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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

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.


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