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His first professional break came when he was an assistant conductor in Calabria, Italy. The conductor became ill prior to the opening of La Traviata, and Guadagno received such good reviews when he stepped in that he ended up taking the production on tour.
But full-time conducting opportunities were scarce in Europe following World War II, so Guadagno took a job leading a conservatory orchestra in Arequipa, Peru. During that time he came to the United States to guest-conduct a New York Philharmonic Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall. Within six months of his return to Peru, his contract there ended. Tired of being so isolated from Western European civilization, he was thinking about returning to Italy, but the European economy was still in turmoil.
"I came to America and started all over again," he recalls.
He moved to the U.S. in the mid-'50s and became chorus master of the Connecticut Opera. He eventually became musical director of the Philadelphia Lyric Opera, then took jobs at orchestras in Cincinnati, Baltimore, and other major cities in the Eastern U.S. He also worked for a time in Mexico City.
Throughout the years he often returned to Europe to guest-conduct, first at London's famed opera house at Covent Garden and then at the Vienna State Opera, where he's now a resident conductor in addition to his PBO duties.
"My main job is Palm Beach," he says, explaining that he spends only two or three months a year in Vienna, a couple months in New York, and the remainder of the year here. He and his wife, Dolores, keep apartments in all three cities. Prior to coming to South Florida, Guadagno declined full-time conductorships in Vienna, Madrid, and Verona because the opera companies wanted him year-round. When he was offered the seasonal PBO position, he says simply: "I was at the time in Vienna, and I always liked Florida weather." In fact his agent told him of the Palm Beach opening on a day when he was snowed in in New York City, awaiting a flight to Vienna.
It's no surprise that Guadagno had his pick of jobs. By that point in his career, he had worked with almost every major opera star of the last half-century, including Maria Callas, Beverly Sills, and Renata Tibaldi. During Guadagno's stint in Philadelphia, he worked with Luciano Pavarotti and went on to conduct performances for many of the singer's early TV specials. While director of the Mexican national opera in 1960, Guadagno cast an unknown kid named Plácido Domingo in one of his first professional roles: "I've known him since he was a boy. He was in Mexico, 18 years old, you know, and he started there with us. Plácido Domingo, the big giant. But he started there. He was a small fish."
These days the "small fish" are whoppers, but they remember Guadagno. "Thank God my friends are like Pavarotti, like Domingo," he says. "I worked with them all over the world, and I ask them to come here and they come."
Those stars have indeed appeared at special PBO benefit concerts, and since his arrival Guadagno has fielded a company orchestra and expanded the season from three to four productions. Higher-quality performances have translated into more revenue from ticketholders and benefactors. Now the maestro can afford better sets, and he can pay more-prominent singers to appear in leading roles. Under Guadagno's watch PBO's improvement has become selfperpetuating.
"I like to work in Palm Beach, because the company grow. And why?" he asks immodestly. "Because the quality of the shows, the singers that I bring, you know? I be careful to choose the singers. I be careful that the public like the opera."
Palm Beach Opera rehearses and performs at the Kravis Center, where availability is sometimes a problem. Guadagno would eventually like to see a venue in West Palm Beach exclusively for opera. But for now, he says: "The first thing is do good performance, get the credibility from the public."
In that regard, it seems, he's already succeeding nicely, and South Florida opera lovers should count themselves lucky that Guadagno favors a sunny climate.
Contact John Ferri at his e-mail address: