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.
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
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
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 papers
— are 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 realize — about the best.
They will stop turning rocks over in the depths of Europe, searching for
people with longer names.
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
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 experience
— the 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
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 ones — knew
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
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 on — a 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 there
— and 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
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
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 time
— of 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 both — the
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
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
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
---- ---- ----
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 17, 1988.
The transcription was made and published in The Opera Journal in
September, 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.
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.