New Director Takes Opera in New Directions

 By Radhika Viswanathan

“The show must go on” is one of the most common phrases in show business and a motto of dedication that is definitely embodied by everyone involved in the performing  arts at South. These students overcome everything—from high levels of schoolwork to the occasional hurricane—in order to ensure that the show will go on.
Recently, they faced a different type of obstacle: when the beloved opera director Ms. Fran Harman became sick, the students wanted to perform an opera that would keep her traditions going until she was well enough to return. But who would direct it? Ms. Harman suggested Mr. Michael Capasso, a longtime friend of hers and an alumnus of South.
“Fran and I have been collaborating for 27 to 28 years, and I came back to Great Neck South as a labor of love for Fran,” Mr. Capasso said.
Mr. Capasso’s company, Dicapo Opera, has been called “the closest thing New York has to a mini-Met” by New York magazine and is New York’s third largest opera company, after the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera. He founded the company with Ms. Diane Martindale 31 years ago, and over the years, the school has been renting scenery and costumes from Dicapo.
When Mr. Capasso attended South, Ms. Martindale was his music teacher. “I loved opera and was always interested in it from the time I was seven, but she was the influence, the person who made me feel I could do what I do professionally,” Mr. Capasso said. “She is the ‘Di’ in Dicapo.”
Working on La Bohéme was a challenging but fulfilling experience for all the students and teachers involved. Created by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini, the opera was especially difficult due to “the musical meters, the key signatures, the tempos, and the fact that it is all in Italian,” said Mr. Michael Schwartz, the Performing Arts department chairperson. “At the start, I was not sure that the student orchestra would be able to play the entire opera. In the end, we were able to play the opera, and I think it’s a real tribute to their dedication and talent.”
Dr. Pamela Levy, the musical director, said, “Because it is really a drama that is sung, we had to work on pronunciation; we had to understand the meaning of the words; and we also had to act in it.”
Because Mr. Capasso is a professional director, the students had a completely new experience working on this opera. “When Dr. Levy told us that a professional director was coming in, we were expecting a snooty, stuck-up, prim-and-proper man with an Italian accent,” said junior Alex Schecter, who played Colline in the show. “To our surprise, he did not fit the image our imaginations had created.”
Working with a professional gave the students a real taste of theatre life. “We take ourselves very seriously, but we do have other commitments like schoolwork, SATs, doctor appointments, and drivers ed. We had to schedule our lives around this opera; if we already had another commitment in place, we were sometimes expected to cancel or reschedule it,” Schecter said.
It was also difficult for Mr. Capasso to adjust to working in a school environment. “In the professional world, there’s nothing more important than what you’re doing, and people are expected to be there 100% of the time. If you miss a rehearsal, you’re fired!” Mr. Capasso said. “But the students tried very, very hard. It was a lot to expect them to tackle a piece like this, but they did it admirably, and I was really proud of them.
“For anyone who wants to pursue theatre, know that it has to be something you want more than anything in the world. Only do this if you will be miserable doing anything else,” Mr. Capasso said.
The students’ hard work paid off when the show went on. Mr. Schwartz said, “I think we all learned so much from Mr. Capasso, and it brought our opera to a new level. It was an incredible challenge, but the more challenging something is, the more artistic and the more beautiful it is as well. And this was some of the most beautiful music that you’ll ever hear.”