Marc A. Scorca: So, Chris Mattaliano, who brought you to your first opera?
Christopher Mattaliano: My brother Mark's roommate, David. I was an aspiring French horn player. I played the horn for 12 years and David, who was 10 years older than me, knew that I liked classical music, and back then The Metropolitan Opera had a June opera festival, with relatively inexpensive tickets. So, David, for my 16th birthday, got me tickets to The Met and he and I went to see Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci.
Marc A. Scorca: What did you think? What was your first impression?
Christopher Mattaliano: Well, I should tell you, I grew up in a family that loved music and - God bless my parents - because music was on all the time. I'm one of six kids, of a blue collar working class Italian-American family from central New Jersey. And I realized that music being on had a big influence on my life growing up, and my dad had three opera recordings: Cav/Pag, Traviata, and Turandot. And I always thought opera was something that was purely to be enjoyed as a listening experience, because I just love listening to music, all kinds of music. But then seeing it, experiencing the story of music that I knew, but actually watching it enacted really blew me away at that tender age of 16. And I remember saying to David, "Is there something else we can come see tomorrow?" That, I think, was a Thursday night; I still have the program somewhere in my office. So two days later, he brought me back to see Otellowith Jon Vickers, and Pilar Lorengar and Louis Quilico. And that did it. There was something about seeing Teresa Stratas in Pagliacci and John Vickers in Otello that I could not believe they were real human beings doing that work. There was something about those performances and seeing the story enacted in that way that just made a huge impression on me. So that was the beginning of the end.
Marc A. Scorca: No, and I don't want to, in any way, minimize the great talent available to us today, but Teresa Stratas and Jon Vickers were part of an extraordinarily compelling generation of artists. Do you remember who was in the rest of the cast of Pagliacci?
Christopher Mattaliano: It was Richard Tucker and Stratas and the Italian-American who was very popular back then, Dominic Cossa, was the Silvio and Regine Crespin was in Cavalleria. That was quite special. And that old Zeffirelli production...I eventually went on to assist Franco years later, when I started my career as an opera director, but that Zeffirelli production held up quite well.
Marc A. Scorca: I should say for years and years and years. That's where I learned Cav/Pag, for sure. So wonderful. Okay: 16; French horn; opera convert. How did you become a stage director?
Christopher Mattaliano: There was an event, (I don't know if it's still exists) called The Metropolitan Opera National Seminar Week back then, and I had a very influential music history professor in college named Dr. Jack Sacher. He wrote a wonderful book called The Art of Sound, and he was very involved in lecturing at The Met. And the way it worked is they took 50 students from each of the 50 states, and they spent a week at The Met, attending rehearsals; having meetings and lectures and then going to performances every evening. And I was a music history minor in college, but I got my degree in directing and theater, but I adored classical music. And by that point, I'd given up on French horn. I didn't have the discipline to be a French horn soloist (or the talent for that matter, probably). One of the people that attended...we would have these sessions after rehearsals...one person that spoke to us was John Dexter. You may recall there was that Dexter era back then, in the '70's, and they were rehearsing a new production of Don Carlo, the Dexter/Levine production of Don Carlo. And I remember Dexter complaining about the state of directing in the opera business and that it was so poor and so inconsistent and thank God for directors like me, that The Met was fortunate enough to bring in. I remember raising my hand and saying, "Well, you have a young artist program here at The Met for singers, why don't you start something for directors so that young directors can learn from experienced directors like you, Mr. Dexter?" And I remember he stopped calling on me after that question. But one of the people that managed this group of young students was a gentleman named Joe Crane, who was a long-time usher at The Met, a wonderful Hungarian man. And he pulled me aside and said, "You might want to read a new book that came out, entitled Maverick by Frank Corsaro and it just might interest you." And I read Frank's book, and his book rocked my world, and here I am: I'm a senior in college. This would have been 1978 or '79, and I got hold of Frank's address in Manhattan. I wrote him a letter saying, "Could I meet with you?" And he agreed to meet with me. It turns out he had a Saturday afternoon class, where he worked with opera singers and actors and directors. He invited me to come to his class. And so Frank ended up becoming very much the mentor figure in my life. He was the one that encouraged me to maybe not think about performing or acting, and really to consider directing opera, when he found out that I had a strong music background. And so, it was all about Frank.
Marc A. Scorca: So, just in some random order, because then we'll come back to it. Soon thereafter, you got a National Opera Institute grant, and the National Opera Institute, (an organization that was at the time older than OPERA America) no longer exists today, started by Roger Stevens, when the Kennedy Center was founded as a kind of think tank for American opera, not a membership organization, but a sort of think tank. And they had a number of programs to train rising talent. And one of them was this program: the fellowship, and you were a fellow. And I'd love you to describe what that was, 'cause I know you worked with Frank in that. So what was that NOI fellowship?
Christopher Mattaliano: I'm so glad you brought that up. You may remember Ruth Sickafus? Frank had mentioned that this NOI program existed and he suggested I apply for a grant to assist him, and the way the program worked (if I remember correctly) they gave out two grants a year: one to an aspiring conductor, and one to an aspiring stage director, but you had to apply with an established professional that was willing to mentor you. I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I remember I applied two years in a row and was rejected two years in a row, and then I was finally awarded the grant the third year. And the way it worked was: the NOI provided just enough money perhaps to cover your expenses for traveling to assist whomever it was that you were assisting - in my case, it was Frank Corsaro.
And that was a year of my life where I went with Frank to...actually there was a project at the Actor's Studio, so there was a non-operatic project that year. And then I went to various opera companies where he was directing. He was very popular and (had) very special talents; worked all over the world. And as a result of that, like anything else, you watch directors, designers, singers, conductors work, and you're surrounded by it. And hopefully you absorb enough to encourage you to go forward. One of the projects I worked with Frank was at New York City Opera. It was his production of Madam Butterfly. And that's when I met you. I went in there for three weeks to assist Frank as he was directing a revival of Butterfly and I met Donald Hazard, and I think it was six months later that my grant ran out and I was waiting tables, and doing odd jobs as an aspiring director, when Donald Hazard called me and said they had just lost a member of their directing staff. Literally, this was like in the movies. It was a Friday afternoon. I got a message while I'm waiting tables at a restaurant saying, "Can you show up for work Monday morning?" And so that's when I joined the staff of City Opera and I was on the City Opera staff for three years.
Marc A. Scorca: So let's pause there for a second, because of course we overlapped at City Opera in those years. But given that we're focusing on looking at the history of opera over the last half century and are now in the early-middle part of the 1980's and what we're talking about...but John Dexter; The Met in the 70's, the Dexter era: what did John Dexter espouse? What does the John Dexter era mean for stage direction, for The Met as you knew it at the time?
Christopher Mattaliano: I feel that when I look back over, say the past 40 years, certainly one of the big changes that evolved in the profession is the greater presence of the stage director, a greater importance, (which is a debatable word), but the role of the stage director. And I think John was part of that group of directors. Back then it was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; it was John Dexter, Elijah Moshinksy a little later; Frank Corsaro certainly, Franco Zeffirelli, perhaps would be part of that group, and my understanding really was until then, or prior to that, that stage directing an opera was often no more than perhaps a stage manager organizing entrances and exits in a production or a former singer that was a well-known Marschallin being asked to stage the revival of Der Rosenkavalier: things like that. Whereas I think that period of time, the mid-70's was the beginning of what became a period of real prominence of the role of the stage director in opera, for better or worse.
Marc A. Scorca: And, of course, Frank just passed away fairly recently; he made it well into his nineties, and 'maverick' is such a word that would come to mind. Of course he used it for his book, but such an energy and a character. What was it like to work closely with him?
Christopher Mattaliano: We had similar backgrounds. I mean, here I am talking to Marc Scorca; Frank Corsaro, Christopher Mattaliano. Frank and I both came from working class Italian-American families. He had trained as an actor. He did a few movies. If you google Frank Corsaro or YouTube him, you'll see clips of him in various films he did. He worked as a comedian, as a standup comic. And then he was very involved in that group of actors at the Actors Studio: Ben Gazzara, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe - people that were part of the '40's and '50's; Paul Newman, especially. On a personal level, we had a similar family background and we also had very similar tastes in music, and in theater. He was very entertaining. He was someone that was just very high energy and very engaging.
I learned so much from Frank because he would have a famous singer, or a singer who had a reputation of being very difficult, and they would be willing to do anything for Frank. He had that ability to get trust from his singers. I learned a great deal from him as to how you create an atmosphere in the rehearsal hall where singers feel safe and are encouraged to take risks, artistically. So that's why, if you remember those classic Frank Corsaro productions at City Opera in those years, the Butterfly, the Pelléas, Markopoulos Affair, Faust: they were all landmark City Opera productions, where singers that would not normally be as available emotionally, somehow gave their all for Frank Corsaro. So that was a great gift, that I received from Frank.
On the other hand, I would say, a part of what was challenging about Frank and that would sometimes be an issue when working was that he did not brook fools easily. I remember him during an intermission at City Opera: you know the two white ladies (the statues on the foyer there?) He spotted Andrew Porter across the lobby. And Andrew had just given him a bad review for a new production of La donna del lago in Houston. And I remember him yelling at Andrew across the lobby. This is a public performance with Frank Corsaro spotting Andrew Porter across the lobby, and he sees them and he starts yelling, "Andrew, you fucked me; Andrew, you fucked me." I do apologize, but it's the nature of Frank Corsaro; you happened to ask. He started going on about this review we got. Frank was his own worst enemy at times. And general directors would have to be leery sometimes I think of hiring him, because they knew they were getting a handful.
Marc A. Scorca: No. I came to know Frank a bit toward the end of his life, and when he would get going on a story, you just had to go for the ride. City Opera in those days: what was it like in those kind of halcyon City Opera days?
Christopher Mattaliano: Well, I was part of a group of six or seven aspiring directors; the equivalent of the music staff, and we would be assigned productions, where we would assist the original director on those productions. And then we would stage whatever revivals there might be, the season or the following season where their productions essentially became our responsibility. So I was responsible for a number of Frank's productions at City Opera and others. And thinking back, it was an opportunity to learn how to work in a very high pressure situation. It was an opportunity for a young director to learn on your feet, and to make lots of contacts that would often lead to work elsewhere when City Opera season was over.
So, it was an extraordinary opportunity and knowing that we were going to talk today, I was thinking about what's missing nowadays, because back then there was a directing staff at New York City Opera; there was a directing staff at Chicago Lyric. San Francisco Opera had a directing staff where young directors could learn the craft and work under pressure. I remember I was paid $175 a week; that was the take home pay. I think the gross pay was 235, but I think I still have a paycheck. So you got something and granted back then you could live inexpensively in Manhattan before the city went co-op crazy, but I'm concerned that those opportunities are few and far between now. When I come across young directors, I'm not sure how to advise them, because there were various routes and you mentioned NOI: that has disappeared. And in a way there's much more pressure on OPERA America nowadays to create opportunities, and I commend you and your staff for doing so, when I see the type of opportunities that OPERA America's created, obviously not only for directors, but for conductors, for librettists, for composers.
Marc A. Scorca: We have ideas about what we can do for stage directors as well, and something different than we currently do. And it's just a matter of bandwidth until we can actually plan it out and think about it. But you're right: that crucible: City Opera doing 16, 17, 18 titles a year with no rehearsal time.
Christopher Mattaliano: It was absurd. Yes. And somehow, granted it was the world of Julius Rudel. And I know we both overlapped and worked with Julius that created a mindset for all of us that worked there. "Well, I've got the weekend to put together La Traviata, so here goes..." It's easy to look back and criticize, but there was a great deal to be learned having to work under that type of pressure.
Marc A. Scorca: And for all of it, a rather wonderful energy about it.
Christopher Mattaliano: Totally, totally.
Marc A. Scorca: How did you connect with Zeffirelli?
Christopher Mattaliano: I was on the staff of City Opera for three years, and I got a call from Phebe Berkowitz who was head of the directing staff at that time at The Met. And she asked to meet with me, totally out of the blue They were doing a new production of Turandot. This was 1985 or '86, and they needed to get one more director to assist Franco, and so I was hired just for that production. David Kneuss and I were both the assistant directors, and I think I was on a six or eight week contract with The Met, and then that led to them inviting me back. And then I was on their staff for six years.
Marc A. Scorca: And working with Zeffirelli: night and day from working for Frank Corsaro? How different or not different was it?
Christopher Mattaliano: Well, it was certainly different in terms of their aesthetic. Franco being first and foremost a designer who came from the film world; he was Visconti's assistant, and found his way into the directing world from the design world, and so there was such an obsessive kind of visual focus with all of Franco's work. Both of them were very similar in that they were incredibly charismatic people who just - you couldn't help but love them. I grew very fond of Franco. He was very kind to me. He was a very gracious man, and was an enormous flirt but he was grand in a very endearing way.
Frank was much more boots on the ground and no nonsense, whereas Franco always had an entourage. He had his dog, Bella that he carried with him constantly, and he was the only person I know that could have the stage crew of The Metropolitan Opera wait for 45 minutes for him to show up. And stage time at The Met is obscenely expensive because you have everyone waiting and Franco would show up late to everything, and within five or 10 minutes have everyone eating out of his hand. He just oozed a certain kind of charisma. But I feel fortunate in that I assisted many, many directors of very different styles from Colin Graham, Otto Schenk, Franco, Frank and many others; again getting back to the opportunities for a young director: if you're exposed to a wide range of talent, and if you can be open to it, then you can learn a great deal. And I feel like I was a sponge back then.
Marc A. Scorca: And it's so important to have enough experience to be able to absorb, and enough humility to have the willingness to absorb, because it goes a long way. So if you hit a stage directing roadblock and you think, "I just don't know what to do here," if you take out your Ouija board and ask for advice: from whom do you ask advice in your mind when you're approaching a stage direction problem? What would so-and-so do?
Christopher Mattaliano: That's an awfully good question, Marc. I have a healthy enough ego, and I'm experienced enough that I often ask others their opinion. I have no problem turning to a colleague: someone I'm very close to (is) George Manahan, who was the music director at Portland Opera when I was there. Turning to someone like George and saying, "I haven't a clue how to solve this issue" or "I'm still really unclear. I don't know why the scene is not working. What are your thoughts? What are you seeing?" And the same with singers. I've been very involved in both the professional world and the university/conservatory world. And we have such extraordinary training in this country, and I have no problem turning to a singer and asking for feedback or advice. And yes, I have a spiritual through line to Frank Corsaro, and I should say the other big mentor in my life was Maurice Sendak. I assisted Frank on many of those productions that he did with Maurice and Maurice and I became very close.
Marc A. Scorca: A wonderful, wonderful man to know.
Christopher Mattaliano: And both of them, with very little tolerance for fads and whatever's trendy. They could see right through all that, and I feel like I was very fortunate to have been influenced by those two gentlemen in particular. I'm very blessed; I'm a very lucky guy.
Marc A. Scorca: So: the path to being a general director? Here you are a stage director, directing around a lot. And I asked you who brought you to your first opera; who brought you to your first general director? How did that happen? Why did it happen?
Christopher Mattaliano: I remember I was on the staff of The Met and I overlapped; I started teaching at Juilliard in 1989. I was at Juilliard for 12 years. I taught an opera workshop there. I was at Lincoln Center a lot for both organizations. And I had, at that point, built a fairly active freelance career, just directing around the country - a lot in Canada at the time, and I got a call from Tulsa Opera. They were looking for general director and I forget who had retired or why there was a vacancy, and I think Peter Russell had recommended me. Peter and I got to know each other from my years of directing at Wolf Trap and I adore Peter and I feel very grateful to him for bringing me to Wolf Trap for so many years, but Peter had recommended me for a general director position, unbeknownst to me. And I remember saying to the person that called me, "I just bought a house in Montclair, New Jersey and my daughter was just born, and I've got a nice position at Juilliard and I've got an active career, so I just don't think this is a good fit, but thank you very much."
But it did get me thinking about whether that's something I would want to pursue, and the first administrative job I got was as artistic director for the Pine Nut Music Festival in the upper peninsula of Michigan. I was there for two years; a small, but really wonderful organization that's changed a great deal over the years. I learned a great deal there, and I'm very fortunate that I started with a very small company, where you kind of did a little bit of everything: a lot of public speaking; you were very involved in marketing and certainly learned how to ask for money to go out with the development director. I was still there and I was directing a production in Portland. Robert Bailey had engaged me. I think I directed maybe eight or nine different productions at Portland Opera throughout the '90's, and I was there directing something when they announced that Robert was retiring, and John Hampton (who was a former president of the board) took me out for breakfast and said, "Might this position interest you?" And I said, "If you were to consider making the structure here be an executive director and an artistic director, that would interest me as an artistic director, but I really have no interest in being a general director, and I'm very flattered that you should ask, so thank you very much." And so that was the beginning of the end, Marc.
So I eventually took that on. I remember doing a lot of soul searching and just talking with close friends and I came to the conclusion that I loved the work so much; I love the art form so much that as long as I kept that in the forefront of my thoughts and my soul, that yes, I could deal with the administrative burden and the endless fundraising and all of the non artistic things. If I know at the end of the day, that there is Mozart and there is Verdi and there's Benjamin Britten and there's John Adams, I felt that that would be my guiding light.. And in retrospect, I'm glad I did, but I was there for 16 years.
Marc A. Scorca: Absolutely.
Christopher Mattaliano: And I'm not done, Marc.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, I know. I wanted to also ask you about the teaching thread, and you've already mentioned that you were working at Juilliard while you were working at The Met and that you've had a number of other teaching engagements. I'm curious to know how teaching enriches your life as an artist.
Christopher Mattaliano: Of course you would ask very thoughtful, wonderful questions, Marc Scorca: thank you for doing so. Listen, I feel that is one of the great blessings of my life (in) that I have had a very satisfying career in both the university world/conservatory world and in the professional world. And there's something about working with gifted young singers who are open books, who are dying to absorb whatever you might have to provide: you; the conductor; designer and the others, and then three weeks later being in a rehearsal hall at a major opera company and having, very, very seasoned pros, and I just found that the two fed each other, and that the way in which, within the profession, you have to do a lot of thinking on your feet and have a certain language with how you deal with a very famous or a very experienced singer, conductor et cetera, and then the way you adjust your language, your choice of words, your working relationship with a 22 year old gifted young tenor, like Matt Polenzani, a former student of mine.
There's something about seeing singers that I knew as students. I think of Matt only because he came up yesterday in conversation with Clare (Burovac), because he's coming here to New Orleans, and I thought, "Well, I met Matt during my years at Yale." I was at Yale for 10 years and I was at Juilliard for 12 years. And there was something incredibly satisfying about seeing singers I knew at the student level that went on to major careers. That was something I never even thought about back then: that as I got to work with them either on the road or bring them to Portland, that was very special. But I was fortunate in that Juilliard - and this was certainly not true with a lot of universities - felt very strongly that they wanted their faculty members to be out in the profession. Like, we'll figure out how to work your schedule so that you can be in the profession because they felt that was really important: a very admirable concept that they want the people that are teaching their students to be active professionals out in the field.
Marc A. Scorca: Well, you know, it's great to hear, and frankly Chris to hear some of these chronologies about how long you were at Juilliard; how long you were at Yale; the number of seasons at The Met; your tenure at Portland Opera: extended service is so important because finally you can actually get good at what you're doing, as opposed to just doing it for a year here, a year there, you got dug in, and you got really masterful at all of those different things that you were juggling as an artist, I think it's just fantastic.
Christopher Mattaliano: Well, that's very kind of you. Thank you, Marc.
Marc A. Scorca: But the advice for a young artist today; it's gotta be hard. Do you think the career development is more difficult today than it was when you first started? You were married to a singer, so you saw how that developed. The challenge is there. Here you are a stage director putting together a career. Is it harder now than it was?
Christopher Mattaliano: I think I could answer that in two ways. One is in the big picture. There is the calling. I remember I did a public interview with Philip Glass when his book came out, and he has a strong connection to Portland and I was asked to interview him at the Newmark Theatre in Portland. And he's a very self-effacing person for being such a famous composer. But I do remember him saying that there is the calling as an artist that makes that decision for you. So how you answer that call, I think is a very individual journey. If it's as a director, it means you have to direct. So whether that means you're starting with a few people in your garage and you're creating something and you're trying to find someone that you can learn from, and would be willing to take you on as an apprentice, you find a way. I think the singers, the conductors, the directors, the designers that feel compelled to create, do so because they have no choice, and I think you find a way.
So on one hand, I think it's absolutely no different than it was when you and I first met in the early 1980's, because that's the journey of the artist. On the other hand, I think it's more difficult in that our culture has become far less patient, far more visually oriented, with a much shorter attention span. I remember some of the OPERA America meetings where people would say, " How do we do 90 minute versions of this opera or that opera?" And having raised a daughter and seeing how her friends are all so connected through their devices, but their experiences are very short, so I think - certainly for directors and designers to find a path in a profession that, unlike so many other professions, has become so obsessed with what's new and what's fashionable, and so tied to the internet, and how we relate to things and snippets (and I know you've covered this at some of the OPERA America conferences; I've heard people speak about this phenomenon, and how it affects our lives and also the art form).
So yes, in that regard, I think it's much more difficult to figure out a way forward without calling attention to yourself, perhaps in the wrong way, as an artist...doing something sensational to at least break through the noise. I wish there were more training programs, and again, I want to get back to OPERA America, 'cause I've been thinking a lot about the organization; its progress; how it's helped so many artists, and I think that role is probably going to become more and more important for the organization going forward with how do we provide an entranceway to artists and administrators.
Marc A. Scorca: And at every step of the way: at entranceway; advice around sustaining a career; advice around changing a career at some point. We want to retain people in opera when they stop singing whatever that may be, because they have such knowledge and passion, rather than going into another facet of work: stay in opera. So I think there is a role for working with artists over the trajectory of their careers to make sure that they're supported every step of the way.
Christopher Mattaliano: I must say that my wife is a perfect example of that. I happened to be married to Clare Burovac, who is the general and artistic director of New Orleans Opera, but she started on an OPERA America fellowship, I want to say in the early '90's?
Marc A. Scorca: Don't you dare date your wife; you have to have dinner with her tonight. That was the program that we sort of took over from the National Opera Institute in a slightly modified form. NOI closed in 1989/1990, just when I took over here at OPERA America. There was a modified version of the fellowship program, but for administrators with something up and Clare was in that fellowship program. Let me just say this: she was in elementary school at the time, but she participated in the program and has built a career and is now a general director of an important opera company.
Christopher Mattaliano: Excuse me, but that would not have happened unless there was that opportunity at OPERA America. I mean, here's someone who was a former violinist and a violin teacher who became a stage manager then became through OPERA America a production intern at Seattle Opera, and from there became assistant stage manager, production stage manager, Ring coordinator for the Ring cycle; eventually became an artistic administrator at Portland Opera and started judging The Met competition, and then just last year became general and artistic director of this company here. And so the fact that she's only one of several stories that have managed to build a career as a result of OPERA America. I feel like: if it were only that, and that's really just one area of operations for OPERA America, if it were only that: you and your staff and the organization are to be commended. So I just want to thank you again.
Marc A. Scorca: I appreciate that and let me say that Clare's progress was directly related to her own grace and talent, and we just helped around the edges, because she's just so good at what she does.
Christopher Mattaliano: She's quite special.
Marc A. Scorca: Christopher Mattaliano: thank you for taking this time. We are marking our 50th anniversary (now our 52nd because COVID derailed our celebration), but we're wanting to capture these insights from at least 50 people, who've been a real part of the development of American opera over the last half century. And you are certainly one of those. Our conversation makes me long for another dinner. The last time we had dinner was in Portland some years ago and Portland's a lovely city, but the food is better in New Orleans. I think I need to come back and catch up with you and Clare.