February 2005 |  This Issue

Michael Scarola
by Karren Alenier

In thirteen tightly scheduled years, Michael Scarola has met most of his goals as an opera and music theater director. Starting with a lucky break at the Santa Fe Opera in 1991, Scarola, who had been pursuing a career as an opera singer, landed a job as Assistant Stage Manager. After the breakneck pace at Santa Fe Opera where Scarola worked on three of five operas produced that season, offers from other companies around the United States arrived in rapid succession. During his five-year tenure at the Metropolitan Opera, he  worked with internationally acclaimed stars like Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti and cutting-edge new productions including Dimitri Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk and Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer's Night Dream. More recently he joined the Directing Staff of New York City Opera, a company that appreciates his artistry and skills and where he has just completed his third season.  

How does an opera singer transition to Assistant Stage Manager for such a progressive opera company as Santa Fe and then go on to work with the two top opera companies in the United States? Scarola says his story begins with his mother, an opera singer who had just joined the National Company of the Metropolitan Opera when she became pregnant with her son. Scarola quipped, "While in labor with me, she controlled her breathing by singing Zerbinetta's aria (from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos). By three, Scarola was fascinated not only with the sound of opera and able to place LP records on the family turntable, but also insisted on seeing the written scores. His mother said the best way to keep her son occupied was to put him in front of the record player with records and opera scores. In this way, he taught himself how to read music. Typically he spent two weeks with every new opera recording and score.  

Scarola grew up attending his mother's rehearsals and performances with semi-professional companies, taking piano lessons, and enjoying the occasional family outing to productions at New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. At the age of seventeen, he convinced his father to let him produce piano-accompanied opera performances in one of the family's restaurants. For nine years, Scarola sang and directed a company of talented singers. Scarola said, "these performers taught me, as I was working with them, stagecraft. It was also at this time that I developed the approach of presenting an idea to the singers and then letting them run with it. If the singers believe what they are doing on stage, the audience will embrace the production. If the audience believes the singers, they look good and, in turn, the director looks good. I see my job as director to make the singers as comfortable as possible."

Following a car accident at age 29 that put him on his back for eight months, Scarola began assessing what he wanted to do with his life. He loved to sing, but he realized that directing was what he missed the most during his convalescence.  He also realized that he had more to offer as a director than as a singer and that directing made him more competitive as an artist. In 1990, he approached his friend John Keenan who was working at both the Met and the Santa Fe Opera and asked for assistance in getting a position as an Assistant Stage Manager at the Santa Fe Opera. Because Scarola knew so much about so many operas, Santa Fe decided to offer him a job. After that rigorous experience (most regional opera companies do not produce back-to-back productions as Santa Fe does), Scarola worked three concurrent and consecutive years for the New Orleans and Cincinnati opera companies.  

In 1993, David Kneuss, who is Executive Stage Director at the Met, told John Keenan that he wanted to talk to Scarola. Although Scarola would not get his first professional directing job at Sarasota Opera until 1996, his reputation in theater management roles credited him not only with thoroughly knowing opera music, but also working exceptionally well with everyone involved in producing an opera. At the Met from 1993 to 1998, Scarola worked with a succession of acclaimed directors who shaped him as a director. Scarola said the support work he did for Graham Vick who made his Met debut with his production of the technically challenging Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk, Colin Graham who directed The Ghosts of Versailles, and Tim Albery who produced a new production of A Midsummer's Night Dream for the Met, was an apprenticeship. Each of these directors gave him something for his directorial toolbox. For example, Albery who would lie down on his belly and direct from that position taught Scarola to be at ease with himself, that a director could break from the formality of working from a chair and sit on a table. "Being a great director is not just about having great ideas, it's how you work with people."

Christopher Mattaliano,another director on staff at the Met for a number of years, taught Scarola that by envisioning the end of an opera first, a director could channel every other decision toward the end result, meaning what an audience leave with. When Mattaliano imparted this advice, Scarola was struggling with how he would direct La Traviata, an opera he loved, knew well because he had sung in it, and had assisted on a number of times. When Mattaliano told him to envision the end first, things fell into place for Scarola. Scarola says this has been an invaluable tool.  

In Miami, Scarola worked with Bernard Uzan (general director of Opéra de Montréal 1989-2001) who taught him to look at a single line from several perspectives and delve into the subtext. David Morelock, a director Scarola met at the New Orleans Opera, taught him how to work with choruses. "He said create Renaissance pictures and you'll always know what to do with your choruses to make them look good on stage."

In 2003, Murry Sidlin, the new dean of music at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, invited Scarola to direct productions of student operas at CUA. Although the initial project, a production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea, was fraught with academic politics that affected Scarola's ability to select the best singers for his production, a new door in his career as director opened. Dean Sidlin who is revamping the CUA music department improved the working environment subsequent to Poppea that allowed Scarola to control casting for his second production, Aaron Copland's The Tender Land. This interviewer/reviewer who walked out at intermission on Poppea because the singers were not able to bring any life to Monteverdi's beautiful music was thoroughly impressed by Scarola's production of The Tender Land, an opera that is greatly under-produced. What was clearly visible to this reviewer who happened to be sitting behind Scarola during a performance of The Tender Land was the connection he had with every singer and how electric this made his production that used every door in the cozy hall turned into a theater.

Six months shy of an undergraduate degree from Queens College, Scarola said, "I never saw myself working in the academic world, but I'm finding intense joy in passing on my knowledge to these students. To see them up on that stage growing, the way they did in the rehearsal process and performances of The Tender Land, brought tears to my eyes. This feeling was nothing I expected." Scarola says he and his partner have spent a lot of time lately discussing his career path and goals. Because his work at Catholic University is offering him new challenges and deep satisfaction, Scarola decided he would continue to work part time for New York City Opera and not accept a longer-term contract right now. Like Plácido Domingo who is investing a lot of time and resources in young artists, Scarola affirms young artists are opera's future. Scarola also laments that the Metropolitan Opera has cut the kind of programs he attended there as a child.  

With career experience that includes the top American opera companies, involvement in productions of most of the standard repertory and some unusually challenging operatic works like Philip Glass' The Photographer as well as the exciting new work with young artists, what else does Scarola hope to do? Except for dreaming about the chance to direct at Bayreuth, Wagner's Opera House, Scarola hopes to develop and direct a brand new opera from the beginning. "The most important thing is to keep doing the best work I can do and never ever take for granted how blessed I am. There are so many people who would love to do what I'm doing. I'm also very fortunate to be able to make a living as a free-lance opera director. When I'm not working, I'm not getting paid but that's not often."

©2005 Karren LaLonde Alenier

Karren Alenier and Gertrude Stein
Karren Alenier writes a monthly column on the creation of her new opera, Gertrude Stein Invents A Jump Early On.
More at: www.steinopera.com

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