Con­duc­tor known for ex­pert com­mand of mu­sic

The Washington Post Sunday - - OBITUARIES - BY EMILY LANGER emily.langer@wash­

In the clas­si­cal-mu­sic world, the most revered con­duc­tors have tra­di­tion­ally stood on the podium, clad in a tuxedo, ba­ton in hand, to be met by cheers of “Bravo, mae­stro!” For Fiora Corradetti Contino, the ac­cla­ma­tion would have been “Brava, maes­tra!”

Dr. Contino be­longed to the elite co­hort of fe­male con­duc­tors who have achieved long and suc­cess­ful ca­reers in oper­atic, or­ches­tral and choral mu­sic. Sought af­ter by re­gional opera com­pa­nies across the United States, she be­came known for her ex­pert, sen­si­tive com­mand of mu­sic in a genre his­tor­i­cally led by men.

Dr. Contino died March 5 at a se­nior liv­ing com­mu­nity in Carmel, Ind. She was 91 and had ar­te­rioscle­rotic car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease, said her daugh­ter Lisa Contino.

Born in the United States, the daugh­ter of the noted Ital­ian bari­tone Fer­ruc­cio Corradetti, Dr. Contino once quipped that she had “no voice” but learned as a con­duc­tor to “sing vi­car­i­ously.”

In her late 20s, she founded an opera com­pany in Mas­sachusetts, the Amherst Com­mu­nity Opera. She later served for many years as direc­tor of Opera Illi­nois, direc­tor of the Choral In­sti­tute in Aspen, Colo., and pro­fes­sor and choral depart­ment chair at In­di­ana Univer­sity, her alma mater.

It was widely sug­gested that she would have risen to greater fame if she had not been a woman. She “is cer­tainly one of the out­stand­ing women con­duc­tors of our day,” mu­sic critic By­ron Belt was quoted as writ­ing. “We men­tion the sex . . . to un­der­score the fact be­cause a man of her su­perla­tive gifts would surely be an in­ter­na­tional su­per­star to­day.”

Dr. Contino was known for her in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Ital­ian verismo works of the late 19th cen­tury. Ex­em­pli­fied by com­posers in­clud­ing Mascagni, Leon­cav­allo and Puc­cini, they re­placed sen­ti­men­tal­ity with gritty re­al­ism.

She told an in­ter­viewer, Bruce Duffie, that al­though she had “never felt any an­i­mos­ity or any hos­til­ity” from an orches­tra be­cause of her gen­der, she did sense the mu­si­cians un­der her ba­ton oc­ca­sion­ally wait­ing “to see if you know your stuff.”

In­ter­viewed in the book “Wisdom, Wit, and Will: Women Choral Con­duc­tors on Their Art” by Joan Ca­toni Con­lon, she re­called di­rect­ing Verdi’s opera “La Travi­ata” with the Pitts­burgh Sym­phony Orches­tra.

“They were cap­tives and not very thrilled with some un­known woman,” she said. “The pre­lude is one of the most heart-sear­ing works, and I didn’t like the way they were playing it. I found that a woman rather sounds like a kinder­garten teacher when say­ing, ‘I don’t like this.’ I think that has to do with gen­der be­cause a man sounds dif­fer­ent when he com­plains about some­thing.”

At the per­for­mance, though, “when I could show them what I wanted with my stick,” she said, “they were just ter­rific.”

She did not al­low her­self to be overly con­cerned with her mem­ber­ship in a mi­nor­ity mu­si­cal group. Among the most noted fe­male con­duc­tors who fol­lowed her are JoAnn Fal­letta, Marin Al­sop, Gisele Ben-Dor and Xian Zhang.

“Be­ing a woman con­duc­tor, as far as I am con­cerned, is not a cause,” she told Duffie. “It’s just there. If some­body is un­com­fort­able with it, that’s their prob­lem and not my prob­lem.”

Fiora d’Itala Rosa Corradetti was born in Lyn­brook, N.Y., on June 17, 1925. Her mother, like her father, was an Ital­ian im­mi­grant. A half sis­ter, Iris Adami Corradetti, a so­prano, won ac­claim as the ti­tle char­ac­ter of Puc­cini’s opera “Madame But­ter­fly” and was later a promi­nent vo­cal coach.

Dr. Contino said that un­til her father’s death when she was 14, she trailed him “like a puppy.” He in­tro­duced her to the great Ital­ian con­duc­tor Ar­turo Toscanini, who en­cour­aged her in her mu­si­cal stud­ies.

She was a 1947 grad­u­ate of Ober­lin Col­lege in Ohio, where she stud­ied pi­ano per­for­mance. At In­di­ana Univer­sity, she re­ceived a mas­ter’s de­gree in 1962 and a doc­tor­ate in 1964, both in choral con­duct­ing.

Dr. Contino taught at in­sti­tu­tions in­clud­ing the Pe­abody In­sti­tute in Baltimore.

Her mar­riage to Joseph Contino ended in di­vorce, and her com­pan­ion of nearly six decades, Jeral­dine Baum­gart­ner, died in 2012. Sur­vivors in­clude four chil­dren from her mar­riage, Lisa Contino, Adri­ana Contino and Francesca Le­vitt, all of In­di­anapo­lis, and Fred­eric Contino of Ap­ple Val­ley, Minn.; nine grand­chil­dren; and 14 great-grand­chil­dren.

Dr. Contino was 73 when she made her New York de­but in 1998, con­duct­ing the Teatro Gratta­cielo and the Or­a­to­rio So­ci­ety of New York in a con­cert per­for­mance of Mascagni’s “Iris” at Alice Tully Hall at Lin­coln Cen­ter.

Age, she seemed to say, did noth­ing to di­min­ish the most in­ef­fa­ble qual­i­ties of mu­si­cian­ship.

“I have the ru­bato,” she told the New York Times in 2001, us­ing the Ital­ian term whose lit­eral trans­la­tion is “stolen time,” re­fer­ring to de­par­tures from a strict tempo to al­low richer emo­tional ex­pres­sion. “It’s in the hands.”


“Be­ing a woman con­duc­tor, as far as I am con­cerned, is not a cause,” Fiora Corradetti Contino once told an in­ter­viewer.

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