Frank Corsaro, Director Who Shook Up Opera World, Dies at 92

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Frank Corsaro, Director Who Shook Up Opera World, Dies at 92
Frank Corsaro in 1975 at Lincoln Center. Credit Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Frank Corsaro, a prolific director of theater and opera whose productions, especially for New York City Opera, pushed boundaries and challenged both performers and audiences, died on Saturday in Suwanee, Ga. He was 92.

His death was announced by his son, Andrew. Mr. Corsaro had lived all but the last two years of his life in New York.

Mr. Corsaro, who directed his first opera, Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” in 1958, came out of the theater world and advocated the idea — controversial to some — that opera singers should also act.

“Many opera singers were very used to just walking onstage, standing, planting themselves and singing,” the bass-baritone Samuel Ramey said in a tribute video when Mr. Corsaro received an Opera Honors award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2009. “You didn’t get the opportunity to do that in a Frank Corsaro production.”

But that was only the starting point in Mr. Corsaro’s efforts to imbue opera with fresh energy and relevance. He began incorporating film and other multimedia elements into his operas, sometimes to the consternation of critics.

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“On the whole the production has been gimmicked too much,” Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times wrote in his review of Mr. Corsaro’s production of “The Makropoulos Affair” at City Opera in 1970, which included sexually explicit film footage. The opera, he wrote, would have been better served “with more attention to the composer’s ideas and less to the director’s.”

Mr. Corsaro, though, was happy to raise eyebrows.

“It’s all an effort to break up the prevailing timid approach to opera production,” he said in an interview about that production. “You know, where they think it’s daring to use a few slides.”

Francesco Corsaro was born on Dec. 22, 1924. As he later told it, his birth took place aboard a ship as his parents, who had emigrated from Italy, were coming into New York Harbor from Argentina, where they had lived briefly. His father, Giuseppe, was a tailor, and his mother, the former Antonietta Guarino, was a homemaker.

His first exposure to opera was listening to radio broadcasts with his father, a fan. But at a young age he discovered that free standing-room tickets were available at some opera houses to “claquers,” who would applaud on cue when their designated star appeared.

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Frank Corsaro, Director Who Shook Up Opera World, Dies at 92
A young Plácido Domingo with Patricia Brooks in 1967 during a 1967 City Opera performance “Traviata,” directed by Mr. Corsaro. It was considered his operatic breakthrough. Credit Beth Bergman

Mr. Corsaro attended the Yale School of Drama and directed a production of Sartre’s “No Exit” at the Cherry Lane Theater in 1947 while still a student there. In 1950 he joined the Actors Studio, the famed incubator of method actors, and for a time he pursued acting himself.

“I was sort of an early ham, looking to find a proper refrigerator,” he said.

He had small roles in several Broadway productions in the early 1950s as well as a few television appearances, but that vocation soon fell by the wayside (though he did appear in the 1968 movie “Rachel, Rachel,” directed by his fellow Actors Studio member Paul Newman). He directed “The Scarecrow” Off Broadway in 1953 with a cast that included James Dean, Patricia Neal and Eli Wallach, and in 1955 he notched his first Broadway directing credit for “The Honeys,” a Roald Dahl comedy starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

Later that year he made a bigger impression directing the Broadway production of “A Hatful of Rain,” a drama about addiction starring Ben Gazzara and Shelley Winters. It ran for 398 performances.

He also received the director’s credit on “The Night of the Iguana,” the Tennessee Williams play that premiered on Broadway in 1961, though Bette Davis, one of the show’s stars, had him barred from rehearsals during the pre-Broadway run in Chicago. (“We differed on interpretation,” he told The Times in 1979.)

After that difficult experience, his attention increasingly turned to opera, and his production of “La Traviata” for City Opera in 1966, with Patricia Brooks and Plácido Domingo, was something of a breakthrough.

“The new ‘Traviata’ staged last night at the New York State Theater is, consistently, the most intelligent and best-acted presentation I have ever seen,” Mr. Schonberg wrote in The Times.

“It is a ‘Traviata’ full of original touches, and tradition has gone out the window,” he continued. “But everything has been done with such professionalism, together with an avoidance of campy effects, that the overall line is never broken, even though it may be slightly wrenched.”

Quite a few traditions went out the window, in Mr. Schonberg’s phrase, in Corsaro productions for City Opera — sometimes too many. His 1972 “Don Giovanni” became somewhat infamous. When Mr. Corsaro and the conductor, Bruno Maderna, came forth after the final curtain on opening night, “both got as lusty a collection of boos as has enlivened the New York State Theater since it was opened,” Mr. Schonberg wrote.

“They deserved every bit of it,” he added, finding the interpretation sexed up, frenetic and overstuffed with unfamiliar ideas. “Mr. Corsaro’s treatment of ‘Don Giovanni’ approached vandalism.”

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Frank Corsaro, Director Who Shook Up Opera World, Dies at 92
Mr. Corsaro, center, in 1988 with, from left, Paul Newman, Patty Ewald, Peter Masterson and Ellen Burstyn outside the Actors Studio in New York after Mr. Corsaro was named its artistic director. Credit Vic DeLucia/The New York Times

If Mr. Corsaro’s productions sometimes inflamed, he was always eager to explore and to push opera out of its stand-and-deliver comfort zone — emphasizing sex and sensuality and story lines, changing settings, and above all pushing singers to dig deep to find their characters, as an actor would.

“We have been brainwashed into believing that the ‘true’ singer is the one with the azure-clad voice — one odd or coarse sound constituting a fall from grace,” he wrote in an article for The Times that was excerpted from his 1978 memoir, “Maverick: A Director’s Personal Experience in Opera & Theater.” “It’s part of the Norman Rockwell syndrome, where art and artists, like all winter days, are valentines.”

If that cost some purity on the musical side, he didn’t care.

“Inconsistent vocal production is minor sacrifice to pay in the shaping of great art,” he wrote.

Other noteworthy productions among his dozens of City Opera credits included “Madama Butterfly” (1967), “Faust” (1968), “Pelléas and Mélisande” (1970) and “La Fanciulla del West” (1977). But his directing took him all over the world, to the Houston Grand Opera, the Washington Opera Society, the San Francisco Opera and many others.

He enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Maurice Sendak, the author and illustrator known for children’s books like “Where the Wild Things Are.” Mr. Sendak designed the sets for Mr. Corsaro’s productions of “The Magic Flute” in Houston in 1980, “The Cunning Little Vixen” for City Opera in 1981 and several others.

In 1971 Mr. Corsaro married Mary Cross Lueders (known as Bonnie), a mezzo-soprano with City Opera. She died in 2016. In addition to his son, he is survived by a brother, Anthony, and two grandsons.

Mr. Corsaro also wrote several librettos and is remembered by many as a teacher, whether in his capacity as director or in other settings. He taught at and directed the American Opera Center at Juilliard. In 1988 he became artistic director of his old stomping ground, the Actors Studio.

Mr. Domingo, still in his 20s when he worked with Mr. Corsaro, said in a telephone interview that the director’s ideas were at first startling, but grew on him, and left him with an appreciation for stage-director approach to opera, and for bending boundaries.

“If it makes sense,” Mr. Domingo said, “then you can have wonderful things.”

In a video made for the Opera Honors award, the director Stephen Wadsworth summed up Mr. Corsaro’s influence, singling out the three-year span that brought his City Opera productions of “La Traviata,” “Madama Butterfly” and “Faust.”

“The wonderful thing about Frank’s work,” he said, “is that Frank is an American, and so the great glory of the American acting tradition, which is working from the inside out, was all over these shows, and all over the performances. And that was an absolute revelation, and a real revolution for opera.”

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