Opera remained unbroken through 1980. 

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Beverly Sills in Capobianco’s Giulio Cesare staging, 1969
© Beth Bergman
 

Some of Capobianco’s greatest triumphs at City Opera—such as the Donizetti Tudor trilogy—starred Sills, who was, he asserts, a house soprano of no particular fame until the sensational Hoffmann. Capobianco’s legendary Giulio Cesare was Sills’s investiture as prima donna assoluta of City Opera in 1966, when the Baroque style of the Handel work, never staged in New York, dazzled the audience with its novelty. “A stage director must trust the music, or he has shot himself,” Capobianco says. He grasped that the artifice of Handel’s idiom required movement to mirror it. From the moment Treigle, as Caesar, bowed to the audience before acknowledging Sills’s Cleopatra, Capobianco’s inspired, high-style approach won over the public. 

Ideally, acting and interpretation are so inextricable, he says, that “the public does not know whether it is watching acting or hearing singing but is just aware of beauty. Sometimes you act against the music to make a point, but it cannot be capricious.” Capobianco commissioned Broadway’s Jack Cole to choreograph a dreamy ballet to juxtapose with a cacophonous orchestral passage in Ginastera’s Bomarzo. “Close your eyes, you hear the music one way. Open your eyes, you hear differently. The dance altered people’s perception of the music.” Generally, movement must harmonize with the music. In verismo, a genre he summarizes as “act first, think later,” Cesare’s balletic stateliness would be absurd.

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Capobianco’s wife, Elena Denda, in 1968
© Beth Bergman
 

Discussion of Cesare elicits a story about Joan Sutherland as Cleopatra. The occasion was Capobianco’s 1969 Hamburg State Opera debut. Never having worked with Sutherland, and petrified, Capobianco canceled their first rehearsal. When faced with the exacting movement Capobianco devised for her, Sutherland announced to her husband, Richard Bonynge—the conductor for that production, who was observing a stage rehearsal—“Ricky. I can’t do this.” Bonynge glanced up from crocheting. “Do what he says. You never looked more beautiful.” The triumphant opening night was followed by friendship and further collaboration. Capobianco resents criticism leveled at Sutherland. “She wanted to act but had many physical problems. It frustrated her that she couldn’t do more.”

Capobianco persuaded one mobility-averse diva to move by lighting only the spot where he wanted her. “But remember,” he says, “movement does not mean acting.” He strides his living room, gesticulating like a scarecrow in a tornado. “In Italy, we call such types passeggiatori [strollers]!”

Stage-designers work from his concept—“I have never said, just bring me a set!”—after he has imagined himself performing on it. “A word is attached to an image. Take Faust. His first word is ‘Rien!’ ‘Nothing!’ You have to see Faust’s desolation in that set.” Like Wieland Wagner—to whom he was apprenticed in 1957–58, and whom Capobianco calls “the greatest innovator I ever saw”—Capobianco prefers to work out every staging problem before the first rehearsal. Every aspect of Capobianco’s stagecraft elucidates the characters. Projections for the Venice act of Hoffmann, suggesting that the action takes place underwater, emphasized Hoffmann’s figurative drowning in Giulietta’s predatory sexuality. Treigle, as Boïto’s Mefistofele—the fallen angel, beautiful when he was God’s favorite—was made to look hideous, costume and visage telegraphing his regret. Baritone Sherrill Milnes extols Capobianco’s attention to detail, explaining how an audience can miss a crucial moment if it’s improperly framed. “After Boccanegra sips the poisoned water that kills him,” says Milnes, “he sings that his burdens make even water bitter. Tito said, ‘Keep sipping.’ No one could miss this was a poisoning.” 

Capobianco is no fan of most Regietheater, which he finds at willful odds with text and music. “Two elements are necessary for directing opera—knowing and loving,” he says. “Do something new—but keep the essence. Opera is already irrational! You can’t ignore the text in the straight theater—why is it permissible in opera? It’s baloney that we are getting new audiences with Regietheater. Why compete with Cirque du Soleil when we have voices?” 

Asked about opera’s future, Capobianco is pensive. “I don’t want to sound apocalyptic,” says this living bridge to the inspirations of the past. “There is a line. Change is a sign of progress, normally—but people who forget the past endanger the future. When something is classic, it never gets old.” spacer 

James Kuslan lectures on opera as theater. He has freelanced for Deutsche Grammophon and the London and Philips labels. 

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