12 November 2017

Frank Corsaro, 92, Groundbreaking American Opera Director who Made Theatrical Magic at New York City Opera, has Died

News Frank Corsaro lg 1117

FRANK CORSARO
New York City, December 22, 1924—Suwanee, GA, November 11, 2017  

AN EXPONENT OF THE ACTORS STUDIO who numbered the likes of Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward among his close friends, Frank Corsaro shaped the dramatic gifts of some of the great American singers of the last third of the twentieth century, including Catherine Malfitano, Samuel Ramey, Richard Stilwell, Beverly Sills and Norman Treigle. His long association with New York City Opera gave that company some of its most memorable productions, including Pelléas et MélisandeThe Makropulos CaseLa TraviataThe Cunning Little Vixen and Die Tote Stadt

As early as 1972, Donal Henahan, in The New York Times Magazine, stated that Corsaro had “for years been opera’s most controversial director.” What was considered controversial back then went on to be embraced as fresh and insightful. Corsaro’s decision to put Butterfly into western clothes after Act I was an idea that other directors picked up in many subsequent stagings. He transposed the setting of Carmen to the Spanish Civil War; Richard Eyre would do the same at the Met twenty-five years later. An early and enthusiastic adopter of multimedia techniques, Corsaro created stunning productions of Die Frau ohne Schatten for Lyric Opera of Chicago and Die Tote Stadt for New York City Opera, both in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Ronald Chase. 

Corsaro entered the world in a dramatic fashion: he was born in New York Harbor on a boat that was bringing his immigrant parents from Argentina. He grew up in Manhattan and the Bronx and attended City College and the Yale Drama School. His 1947 Yale production of Sartre’s No Exit moved to New York’s Cherry Lane Theater and helped launch the Off-Broadway movement. Beginning in 1950, Corsaro became a fixture of the Actors Studio, where he studied and directed workshops; he served as its artistic director from 1988 to 1995. 

Corsaro made his Broadway debut as an actor in 1951 in two small roles in The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Margaret Webster. More parts followed, as did his Broadway directing debut—a short-lived farce by Roald Dahl, The Honeys, starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. His second Broadway effort was more successful: the grim tale of a drug addict, A Hatful of Rain, starred Ben Gazzara, Shelley Winters and Anthony Franciosa. One of his least favorite Broadway tasks was directing an exceedingly temperamental Bette Davis in the premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Night of the Iguana. For his pains, he won the 1962 Drama Critics Circle Award. Among his other Broadway credits was the Houston Grand Opera production of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha

Julius Rudel brought Corsaro into the New York City Opera fold when he asked him to direct Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. The 1958 production was so well-received that it went on to be mounted at the World’s Fair in Brussels. It marked the first of more than forty productions and revivals that Corsaro would direct at NYCO over the next fifty years. Corsaro’s insight was brought to bear on repertory warhorses as well as new and rarely staged operas, and he consistently displayed a knack for getting truthful, compelling performances from his cast. He even taught a Saturday-morning class on acting for opera singers; all were welcome, and among its many grateful attendees were Stilwell, Malfitano and Frederica von Stade. In a 2006 OPERA NEWS interview, Stilwell remembered, “Corsaro had an amazing combination of musical knowledge and theatrical expertise, and it really opened my mind as to what opera could be—a special art form in which words, music and theatrical prowess contributed equally to create stirring drama. Our youth and enthusiasm were fed by these possibilities. We were challenged by his vision.”

The Met showed little interest in Corsaro; he made his only stop there in 1984, and he entered through the back door. The Met acquired the National Arts Centre of Canada’s production of Handel’s Rinaldo, and Corsaro was its director. During the well-received run of twenty-one performances, it was obvious that he was only there as part of the package, and that he would never be invited back. He wasn’t. 

In 1987, Corsaro joined the staff of Juilliard’s American Opera Center to teach acting; the following year he became artistic advisor/director in residence of the opera department. In 1992, he became artistic director. While at Juilliard, he wrote the libretto for Stephen Paulus’s Heloise and Abelard and staged its world premiere there. (He also wrote the libretto for Thomas Pasatieri’s Frau Margot and directed it at its Forth Worth Opera world premiere in 2007.) 

After twenty-one years at Juilliard, Corsaro spent the later part of his career teaching master classes in the U.S. and Europe. Juilliard awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2010; he had already received an NEA Opera Honors award the previous year. Corsaro was married three times; Andrew, his son by his last wife, mezzo Bonnie Lueders, was born in 1974. 

Too few of Corsaro’s productions were recorded for home video, although three of his collaborations with Maurice Sendak for Glyndebourne were—Where the Wild Things AreThe Love of Three Oranges and the Ravel double-bill of L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. His Houston Grand Opera production of Treemonisha is also available.

Corsaro’s sole acting credit on film was a key scene opposite Joanne Woodward in Paul Newman’s Rachel, Rachel (1968). He was the author of several books, including the suspense novel Kunma (St. Martin’s Press, 2003) and a memoir, Maverick (Vanguard, 1978).  —Eric Myers 



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