Opera director Michael Scarola likes challenges and New Jersey Opera Theater is supplying him with them. Shepherding a semi-staged version of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” on Sunday, February 26, in Richardson Auditorium, Scarola confronts several difficulties. With both orchestra and soloists onstage, the vocalists are crowded into a small piece of real estate for their performance. Scarola must conjure up drama in that very limited space, and with only hints of props and costumes. He doesn’t mind, however. “The limitations force me to be more creative,” he says in a telephone interview from his home in New York City. “I like to work in unusual spaces, and under unusual circumstances. I enjoy the intimacy of Richardson, as opposed to a large stage.”
“There are different levels of semi-staged performances,” Scarola says. “For the Opera Theater version of ‘Falstaff’ there will be some props, like a big table, and there will be a semblance of costumes with hats, veils, and masks, to help tell the story. This won’t be concert opera; there will be no sheet music and no music stands.
“Instead of a straight concert performance, there will be visual interest and movement. We’ll have entrances and exits. Last summer I did the next level up from a semi-staged opera. It was Dvorak’s ‘Rusalka,’ and we had a six-foot pool of water on stage.
“I want ‘Falstaff’ to be as true to a staged opera as it can be. My main job is to set up character relationships. That’s the basic legwork: how people act and react to each other. But don’t be surprised if the orchestra is involved in the production in some way. If someone is on stage with us, they’re going to get involved whether they want to or not.”
The NJOT performance is Scarola’s first ‘Falstaff,’ although his repertoire of more than six dozen operas ranges from “Acis and Galatea” to “Zauberflote.” “It’s such a masterpiece; there are so many ways to do it,” he says.
Verdi’s “Falstaff’ is based on Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Intending to seduce Alice Ford and Meg Page, two married women, Falstaff sends them identical letters. Having compared Falstaff’s messages, the women decide to teach him a lesson, and also to punish Alice’s husband for his jealousy. The disguised Falstaff endures double indignities. Hidden in a laundry basket, he is dumped in the Thames; made to wear a ludicrous stag headdress, he is lured to Windsor Forest and taunted by the populace. In the end, all is forgiven.
After the challenge of mounting a semi-staged “Falstaff” Scarola will face another: during NJOT’s upcoming summer season Scarola will tackle the problem of making a coherent show from two seemingly disparate fully-staged one-act operas — Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” written in 1918, and Michael Ching’s “Buoso’s Ghost,” which is 80 years its junior.
In “Gianni Schicchi,” the first of NJOT’s two summer productions, Buoso has died and his heirs are unhappy with his will. They engage Gianni Schicchi to impersonate the late Buoso and write a new will. “Buoso’s Ghost,” the sequel to “Schicchi,” is the work of Michael Ching, head of Memphis Opera. Says Scarola: “It picks up where ‘Gianni Schicchi’ ends. Its twists and turns affect how I direct ‘Gianni Schicchi.’ I treat the two one-acters as one opera in two acts.” (The NJOT summer seasons begins Friday, July 7, with “Cosi fan Tutte”; “Schiichi” and “Buoso’s Ghost” are scheduled for July 15, 21, and 23.)
All three of the works Scarola directs for NJOT are comedies. “Comedy is more difficult than tragedy,” he says. “What makes comedy so hard is knowing where to draw the line. If you step over the line, you must step over it dramatically, but gingerly. I’ll probably go over the line in ‘Falstaff,’ and it will be intentional. In a less than fully staged version of an opera, it’s especially difficult to know when to push the singers to do physical things.”
Scarola attributes his mastery of comedy to the movies. “I’m a huge silent film fan,” he says. “And I like Warner Brothers cartoons. I’ve learned so much from watching them: timing, and the way to communicate without saying a word. Everything I’ve needed to learn about comedy I got from Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Bugs Bunny.” Incredulous, I ask, “And this is going to show up in Falstaff?” Scarola replies, “You’d be surprised.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1958, Scarola grew up on Long Island and in Manhattan. His father, who died recently, owned an Italian restaurant started by Scarola’s grandfather. Five of Scarola’s seven uncles were involved in the enterprise. “My mom was an opera singer and had just been accepted into the Metropolitan Opera’s National Company when she became pregnant with me,” he says. “It was an Italian household and you either had a career or a family.” Scarola’s mother opted for family but continued her vocal studies and sang semi-professionally. The musical tradition continued in the family; Scarola’s younger sister plays several instruments.
“From the time I was born, I was surrounded by opera,” Scarola says. “I went with my mother to her lessons.” Scarola’s operatic bent showed itself early. “My mom was studying the Queen of the Night role when I was three, and she put me down for a nap,” he says. “Suddenly, she heard the overture from ‘The Magic Flute’ coming from my bedroom. She found me sitting up in bed listening to a recording, following along with a score of ‘The Magic Flute.’ I remember this. I taught myself to read music.
“Two years later, I made my parents take me to the Brooklyn Public Library,” Scarola says. “I was too young to take out recordings and scores. I would choose a recording and a score, and they would borrow them for me. I could take out stories of operas from the children’s department. For two weeks I would immerse myself in that opera. By eight, I had gone through the standard repertoire.” Scarola supplemented his library sources for opera with listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.
“At eight, I discovered Wagner,” he says. “Since then I’ve been obsessed with Wagner, especially ‘The Ring.’ I own over 130 Ring performances — LPs, CDs, videos, and DVDs. I’ve been collecting them since I was 11. Ultimately, I want to direct Wagner. It’s almost impossible to do Wagner at the regional companies that I normally work with; it’s too costly. Wagner requires a bigger orchestra, more rehearsal time, and a level of singer more expensive than other operas. I’m fortunate to be working now with companies that might be able to afford him.”
Scarola started studying piano at age five. “I set it aside when I discovered that I loved singing,” he says. “Singing became an overwhelming passion for me when I was in my teens. In high school, I sang in the chorus and the choir. I was a tenor and had the high notes.” He began taking voice lessons at age 17 during the year he spent at New York’s Mannes College of Music.
At about the same time he persuaded his father to let him start an opera company in the family restaurant. “Scarola’s Opera Dinner Theater” was how he billed it. “We started with highlights, and eventually gave performances of five or six completely staged operas a year,” he says. “You couldn’t get in if you didn’t have a reservation. My mom performed.”
After a year at Mannes, Scarola transferred to Queens College. He never graduated. “I was starting to perform, and I left with one more semester to go. It was one of the few things I never finished. The common reaction of people who heard about it was to say, ‘You’re never going to be able teach in college.’ But I didn’t want to. Now I’m doing master classes and private coaching at colleges. Originally I never saw myself as a teacher or mentor; now I can’t get enough of it.”
While Scarola is enthusiastic about teaching vocal performance, he does not believe that directing can be taught. “I learned everything about how to direct from great directors I worked with. I don’t think you can learn how to direct sitting in classroom. It’s not like learning to be a set designer or a lighting designer.” As an assistant director at the Metropolitan Opera for five seasons, Scarola worked on a diverse repertory of memorable operas, including telecasts. He is now in his fourth season as an assistant director at the New York City Opera.
He made his professional directing debut with the Sarasota Opera in 1996. In 1998 he was invited to join the staff of Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York. His most recent appointment was to the post of visiting director of opera at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.
One of Scarola’s guiding criteria as a director is seeing that singers are comfortable. “I’ll meet the cast for ‘Falstaff’ next week, and find out everybody’s comfort level,” he says during our conversation. “Ultimately, you have to see that the cast is comfortable.
“I’m proud of the reputation I have in the business as a singer’s director,” Scarola says. “I like to think that I run a democratic operation. There must be a collaboration between myself and the singers. The singers create the characters. They must be part of the process. If the singers believe in what they’re doing, the audience believes it. If the audience believes it, I look good as a director. My mom was an opera singer. I pursued the career myself. I have a great respect for singers. They’re naked. They’ve got to bare their souls to audience. If they’re comfortable, I’ve done my job.”
Falstaff, Sunday, February 26, 2 p.m., New Jersey Opera Theater, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Verdi’s opera semi-staged in concert with supertitles. $40 to $68; $20 seniors and students. Meet the artist reception, $25. 609-258-2787.