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Utah Opera raises '97-98 curtain with `Lucia'

Maestro Anton Coppola - 80 years old, 5 feet 2 inches tall and with more energy than a class full of 6-year-olds - will raise the baton on Utah Opera's 1997-98 season Saturday with Gaetano Donizetti's bel canto opera "Lucia di Lammermoor."

Coppola speaks quickly, enthusiastically, with copious waving about of the arms - like a conductor."I love opera," he said. "I imbue it. I absorb it. All the things I'm dealing with are masterpieces."

Recently Coppola was asked what audiences should feel after witnessing this production of "Lucia." In answer, he told this story:

In 1900, Coppola's father was 18 years old and serving in the Italian military in the city of Forli. It was there that the small-town boy heard opera for the first time, from a traveling company. And, as it happened, the opera was none other than "Lucia di Lammermoor."

His reaction? "He was overwhelmed," Coppola said.

The smitten young man went back the next night, and the next. He attended all seven nights of the production. Then he begged leave from his commanding officer and followed the opera company to the next town, where he again attended all performances.

It was a life-changing experience. After emigrating to New York City and raising a family, he would play the music from "Lucia" on the piano and sing the words from memory.

Young Anton was listening. When he grew to have a daughter of his own he named her - you guessed it - Lucia. What's more, he repeatedly serenaded the child with a particular part of the opera - the opening line delivered by Edgardo, Lucia's lover, when he meets with Lucia before leaving Scotland for France (Act 1, Scene 2).

Lucia Coppola never knew where the snippet came from, and her father never told her. Years later, when the maestro was conducting "Lucia" in Pennsylvania near his daughter's university, he got her a seat on the front row. When Edgardo came in and sang the line, "I turned around and my daughter was like this!" Anton Coppola demonstrates the wide-open mouth, the astonished eyes, the shocked expression, as if to say, "So that's what Dad's been singing to me all these years!"

He chuckles, but the message is clear: "Lucia" can easily become a part of you.

It has been 400 years since the advent of Italian bel canto opera, of which "Lucia di Lammermoor," first produced in 1835 at the height of Donizetti's popularity, is a prime example. In place of heavy, complex orchestrations employed by such composers as Wagner and Strauss, where the singing is but a part, bel canto (literally "beautiful singing") emphasizes the voice, with the orchestra very much in an accompanying role.

Donizetti, Rossini and Bellini all adhered to the bel canto style during at least part of their careers.

Bel canto opera is relatively rigid, with each song requiring a formal orchestral introduction. Originally it was also stagey, with the chorus and principal singer often simply standing and singing instead of moving around.

"It might appear a little static nowadays," Coppola said.

Thus, to keep modern audiences from getting bored, current adaptations of bel canto operas have the singers moving around and physically doing a lot more than the composers anticipated, and Utah Opera's production will be no exception.

The opera is based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, "The Bride of Lammermoor," which relates the life and love of a Scottish woman who, under family pressure, marries a man other than the one she loves. The story ends in tragedy, with Lucia (Janet in Scott's book) killing her new husband in a fit of madness, dying herself and her lover killing himself as well.

While Donizetti wrote comic opera, "Lucia" itself is very serious. Coppola recommends that patrons familiarize themselves with the story but emphasizes that "the reason we go is to hear the score."

"We are dealing now with a masterpiece - it's a perennial," he said."We hope it will be a memorable emotional experience for them."

Coppola is well-known to Utah audiences, having conducted last summer's "Singin' in the Park" concert, "La Traviata" (1987), "Otello" (1990), "Macbeth" (1994) and "La Boheme" (1995) here. He also conducted the musical scores for his nephew Francis Ford Coppola's movies "The Godfather, Part III" and "Bram Stoker's Dracula."

Performances are Oct. 18, 20, 22 and 24 at 7:30 p.m., with a matinee performance on Oct. 26 at 2 p.m. Call 355-ARTS for ticket information.