Corrections or additions?

This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the May 4, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

New Jersey Opera Theater Performs Verdi

by Elaine Strauss

After first watching conductor Michael Recchiuti run a master class

and, some weeks later, interviewing him by telephone, I would like to

see him take charge of as much as he can. His amalgam of charm and

intelligence is outstanding.

Furthermore, his candor is staggering. Worried that he may have said

something indiscreet, I ask whether he wants to see his exact words in

print. He assures me that all his remarks are on the record.

Recchiuti conducts a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s "Il

Trovatore" in Richardson Auditorium, on Friday, May 6. Principal

conductor of the New Jersey Opera Theater, his international

conducting career includes multiple gigs in Italy and stops in

Budapest and the Dominican Republic.

The "Trovatore" cast features singers with formidable performing

credentials. Recchiuti’s wife, soprano Elizabeth Blanke-Biggs,

(Metropolitan Opera and others) is Leonora. The two met in New York

City when they appeared in Bellini’s "Norma" at a small opera company.

Others in the cast include Allan Glassman (Metropolitan Opera and

others), Manrico; Peter Castaldi (Carnegie Hall and regional opera

companies), Conte di Luna; and Eugenie Grunewald (San Francisco Opera

and others), Azucena.

Pungently, Recchiuti compares the pluses and minuses of opera in

concert and opera fully staged. "As singers, conductors, and

musicians, we have lived through the tyranny of the stage director,"

he says. "Whereas some stage directors are clever and culturally

prepared, there are some who are not clever and culturally prepared,

who have political and social and sexual agendas and who filter the

work through this agenda. It is kind of fun to work without having to

worry about a stage director." On the other side, sensitive to the

benefits of staged opera, Recchiuti says, "Without the visuals of

costumes, scenery, and lighting, dramatic actions may not be set off

in such a bold way."

"In ‘Trovatore,’" he says, "we have international level singers, who

will be able to convey relationships even if they are in tails and

evening gowns, by using their communicative skills as highly-developed

performers. The costumes and makeup are the icing on the cake. Opera

is not just a clever display of voices with scenery. It’s about human

communication."

With tuneful passion, "Il Trovatore," ("The Troubador") communicates a

tale of gypsy vengeance and hidden identity in 15th century Spain.

Leonora, a lady-in-waiting, is in love with Manrico, a warrior

troubadour. Manrico is the supposed son of Azucena, a gypsy, whose

mother was burned at the stake for causing the childhood illness of

the Conte di Luna’s brother.

The Conte di Luna is in love with Leonora and challenges Manrico to a

duel. Believing that Manrico is dead, Leonora wants to enter a

convent. Manrico heads her off and the couple plans to be married.

Leonora and Manrico learn that di Luna’s guards have captured Azucena.

Attempting to save Azucena, Manrico is captured by di Luna.

Leonora tells di Luna that she will marry him if he frees Manrico.

Faithful to Manrico, Leonora secretly poisons herself. She dies in

Manrico’s arms. Di Luna executes Manrico as Azucena reveals that the

two men are brothers.

The orchestra of almost 60, which Recchiuti leads for the Richardson

"Trovatore," is the size that Verdi called for at La Scala and Rome in

the 1850s. Recchiuti conducted Mozart’s "Don Giovanni" using a single

piano during New Jersey Opera Theater’s sold-out inaugural summer

season in 2004. The Verdi work will be presented with a full

orchestra. Recchiuti is also slated to lead a full orchestra in a

fully-staged version of Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro," one of three

operas to be presented by NJOT in 2005.

Recchiuti says he is happy with his role as a conductor. He has no

interest in stage directing. "As a conductor I have enough control.

When I’m conducting I am a stage director. The conductor is the only

one who knows the whole opera. He is ultimately responsible for

interpreting what is in the score. I don’t know a single stage

director who can read a score or who speaks a foreign language."

"There must be a close working relationship between conductor and

stage director," he says. "I always make it work out. Ultimately, what

it says in the score is what you communicate. If stage directors are

going 180 degrees against the score, when I point it out, they tend to

come around."

Born in 1957 in Philadelphia, Recchiuti calls his family un-musical.

"It’s my own aberration," he says. His father, a butcher, had a

supermarket where the entire family worked. Recchiuti describes his

mother as a typical Ukrainian-Jewish mother. "My father would have

preferred that I have a real job," he says. "When I decided to pursue

music, they kept me on a tight string but they were supportive. I had

to work while I was in school. From the time I was 16 or 17 I was

getting paid to do music. I didn’t have to slice salami anymore.

That’s good if you’re a pianist."

Piano was Recchiuti’s first instrument. He started at age three but

says that he was not musically precocious. "There was a little old

lady music teacher who came to us." As a third grader Recchiuti began

studying cello in the Haverford, Pennsylvania, public school system.

He praises the chain of school orchestras with which he grew up in

Haverford and decries their rarity in today’s school systems.

"Society decided that children only needed to know computers, and that

there was no money for music," Recchiuti says. "The computer became

the Singer sewing machine of the 20th century. It became a way to make

a living. The chickens are coming home to roost. We are currently

culturally deprived. The New York Times hasn’t mentioned this yet."

"As a child, I was always interested in theater and music and

languages," Recchiuti says. He studied piano, cello, and orchestral

and choral conducting at the Philadelphia College of the Performing

Arts. He received a master of music degree in piano accompaniment from

the Manhattan School of Music.

Recchiuti attended the advanced conducting program of the Aspen

Institute in Aspen, Colorado, and returned as music director of

Aspen’s Vocal Institute.

Recchiuti is concerned about the neglect of non-major musical

performances in New York and calls the New York Times to account.

Noting that the newspaper calls its cultural component the "Arts and

Leisure section" he asks, "As a society that wants to pretend it has a

culture, what are we to make of that? How do we fit that into our

mentality?"

He is critical both of the New York Times’ thoroughness and its

evenhandedness in covering the musical scene. "The newspaper of record

no longer feels it necessary to list performances," he says. "The

classical coverage has devolved into pure publicist spin and toadying

to the major institutions. When an article appears in the New York

Times, it’s because some publicist with an agenda has gotten something

in. The Times was two and a half weeks late in reporting (Ricardo)

Muti’s conflict at La Scala. That’s not really covering the news."

Recchiuti relies on word of mouth within his international network of

friends to monitor musical events. Muti, music director of Milan’s La

Scala for 19 years, resigned in early April because of unsolvable

labor disputes.

Media coverage is only one deficiency in society’s treatment of the

arts today, Recchiuti believes. "The community and corporations have

got to support opera financially," he says. "People must understand

the moral imperative of supporting culture. The days of living in

garrets and supporting the entire culture from there are no longer

possible. The time of ‘La Boheme’ is over.

‘When two people go to the movies in America it can cost $20 and other

$20 for snacks," Recchiuti says. "It’s fascinating that here there’s

the idea that people are entitled to culture, but should pay for

entertainment. In Europe – in Italy, France, and Germany – government

subventions for the arts are getting smaller. The scene is changing

because the economics of these countries are becoming American. La

Scala and other European theaters are being privatized and becoming

foundations that need the same support from corporations that is

required in America. Europeans are not very good at providing that

support yet."

Therefore, Recchiuti believes, the United States might be able to take

the lead in the arts because it is used to finding corporate support.

However, he considers the highest profile American opera theaters

insufficiently American. "We should be the leaders," he says, "but

we’re slaves to European taste. We import singers. The onus of

advancing American opera falls on small regional companies. The

attitude is: We have to have what the Europeans have decided.

"Nobody is as prepared as an American singer or an American

conductor," Recchiuti says. "Our conservatory system is the best in

the world, but we abandon singers when they graduate. We tell American

singers to make a career in Europe and then come back.

"The training of young singers really begins after they graduate from

conservatories," Recchiuti says. "In their four years of conservatory

study they try to get their voice in order. Then they have to go into

the trenches. They have to learn roles, learn how to get along with

their colleagues, and learn how to survive in the business.

Conservatories are turning out thousands of people who will never have

careers."

With its extensive workshops, master classes, and showcases for

aspiring singers, NJOT is trying to remedy the situation. "There is no

full functioning, operatic situation in central New Jersey," Recchiuti

says. "I have the highest of hopes for New Jersey Opera Theater. It

will fall upon its shoulders to present young singers. Putting on

opera is an expensive hobby."

Il Trovatore, New Jersey Opera Theater, Friday, May 6, 7:30 p.m.

Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, 609-258-5858. $10 to $68.

Champagne reception with the artists at Prospect House follows the

concert. Benefit for the 2005 summer performances. Register at

609-799-7700. $25.


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