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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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