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This article by Elaine Strauss was prepared for the February 22, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Creating a Semi-Staged Version of `Falstaff’
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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