April 03, 1978 12:00 PM

For more than two hours on opening night of the operatic shocker Lulu, a well-heeled Houston audience sat mute while enormous erotic images were projected as a backdrop to the work’s motifs of lesbianism, rape and murder. When the curtain fell, the crowd erupted in a cacophony of bravos and boos. It was a typical premiere of a Frank Corsaro production.

That was three years ago and hardly the greatest uproar stirred by the 53-year-old director and his campaign to bring Broadway stagecraft and modern psychological perspectives to a creaking art form. “Opera ought not to be in a museum,” snorts Corsaro. “Sex and violence are the staff of these works. So I approach them realistically—or shamelessly, my critics say.” If that sounds as if he is trying to bring to opera the kind of excess Ken (Tommy, Valentino) Russell inflicts on films, well, eight Corsaro works are in the current repertory of the New York City Opera, and later this month he will have his ninth premiere, Tosca, at the Houston Grand Opera. On Broadway, where he also directs, Corsaro boasts the current hit Cold Storage, and bookstores are about to receive his memoirs, Maverick.

His life’s real mission is still the modernization of opera while remaining faithful, he insists, to the original. “I use source material and my imagination to try to re-create what was in the composer’s head,” he explains. “What’s so sacred about librettos? Lots are rotten or boring.” That’s indisputable, and Corsaro is not as arrogant as he sometimes appears. In 1972, while getting into Mozart’s head, he produced a Don Giovanni he describes as “awful, so silly even I burst out laughing.” It wasn’t all his fault, though, he adds, fingering also opera’s perennial shortage of funds and rehearsal time. “I stick to my interpretation of Giovanni as a very sexual human being,” Corsaro continues. “It’s what I think Mozart would have done without censors.” New York Times critic Harold Schonberg said the treatment “approached vandalism.”

Corsaro counts on young American singers (he teaches seminars in Houston) to collaborate in his updating. “This is a sexually freer age, and they will attempt things European-trained singers won’t,” he explains. “I asked one foreign soprano playing Violetta [in La Traviata] to throw a rosary on the ground and she couldn’t. Europeans come out of the mechanical school of charm. I try to teach them the savvy of a musical comedy star, but when they have to move or act, they panic.”

The son of Italians—his father was a tailor—who emigrated to the Bronx, Corsaro got his first operatic exposure as part of a paid (25 cents) claque at the old Met. The urge to “mug and strut” led him to Yale’s drama school, where by his third year he was directing Sartre’s No Exit. The following season the production appeared off-Broadway. In the early ’50s Corsaro joined the Actors Studio, and one day while watching Henry Silva and Anthony Franciosa rehearse a one-acter on drug addiction, he stepped in with some suggestions to extend the play to three acts. The result was the Broadway hit A Hatful of Rain, which established Frank as a major director at 30. Then he won the 1962 Drama Critics’ Circle Award with Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, though Bette Davis had tried to get him fired out of town. Instead he was just suspended (but never replaced) and returned when she left the show three months after the Broadway opening.

In 1969, while directing Prince Igor for the New York City Opera, Corsaro met his match in mezzo Bonnie Lueders. “I thought she was overdoing the sex,” he recalls, “grinding two cups of coffee when I only wanted one.” They argued hotly, but the encounter perked his interest, and they married two years later. Lueders has along the way had a son, Andrew, 4, and gone into acting, appearing in TV soaps and as Paul Newman’s mistress in Buffalo Bill and the Indians. Right now she is being coached for a plunge into musical comedy.

Broadway beckons for Corsaro, too, with a property scheduled for 1979 that suggests nothing will ever be sacred to Frank Corsaro. It’s a disco musical he plans to title Holy Moses and the Top Ten.

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