In a backstage bay at the Kravis Center For the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, a row of chairs is lined up neatly along the front edge of a stage riser. The principal cast members of the Palm Beach Opera production of Wagner's The Flying Dutchman occupy the seats during an initial rehearsal, but instead of ornate costumes, they're dressed in jeans and tennis shoes, so it seems slightly incongruous when resonating, sonorous voices burst forth from the street-clothed singers. Also dressed casually is maestro Anton Guadagno, who wears a tab-collared yellow shirt and light brown slacks, not the tux in which audiences are accustomed to seeing him.
The slight, elfin conductor faces the singers on stage from behind a black podium with a row of lights around the top inside edge, which illuminates the sheet music spread out on it. He's traded his long white performance baton for a plain yellow pencil, with which he can both count out beats and make notations on the score.
Speaking in a hyper-paced blend of English and his native Italian, Guadagno is both stern and accommodating. At age 76 he's a seasoned veteran who knows just how he wants things to sound but who comes across as a benevolent leader rather than as a draconian dictator.
"I follow you. No obbligato," the maestro tells lead singer Monte Pederson in a thick Italian accent after stopping the rehearsal. Bass-baritone Pederson, from Toronto, is a New York Metropolitan Opera veteran acclaimed internationally for his command of demanding roles, like the lead in Dutchman. Still, he's getting used to the style of Guadagno, who explains to him that he should come in when he's ready. As conductor Guadagno assures him he will use Pederson's entrance as a cue to bring in the orchestra for the next passage.
Guadagno sets similar ground rules for soprano lead Nina Warren, who plays Senta, the object of the Dutchman's affections in the three-act opera.
"Do I come in right away?" asks Warren during one break.
"I leave it open to you," Guadagno responds, "to give you room to ," and he trails off, finishing charades-style by expanding his arms as if taking a deep breath.
The animated Guadagno often switches from English to Italian in midsentence and gesticulates furiously to drive home his points. The unusual mixture of languages and signals seems strange to an outsider sitting in on the rehearsal, but the singers have no problem interpreting. Neither do they have a problem taking direction from a respected conductor like Guadagno, a rarity in the opera business because of his care and nurturing of vocalists.
"Although I have a voice that carries well -- and Monte Pederson also did -- it's great to still feel like you're floating above an orchestra and not getting drowned out," Warren says. "That is really becoming a lost art. I mean, I've done Salome [the title character in the Strauss opera] where you're just thinking, It's a wall of sound. Am I even being heard? And the thing that I thought he did so well is accompany the singers." She recalls an instance when Guadagno adjusted the score in favor of the vocalists. "And someone [in the orchestra] said, 'Well, it's written forte.' And he said, 'But we don't play forte when we're accompanying singers.' He's one of those rare conductors that makes sure the singers are always heard."
Warren, another Metropolitan Opera vet, says the level of respect paid to Guadagno is also rare these days. "I was doing one production where the conductor was injured and I had 13 performances of Salome, and I had 10 different conductors. And what I found is -- I won't name the orchestra, but they were a very good orchestra -- the players were wonderful, but depending on whether or not they liked the conductor or had respect for him, they would play horribly.
"But somebody like Guadagno has a career and respect because he's respectful of the singers and the orchestra," she continues. "Now, if he wants something, he lets you know. It's not like he's a softie. When things weren't going how he wanted them to during rehearsal, he really -- I wouldn't say 'threw his weight around' -- but he makes sure that he gets what he wants. The thing is he knows what he wants. He's done this a long time, and he's got a great ear."
In fact Guadagno's reputation allows him to bring in opera talent that might otherwise take a pass on roles with a company the size of Palm Beach Opera. He has been artistic director and conductor since the 37-year-old company's 1984-85 season, but he had achieved lofty stature in the opera world long before his arrival in South Florida.
Born in a small town near Palermo, Italy, Guadagno began his musical career playing trumpet but gave up the instrument to pursue composition and conducting. After graduating from the Palermo Conservatory, he went on to the Saint Cecilia Conservatory in Rome and did his postgraduate work at the famous Salzburg Mozarteum in Austria.
"You must go there to be maestro," he says.
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:
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