This interview was held in December of 1988, and published in The Opera Journal two years later.  It has been slightly re-edited, and the photos and links (which refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website) have been added for this website presentation.

Conversation  Piece:
Director  Frank  Corsaro

By Bruce Duffie


One of the major figures in American stage-direction these days is Frank Corsaro.  A native New Yorker, he graduated from the Drama School of Yale University, and has directed plays, musicals, and operas across the United States.  He appeared on Broadway with Helen Hayes, an in a film with Paul Newman.  Always an innovator, Corsaro has breathed new life into many works, and continues to make audiences think about the production before them. 

It was in Chicago a couple of seasons ago that Corsaro took time before the premiere of Oliver Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are to chat with me about his ideas, both general and specific.  Unassuming and rather down-to-earth, he never lets you forget that he has ideas and directions, and is willing to stick his neck out when he thinks it will make those concepts clearer to both performer and audience. 

To celebrate his sixty-fifth birthday, I am pleased to share with members of the national Opera Association the hour we spent together.  While setting up for the conversation, he asked me about working at the radio station
WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.   We had moved ahead of the other classical station in the ratings, and I commented that we were quite proud of what we had accomplished.  We pick up the thread right there . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Are you proud of what you do?

Frank Corsaro:   Not all the time.  You don’t usually have the kind of circumstances that are propitious in many instances.  It’s very difficult to put things together.

BD:   So how do you overcome the difficulties of circumstance or cast?

FC:   You make do with what you have, of course, or make whatever changes are necessary if you have the time.  Otherwise, you suffer through it, and hope the next will be better.  I’m curtailing a lot of my activity now because I’m the artistic director of The Actors Studio.  That’s an old acquaintance of mine, and also I’ll be involved in heading the American Opera Center at Juilliard.  So, I’ll be able to do with young people the kind of work that I’d love to do anywhere, but time and circumstances don’t allow.  I’ll do some work outside, but these two ventures will provide a nice amalgam for me.  I’m grateful that I don’t have to be the Willie Loman of opera
pick up my bag and schlep to the next town!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of opera?

FC:   That’s very difficult to say.  I’m very concerned that in most of the major opera houses in this country we seem to need confirmation from Europe.  We still are very much concerned about an image that can only be given to us by foreign involvement.  The constant bringing-in of foreign singers who, most of the time
at least at the Metropolitan Opera if you read the papersare way under par.  This is against American singers who are on the rise, and are quite wonderful, and will hopefully simply overcome the opposition.  I include directors in this.  Foreign directors are given preference over Americans who need the opportunity.  The general atmosphere is that European singers, directors, and conductors know better than we what we’re about, and that they have the style.  I don’t believe all that for one minute.

BD:   Then let’s cut through all of this.  Who are we, and what is opera about?

FC:   It’s a combination of declension, and the time in which the director has come forward in interesting ways.  There are many new and unusual approaches to music from conductors, so my feeling is that as the new begins to wash away the old remains, America may finally accept that it has a lot to say
if not more to say than they realizeabout the best.  They will stop turning rocks over in the depths of Europe, searching for people with longer names.

corsaro BD:   Is there ever a case where the director has too much power in the opera house?

FC:   I don’t know of one.  What does that mean
too much power?

BD:   Taking too much upon himself and ignoring musical values.

FC:   Oh, well, you have a variety of directors now who all swear they pay attention to the music, and sometimes you wish they didn’t and really did what they set out to do, which is to really prove the point.  I don’t really know of any director who is so omnipotent that his word goes beyond anyone else’s.  In the really good cases
or the cases one enjoys and feels a new experiencethe director does seem to know more about the nature of what they’re doing.  I’ve found that to be true eighty per cent of the time.

BD:   Do they know more than the composer?

FC:   My answer to that is simple.  You can’t second-guess a dead man, and don’t try.  That’s all we’re doing.  I’m so sick and tired of those who supposedly ‘know what was intended’.  I learned that lesson when I had two Italian conductors, both of whom professed to have learned the score of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at his knee.  They were alternating in the pit, and had diametrically opposed points of views.  [Laughs]  They were obviously of either knee, and one had gout or something!

BD:   Then is it easier for you, as the director, to work with a living composer?

FC:   Yes, as a matter of fact, but the living conductor gives me a good indication of what the dead composer must have been like.  You constantly read about composers obliging this or that star.  Handel was almost apoplectic about that, but he did do it.  Sometimes he got good results, which proves that getting a good performance is very much dependent on the occasion, and things are rapidly changed when they need to be changed.  Composers, like playwrights, don’t always know about what it is they actually have in hand.  They have a certain idea, but in actual performance things change.  That is the nature of the beast, and that includes opera, and I don’t care which name you invoke.

BD:   Are those changes always for the better?

FC:   Who knows?  That’s part of our problem
we’re constantly trying to ameliorate.  We’re always trying to re-assess, to re-consider, to re-interpret.  I don’t think that there is as much re-approximation, or re-appraisal and re-hauling in the theater as there is in music.  That says something.

BD:   So, here’s the Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

FC:   They’re interlocked, interlinked, and inter-everything!  I don’t think you can say one is stronger than the other because one provokes the other.  The composer could not have done anything without the words.  In the long run, the music, of course, becomes the living style of the piece, but you have to pay attention and realize that it is in the linkage that makes for the balance.  Very often, the music is doing something other than what the words are saying, so you have to really pay close attention to that division.  Many people don’t realize the separateness of them, even as they are linked together.

BD:   Is that what makes a great opera
where they are linked closer?

FC:   No, not necessarily.  The old boys
the really good onesknew what they were doing.  Characters can be lying in their words, and there can be turbulence in the orchestra during an otherwise sad or mournful scene.

BD:   If there is turbulence in the orchestra, do you also have to put turbulence on the stage?

FC:   It depends.  That’s the wonderful business of directing
how do you make the scene come to life?  How do you interpret that?  It depends on the director’s imagination, and the ability to seize on the sensibility of the given moment and dramatize it with as much imagination and fidelity to the idea.  Too many directors nowadays exploit the music.  In reality, if they were to face the fact, they are not doing their job.  Essentially, when you really interpret a piece, music and lyrics work together so there is a harmonious sense in choices of tempi, the way phrases are made, the whole sense of the living experience.  I’ve found that a parallel set of tracks are going ona straight, ‘correct’ rendering of the music, and behind it is this ghastly psychoanalysis which tweaks the variety of shapes and forms describing what really should be thereand never the twain shall meet.  It’s a fake modernization.  Even in the theater, if you take Shakespeare or any of the classics, the words have their own meter and their own time.  But there are all sorts of elements involved that are extraordinary.  In a funny way, if something is working, and is really good and really valid, it can clean a tarnished masterpiece.  The dust and soot have accumulated by sheer dint of time.

BD:   So you want each audience to experience it as though they’ve never seen that work before?

FC:   That’s what the idea is supposed to be.  That’s what you go to the theater for.  You go to experience something for the first time.  In a well-known work, you can get this feeling by nature of the people you’re doing it with.  Because of who they are, they will have to bring something of their own.  If they don’t, they’re not doing their job and not serving the composer.  You serve him by recreating the instinct and the impulse, and making it a fresh experience.  If it isn’t fresh, it’s not only boring, but you begin to wonder why you’re about to fall asleep even though the work is a masterpiece.  It proves that what happens onstage is very important to the musical effect, otherwise you’re just listening to a recording.

BD:   Do commercial recordings interest you since there is no visual drama?

FC:   The good ones do.  Most of the ones now are just dreadful
homogenized junk food of the contrivances.  Ones that come from live performances, or have a sense that a conductor can really grasp a piece and give you a fresh sense of it are a rare exception.  The older ones seem to have that.  There was always a sense of accumulated value.

BD:   Is that because the older recordings utilized singers who had done the roles onstage and become noted for them?

FC:   Most of the singers recording now have experience onstage, perhaps even more so than before.  The singers today zip around the world.  It’s the lack of initiative on somebody’s part in not centralizing any given opera production so it appears as a very individual statement.  I did Alcina in London and then in Los Angeles.  I approached it with a kind of magical realism.  Handel is very dramatic, and we worked hard, and arrived at a very dramatic sense of the piece.  Then came the recording, and I invoked the gods, pleading that they would not do it any differently.  I wasn’t asked to be there for the recording sessions, but the conductor simply wiped it all out, and so what you hear on the discs, with Arleen Auger, is this strangely not-quite-committed sense of what is it.  Finally, somewhere along the line it did pick up, but I felt it was an actual crime, and if I ever meet the conductor again I’m going to let him have it!  He didn’t realize that this was the very thing which was making the performance exciting and really individual.  It is fresh and new for singers to do that, and they needed to continue it in the recording studio.  Maintaining that level, whatever it is, is a tricky problem, and requires everyone working together to do it.

BD:   So, how do you maintain that level during a string of performances?

FC:   In that sense, they are still working within the given requirements.  But take them into the studio where there is no action and no scenery, and it’s a new thing completely.

BD:   Do you foresee a time when record companies will hire a stage producer for a purely aural recording?

FC:   I’ve hear that a famous director was hired to do the recitatives in the Don Giovanni conducted by Haitink.  I think that is a very good idea, but conductors are very afraid of that kind of thing in recording.  It’s like those awful recordings where actors spoke the dialogue for the singers.  It’s a tricky balance, but it has to do with a way of going, and that’s our problem.  We don’t really have a way of going.  It’s haphazard rather than maintaining standards.

BD:   In Europe, each opera house has a Dramaturg.  Should we have that kind of thing in America?

FC:   Absolutely!  We should have people who watch out for that, who maintain an artistic equilibrium.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let us go one step further.  Do you like opera on television?

FC:   Some of it... too little of it, really.  I’ve had a lot of my productions done on TV, and some I’ve been involved in making sure that the camera caught what I had in mind.  You have to work with the TV director, and when you don’t, it’s mayhem.  I’ve seen that too often.  I’ve seen a TV man direct with his nose in the score and not really pay attention to what was going on on the stage.  But when it’s good, it can be quite enlivening.  There is an air of mythical reality about it that is quite wonderful, but most of the time we’re watching magnifications of absolute mediocrity.  You couldn’t even get away with it in a bad film.  It would be handled better.  My problem with the ‘Live from the Met’ productions is that they’re so dead!  There’s nothing going on there.  They’re photographing a star singer, but that’s what they sell.  On the other hand, films of operas have the problem of the sound track.  The picture can have the artist here or there, near or far, and the voice is always the same.  Nothing changes.  A brick falls and hits them on the head, and it’s still the same sound.

BD:   I would think it could be simple to record on twenty-four tracks, isolate each principal singer, and then pan them around the scene as needed.

FC:   Absolutely, but all of those things are arranged economically.  The recording and the picture are all in a tight package.  I’d be happy to strangle somebody or head up an assassination squad to get things put right.  I really must confess that the best I’ve ever seen has been in Europe
Walter Felsenstein in East Berlin, Harry Kupfer, people like that.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean that the best opera you’ve ever seen was not a Frank Corsaro production???

FC:   No, no, no!  I have to work in such a rapid manner.  I’ve done some good stuff, and some bad, but in this country I represent a pretty high level of work.  I’m trying desperately to get more theater people involved.

BD:   How much is sheer time?

FC:   It’s not so much the lack of time, strangely enough.  Often, it’s just the lack of musical background.  A lot of the young directors just don’t have that background.  They’ll go to the libretto rather than the score to study.


BD:   What advice do you have for a young person who wants to direct opera?

FC:   I have no one bit of advice.  Usually, if they’re interested, they come forward.  It’s a question of reinvigorating education.  We are working on creating a liaison between the New York City Opera and Juilliard, which would be marvelous, but most opera houses have to beg indulgence of Mme. X and Sig. Z.  It’s murderous.  Managements are helpless today because they’re all scrambling for the superstars and their time.

BD:   Then what hope is there for the student at Juilliard who goes through your program and then is out in the real world?

FC:   There’s every great hope, especially because they will be much better armed.  The Europeans have a very lopsided view of what technique in opera performance is all about.  Some have voices, some can act, but there is never a sense of what they can do in terms of the entire level of the talent.  So, you compensate for people who are not capable
even over a long period of timeof being able to execute anything that is helpful in creating an actual experience... except for simply singing.  There’s a wonderful book on opera by Stanislavski [(1863-1938), founder of the Moscow Art Theater in 1898, the Opera Studio in 1918, and the Opera-Dramatic Studio in 1935].  I’m not for cup-and-saucer opera, but a personality like Chaliapin embodied the best of boththe overwhelming star with enormous flair and theatricality.

BD:   How much work do you expect on the part of the public each night?

FC:   A lot.  The only way to be entertained in the theater is what I’m describing, otherwise you get the same old hamburger each night, the same popcorn, the same old movie.

BD:   The same Pavarotti high C?

FC:   Who cares?  That’s silly.  I really think it’s silly that we depend on that as representative of going to the opera.  When he loses his high C, he’s no good, and that’s crazy!  One of my first great lessons in opera was in Lucia with Callas at the Met.  In the Sextet, everyone turned front to sing except her.  She stayed in the corner doing what she was doing, and everyone in the audience looked at her.  Something was happening.  I realized that this was what all these sextets and quintets were about
people talking to themselves, not all out front to the audience.  At the end, she didn’t hit the high E, and people were upset, but she created a spellbinding performance.  That shows you what crude bastards most audiences are.  The theater audiences are infinitely more sophisticated.  The opera audiences are, I feel, nouveau riche culturally.  They’ve been listening to records, and have been sold Pavarotti on television.  They’re media-influenced.  A foreign name in a well-known opera makes a special occasion.  Those are possible ingredients, but when you get there, it fizzes away.

BD:   So why do you direct opera and not stay in the straight theater all the time?

FC:   Because I think that when opera is at its best, it’s really better than any straight theater I know.  I’ve had some really great experiences in opera and continue to have them, but unless you have people like myself who keep yelling and screaming and pushing managers, they may as well give up and turn it over to the slaves and lackeys who put it all together.  The director is very new in opera.  He’s hardly thirty years old.  Before, it would be the composer or the publisher.

BD:   Let’s open another can of worms.  What about translations and supertitles?

FC:   I have nothing against them.  Obviously, if they’re good, fine.  I’m doing the Andrew Porter translation of The Magic Flute, and he keeps working on it, whittling away and changing.  I have nothing against supertitles.  Anything that helps the audience is fine with me.  As a matter of fact, when it’s difficult to get the English words, you should use supertitles there, too.  We did The Cunning Little Vixen for television in English, and I said to put the titles on anyway.  They did, and it was very helpful.  It’s simple enough not to look at them if you know what’s going on.  Particularly for a new opera, they’re very important.

BD:   Going to comedy, how do you keep it from becoming slapstick?

FC:   I always try to elucidate it.  The Marriage of Figaro is always silly putty.  People are behaving badly in that as in a broad farce, but it’s a lack of resource.  We need people who really know how to live on stage, really know how to project thought, how to permit that to happen, and how to direct that.  It is what Stanislavski was trying to say in his book.  I try very hard for that.  When theater-practice becomes opera-practice, there will be a wonderful balance.  The unfortunate thing now is that they try to over-demonstrate the director’s vision, and don’t sufficiently make the people real people, rather than director’s intents.  In that respect, the director doesn’t help.  Also, it is a lack of training.  A lot of the people aren’t trained in the process of singing, to trust themselves, their own thoughts, their own contributions.  They’re always being told in music what to think, how the style goes, what is correct, and I think that’s a crock.  Individuality is stymied in this profession.

BD:   So, the singers should learn the basics, and then trust themselves?

FC:   Yes.  I’ve been teaching that for a while now, and getting wonderful results.  They should always find out what they are there onstage
why are they singing this music, what is it that they contribute to this music that makes it worthwhile for us to want to hear them, what it is that they will do that will be so special that they will illuminate that piece of music.

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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 17, 1988.  The transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in December, 1990.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2018.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.