Music and Painting: Gerard Catapano Embraces Arts Of All Kinds
by Andrew Soboeiro
Art, like medicine, is not always pleasant to experience, but it has a healing effect.
Gerard Catapano experienced this firsthand as a child. Rather than hire a sitter, his parents would take him to the opera.
Catapano protested, demanding that he be spared such a “boring” experience. Never did he imagine how opera would influence his life.
Catapano grew up in an Italian-American family in Brooklyn, N.Y. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Johns Hopkins University, attended medical school in Chicago, returned to New York, and became a general practictioner.
Already, Catapano was heavily involved in the arts. The stress of being a physician took its toll on him. He needed an outlet.
“You tend to migrate toward things that heal,” he says. “Seeing a child that’s sick is one of the most devastating things.”
Catapano took up painting, seeing a contrast to medicine. Medical practice, he explained, is a profession that allows little creativity or expression.
“Impressionist painting allows me to be free … it takes what is real and personalizes it,” he says.
As the nature of medical practice changed, Catapano found himself increasingly unable to enjoy his work. As a family doctor, he felt the threat of lawsuits.
Catapano decided to retire, though he kept his medical license.
In 1990 he moved to Pinehurst for golf, but found himself bored.
Catapano began taking art classes at Sandhills Community College. He developed a close relationship with one of his teachers, becoming one of her most prolific students. He was offered her job. He took it.
For 12 years Catapano taught art at SCC. He learned to identify talented students, his “groupies,” molding them into accomplished artists.
“Dr. Catapano is an amazing impressionist,” says Teresa Reynolds, senior director of community education at Sandhills and a longtime friend of Catapano. “When he taught painting courses at Sandhills, he had a following of students, semester after semester, year after year. He has a wonderful teaching style, gently guiding his students to be open to their own expression while teaching them the use of color, composition and harmony.”
Over the years, Catapano became well known in the Sandhills art scene. He was involved in the Artists League, and sold paintings at the Campbell House. Through teaching, he learned to recognize talent through the artist’s personality.
Students who were enthusiastic, adventurous and took risks were likely to become proficient; those who merely took the class and followed instructions failed to advance.
Catapano appreciated the feedback that his work produced, enjoying people’s reactions to his paintings. He began to diversify his skills, learning photography to capture paintable images. He also traveled in search of scenes to paint; art has taken him to Italy, France and around the United States.
Catapano eventually grew bored with just art. While he enjoyed painting, he grew tired of the repetitive process of teaching it.
Catapano turned to opera. “I needed to express my love for music,” he says, “and to try to explain why opera is not only for the pseudo-sophisticated and pseudo-intellectuals.”
He submitted a proposal for a new opera class: He would show videos and discuss the literary and theatrical elements. The faculty was skeptical at first.
“I was both shocked and delighted when he suggested teaching opera courses,” says Reynolds. “What shocked me was knowing that he’d have to be very knowledgeable in the subject. I had no doubts about that; I was simply amazed at knowing that there was yet another artistic field in which he was well versed.” Catapano quickly gained faculty approval.
Hoping to attract students, Catapano named his first class “Painless Italian Opera.” He began by showing a clip from the 1987 film “Moonstruck,” where the characters discussed an Italian opera about a woman with tuberculosis. No one expected boring opera to reflect popular culture.
This raised interest in his class, creating appeal and attracting new students. His class sizes grew from 10 students to more than 50.
The college described his curriculum as “discussing opera from the standpoint of appreciating the words set to the beautiful music.” He explored Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, Verdi and Cilea. Catapano uncovered countless “closet opera-lovers” in Moore County. He was instrumental in bringing the Metropolitan Opera to the Sunrise Theater.
Amazingly, Gerard Catapano is almost entirely self-trained. While he has taken some art classes over the years, they merely augmented the skills he had developed independently since he was 14.
Likewise, his knowledge of opera comes not from studying musical and literary theories, but from observing and interpreting for himself.
This demonstrates an important facet of the arts: They are not a science. One can become artistically proficient not by memorizing certain principles or following the paths of others, but by exploring the world and interpreting it for oneself.
Catapano’s understanding of this has allowed him to become an effective teacher. He uses democratic and collaborative methods within the classroom, giving students a degree of control over the curriculum. He encourages his students to incorporate art throughout their lives.
“I always ask people, ‘Do you paint at home?’ You can’t be an artist that only paints with momentary inspirations... The more you get into art, the more you become possessed by it; at all times you are looking for things to paint,” he says.
Andrew Soboeiro is a rising freshman at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a summer intern at The Pilot.
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