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Final curtain: Tito Capobianco's tempestuous tenure at Pittsburgh Opera marked by financial and artistic gains

Sunday, April 02, 2000

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Writer

The reign is over.

Tito Capobianco's tenure with Pittsburgh Opera will be remembered for his persistence as a fund-raiser and his tough management style. "I don't believe in democracy in the arts. You don't use four persons to do the same painting." (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette) 

In a world defined by spectacle and fantasy, Tito Capobianco has been larger than life. For 17 years, armed with a towering personality, glittering charisma and determined artistic vision, he's ruled the Pittsburgh Opera -- sometimes, say his critics, with an iron fist. But though his tenure isn't without tarnish, Capobianco exits with a list of accomplishments no one can deny. His legacy is twofold: He enhanced the Opera's financial condition and gave it artistic credibility.

If cowboys ride off into the sunset, then maestros must have a final scene. Following his direction of "La Traviata" next weekend, the indefatigable Capobianco, 68, steps down for good as the company's artistic director.

There has been drama aplenty in this man's tenure, the bulk of which he served as general director (1983-1998). But Capobianco feels he's made an overall positive impact.

"We have raised the standard very high," says Capobianco. "I think very proudly that I put them in the national market for opera. Our goal was that everything we do here in Pittsburgh has to not only have success in Pittsburgh, but to have national notice and international repercussions. We practice a universal art form, not a parochial [one]."

Pittsburgh Opera
Verdi's "La Traviata"

Featuring: Singers Paula Almerares, Christopher Robertson and David Miller. Tito Capobianco, director; Theo Alcantara, conductor.

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday; 7 p.m. April 11; 8 p.m. April 14; 2 p.m. April 16.

Tickets: $18 to $90; 412-456-6666.

Saying Goodbye to Tito

When Capobianco, a native of Argentina, brought his extensive experience at New York City Opera and San Diego Opera to Pittsburgh as its new general director, he inherited an organization on shaky legs. Its leader had been Richard Karp, who died in 1977.

"He was fighting so many odds to create the opera company," says Capobianco, "that they were using the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra when the symphony was available. Presenting an opera under the rules of symphony schedules -- impossible!"

Eventually, Capobianco built an in-house orchestra and chorus, lending creative autonomy to the Opera.

After Karp's death, with the Opera in flux financially and between permanent directors, Capobianco turned Pittsburgh into a continuous charity ball. He channeled his charisma and belief in his art into fund raising, and neither patrons nor corporations were spared.

"I was becoming dangerous," he says, a smile curling his lips under that marvelous, almost theatrical mustache. "If people saw me coming, they'd cross the street."

His fervor for fund raising paid off -- literally.

"We went from [an operating budget of] $900,000 to a $5 million company," he says, noting that the Opera also added a sizable endowment of about $6 million.

Capobianco's tenure also saw the Opera administration move into its spacious offices at 801 Penn Ave. and its productions from Heinz Hall to the Benedum Center.

But he still feels the support he received was not as good as it should have been. "The consumer is here, the product is here, but the capital to create a show is not here -- from corporations, donations or from the government." The lack of funding, he says, hurt the finished products and deterred the possibility for artistically risky projects.

Though Capobianco had a reputation as an innovator prior to joining the Opera, he programmed largely traditional and even conservative seasons at Pittsburgh. No American works have been performed here nor has any work composed more recently than 1924 ("Turandot"). Along with questions about the quality of his singers, repertory was the source of perhaps his greatest criticism locally over the years.

Did he want to do new and edgy works?

"Absolutely," Capobianco says. "I have been, from 1962 to '83, the person with the most American, French and Italian premieres in the United States -- before I came here."

The real issue, he insists, was one of financial responsibility.

"You have to have an agreement with the board to pay the bills, which establishes limits on what you can do. You listen to criticism, you respect everybody, but I have to do what I think is best for the Pittsburgh Opera."

As he said last year in a Post-Gazette interview: "I'm just sorry there was not the money to do more."

Eventually, the juggernaut tired of beating the bushes for more funding. In 1998, he relinquished fund raising and other managerial duties to general director Mark Weinstein, taking the title of artistic director instead.

"It's a change of life," Capobianco says. "How many times can I invent the wheel and come up with another reason to convince you to give me money? People only look at me and smile. They don't even want me to talk -- they just say, 'How much?' "

Though Capobianco confesses no regrets about his decision to leave, he clearly enjoyed the sovereignty that came with his years as leader of the Opera.

"The impetus of general director was the assurance to me that I could do whatever I wanted. There will be nobody except the board to stop me. I don't believe in democracy in the arts. You don't use four persons to do the same painting."

Ultimately, his approach became an issue with members of his staff, past and present. And the maestro, whom the Opera board recently named general director emeritus, admits his intense management and directing style was at times hard on his singers and staff. "I am obsessed with something that does not exist: perfection."

His "biggest failure," as he calls it, was the decision to reduce the number of season productions from six to four, even though he increased the number of performances of each. But he takes pride in the introduction of supertitles, the projecting of a translated libretto above the action on stage. Capobianco introduced this practice at about the same time as City Opera, and it has done wonders in interpreting opera's rarefied air to the modern audience.

He also helped establish the Pittsburgh Opera Center at Duquesne in 1989, a collaboration between the Opera and Duquesne University. The program evolved from a summer apprentice program to its present form, in which a half-year of operatic training and performing are offered. Duquesne will end its affiliation with the Opera Center this summer after Capobianco's departure.

He leaves with a sizable collection of artistic memories, but one stands out: "It is difficult to top [Boito's] 'Mefistofele,' " which he directed for New York City Opera in 1969 and brought to Pittsburgh. He also relishes his revision of Verdi's "Don Carlo" and a collaboration with Lorin Maazel for a 1994 production of Verdi's "La Traviata."

Future plans include at least a year of ... well, nothing. He and wife Gigi Elena will bide time between houses in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Fla., Buenos Aires and Madrid. He has tentative plans for a book, which may be a diary, but he won't do much with it now. And there are no plans to direct in Pittsburgh -- or anywhere, for that matter.

"We will discuss that all after a year," he says. "I plan to enjoy. Before, my philosophy was beauty before pleasure. Now, it will be pleasure first and beauty after."

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