At the end of tomorrow's performance of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte," John Mauceri will give up his seven-year post as Pittsburgh Opera's music director to become chancellor of the North Carolina School of the Arts, a campus of the University of North Carolina. He also will step down at the end of this summer from his 16-year tenure as director of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra.
Maestro John Mauceri
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The role of educator is not new to the 60-year-old conductor, who has molded himself in the manner of Leonard Bernstein, with whom he enjoyed a close professional and personal association from 1971 until Bernstein's death in 1990. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera describes Mauceri as "a volatile, dynamic conductor, who brings an almost missionary fervor to his performances," and those acquainted with him know that even a casual conversation is likely to turn into an educational experience.
"Bringing John Mauceri to Winston-Salem is a real coup for this university and the state," said Erskine Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina.
Pittsburgh Opera general director Mark Weinstein calls Mauceri "a contemporary copy of Leonard Bernstein -- as much an educator as a conductor," while also praising him for "an incredible job of bringing the opera orchestra to its highest possible level."
Weinstein said Pittsburgh Opera released Mauceri from his 2006-07 contract at the conductor's request.
"Richard Buckley will conduct the opening night 'Pagliacci,' and a guest conductor had already been engaged for 'Romeo et Juliette' in November," Weinstein said. "Time is on our side for the spring productions. Our board will be getting together to assess the situation."
Mauceri, a Yale University alumnus, has strong academic credentials of his own and looks forward to running a major educational institution. He said the present appointment came about as a result of his seeing "Sweeney Todd" on Broadway last year.
"I went backstage afterward to congratulate Patti LuPone," he said, "and [stage director] Gerald Freedman, whom I've known since the '70s, was there. He's now dean of NCSA's drama school, and we talked about people we both knew who are now working there.
"A few weeks later, Philip Nelson, a former dean of Yale's music school who was acting chancellor at NCSA, called me to tell me he was heading the search committee for a new chancellor. He invited me down, and I fell in love with the school. It's an amazing facility. Eventually they made me an offer.
"Because I had made the determination to leave the Hollywood Bowl, I was looking for new projects. But what finally made me accept was the board's belief that I should continue to conduct. Unfortunately, Pittsburgh Opera's 'Pagliacci' takes place at the very start of the school year, but I hope to be back and conduct in Pittsburgh and elsewhere [on a guest basis] after things settle down in my new job." As to what he hopes to accomplish at NCSA, Mauceri said "the school itself would benefit from a higher profile. I hope to bring famous people whom I love to work with to the school." Asked how he feels about the future of the arts, the new chancellor said, "In an important titled position, I'll be able to act as a lobbyist for the arts on the state and national levels in a way I never could have done before."
He believes his biggest achievement in Pittsburgh has been "attaining a higher level of performance [from the resident orchestra and chorus] that has become consistent, no matter what the production." He talked with pride of having conducted a repertory here that ranged from the baroque (Handel's "Julius Caesar") to the contemporary (Heggie's "Dead Man Walking"), but he regrets not having been able to go into the larger German repertory, mostly for economic reasons.
"Losing our fifth opera in the Byham Theater was the biggest disappointment," he said. "Without a second smaller theater, we lost the chance to do experimental repertory."
At NCSA, Mauceri hopes to make the school "a model for sharing performances and repertory at all levels -- local, state and national." He also hopes to make people beyond North Carolina "aware of this gem of an institution that is not yet as widely known as it should be."
Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor and former classical music critic.