Director  John  Copley

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


For over forty years, the British director John Copley has maintained a place as one of the seminal theatrical figures of our time. Beginning with his debut production of Suor Angelica for Covent Garden in 1965, Mr. Copley became one of the most dominant directorial influences in the history of British opera, staging some 15 productions at Covent Garden and 13 at the English National Opera, as well as numerous productions in the English provinces. He has also directed for every other major British and American company, as well as those of Germany, Canada, Greece and Australia. Across a body of work that has inspired a generation of opera goers, he has become known for an approach emphasizing integrity to the truth of the score itself, as well as a boldly original sensibility.

Born in Birmingham, he was a dancer at London’s Royal Ballet, and was active throughout his youth as an actor and designer. This all-inclusive immersion in the theatrical experience profoundly informed his work when he turned to his childhood love of opera. He began his career stage-managing for Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet and Covent Garden. Rising quickly through the ranks at Covent Garden, he became assistant producer and then principal resident producer of the company, and his interpretations of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas, the nineteenth-century Italian classics, and the works of Benjamin Britten became mainstays at Covent Garden and beyond. His productions proved to have evergreen appeal: his rendering of Le nozze di Figaro remained in the repertoire for 21 years, and his Così fan Tutte for 24. His production of La bohème is still in repertoire at the house, where it has played for 27 years.

Over the span of his career at Covent Garden, he developed fruitful collaborations with conductors including Sir Georg Solti, Sir Colin Davis, Carlos Kleiber and Sir John Pritchard. At the English National Opera, he created landmark productions in partnership with artists such as Sir Charles Mackerras and Dame Janet Baker. Among these was Giulio Cesare, an uncommonly dynamic and theatrically charged staging of the Handel classic that decisively influenced subsequent directors of Baroque opera. Widely acclaimed, the production went on to San Francisco, Geneva and finally the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.

His career in America is equally distinguished. Among his many milestone productions are a broodingly Romantic staging of Bellini’s Il pirata at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002, a fanciful Il barbiere di Siviglia seen in Chicago, San Francisco, Dallas and elsewhere, and a visually stunning rendering of Michael Tippett’s Midsummer Marriage for San Francisco Opera. Other recent work has included La Traviata in San Francisco in 2004, a new Norma at the Met in 2001, and a production of Madama Butterfly that opened the Santa Fe Opera’s new theater in 1998. In the 2005-2006 season he directed Carmen at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Handel’s Rodelinda in Dallas, and Le nozze di Figaro at San Francisco Opera. 2006- 2007 produced Le nozze di Figaro with Boston Lyric Opera and Giulio Cesare at the Metropolitan Opera. Last season his work was seen at Lyric Opera of Chicago (Il barbiere di Siviglia) and the San Francisco Opera (Ariodante).

His extraordinary productivity in Australia has yielded more than twenty-five productions for both the Australian Opera in Sydney and the Victorian State Opera in Melbourne. In Europe, he has an enduring relationship with the Greek National Opera, where he has staged Madama Butterfly, Otello, and Macbeth, as well as a new production of Il Corsaro in 2001. He has also helmed productions in Munich, Berlin, Geneva, Brussels, Amsterdam, Drottningholm, Stockholm and Gothenburg. In the current season, he directs Madama Butterfly for The Dallas Opera. Recently, he directed Idomeneo for the San Fancisco Opera, Le nozze di Figaro for Dallas Opera, and Peter Grimes in San Diego. Many of his productions can be seen on video, including Mary Stuart and his celebrated Giulio Cesare from English National Opera, as well as La bohème and Lucrezia Borgia from Covent Garden and L’elisir d’amore from the Metropolitan Opera.

--  From the CAMI (Columbia Artists Management Inc) website 
--  Names which are links (in this box and below) refer to my Inteviews elsewhere on my website.  BD 

Arranging an interview with a stage-director can be tricky.  Singers rehearse every day until the opening, and then have a day or two (or three or four) off between performances.  However, the stage director is even more busy during the rehearsal period, then leaves immediately for the next production. 

As shown in the chart below, John Copley has been in Chicago for several productions over a number of seasons.  I was fortunate to be able to meet with him backstage in January of 1989, on the day of the opening night of Tancredi.  He was full of humor and we had a jolly time.

Bruce Duffie:    Do you like working with singers?

John Copley:    Yes, I love working with singers.  I’ve spent my life in the operatic firmament.  My earliest recollections are of Flagstad and Hotter, and people like Grümmer and the Konetzni sisters, so I do go back a long way.

BD:    Then why didn’t you go into directing more Wagner instead of the Italian repertoire?

JC:    I’m not really very good at that.  It’s somehow the breadth and the phrasing of it.  I’ve done two, and it’s rather like straight theater.  I love going to it but I somehow don’t want to do it.  I’m a Gemini
very impatient and impulsive.  The pulse of Wagner is too gentle for me.  Even at his most passionate, the phrase and the arc are immense, and by the time I got through the arc I’m onto the next idea.  I really think that.  I’m not good at that.

BD:    With all of this repertoire to choose from, how do you decide whether you’ll accept or turn down assignments or requests for your services?

JC:    For instance, I’ve turned down Rossini for years.  I’ve never enjoyed doing it.  I did a Barbiere, and I’ve done workshops of some of the other comedies, but I’ve never felt very comfortable.  [As shown in the box below, he would return to Chicago for Barber the following season.]  When I was asked to do this Tancredi, I listened to it and I thought,
“Oh, no, I really can’t do that.  Then I started working on it, and I suddenly found that it was full of really marvelous music.  There is a recording, and it has got some slightly dull patches, and that is rather off-putting.  But when I sat down at the piano and really started working on it, I thought it was terribly interesting.  It’s a very interesting transitional piece, having done all the Baroque and the Mozarts, and then into Fidelio, and I’ve done a lot of Gluck.  Suddenly in between and all the Verdis and the Bellinis you’ve got this funny little period in the middle.  It’s extraordinary that Tancredi was 1813.  You listen to it, and it is very hard to imagine that was written a year after Napoleon retreated from Moscow.  It feels much later, and it has a much later kind of comprehension.  It is so brilliant when you think that he’s twenty-one writing that, and he was looking so far ahead.  I was so suddenly taken with the idea of doing it, but it’s not easy.

John Copley at Lyric Opera of Chicago

1975 - Lucia with Sutherland, Pavarotti, Saccomani, Ferrin; Bonynge, Bardon, Weschler

1983 - La Bohème with Cotrubas, Ciannella, Raftery, Hong, Galbraith, Tajo; Navarro, Pizzi. Schuler (and all further productions unless noted)

1986-87 (Fall & Winter dates) - La Bohème with Ricciarelli/Daniels/Esperian, Polozov/Araiza/Shicoff/Hadley/Leech,
                              Corbelli/Wroblewski, Daniels/Brown/Putnam, Washington, Capecchi; Mauceri/Thomas, Pizzi
                 Orlando with Horne, Rolandi, Anderson, Gall; Mackerras, Pascoe, Tallchief

1988-89 - Tancredi with Horne, Cuberli, Merritt, Cox, Sharon Graham; Bartoletti, Conklin

1989-90 - Barber of Seville with Von Stade, Lopardo, Allen, Ghiuselev, Desderi; Pinzauti, Conklin

1994-95 (Fall & Winter Dates) - Barber of Seville with Von Stade/Mentzer/McCormick, Blake, Allen/Gilfrey/Braun,
                              Ghiaurov/Halfvarson/Hogan, Desderi; Behr/Rizzi, Conklin

1997-98 - Peter Grimes with Heppner, Magee, Ellis, Nolen; Elder, Toms, Binder
                 Idomeneo with Domingo/Cole, Devia, Vaness/Lawrence, Kasarova, Drews, Aceto; Nelson, Conklin

1998-99 (Opening Night) - Gioconda with Eaglen, Botha, Putilin, Redmon/Matos, Halfvarson, Maultsby; Bartoletti, Brown, Tallchief

1999-00 - Fledermaus with Lott, Evans, Bottone, Allen, Castle, Nolen, Del Carlo; Hager, Santicchi, Tallchief
                 Carmen with Graves, Leech, Doss, Watson/Izzo, McCrorey, Cangelosi; Levi, Don, Tallchief

2000-01 (January & March dates) - Tosca with Dessi/Valayre, Giordani/Amiliato/LaScola, Raimondi/Lafont, Travis, Cangelosi; Bartoletti, Walton
                 Barber of Seville with Kasarova/Bayrakdarian, Blake, Croft, Doss/Aceto, Del Carlo; Abel, Conklin, Binder

2003-04 - Lucia with Dessay, Álvarez/Ramsay, Holland, Tomasson, Cangelosi; López-Cobos, Bardon

2005-06 (Opening Night) (Fall and Winter Dates) - Carmen with Graves/Vizin, Thomsen/Shicoff/LaScola, D'Arcangelo/Doss,
                              Rost/Racette, Van Horn; Davis, Don

2007-08 - Barber of Seville with DiDonato, Osborn/Maut, Gunn/Dothard, Tigges, Kraus/Shore; Renzetti, Conklin

BD:    Are any operas easy?

JC:    Oh, sure.  Of course they are.  Bohème is terribly easy.  Figaro is terribly easy.

BD:    I assume even though it’s easy though, you go out there and you’re more than just a traffic cop.

copleyJC:    Yes, but they’re very economical.  Bohème is a masterpiece.  You cannot go wrong on Bohème.  You could do it any way.  You can do it with grown up people, you can do it with young people, you can do it in the 1830s, you can do it in 1920, you can do anything.  You can’t wreck it.  It’s just the perfect piece.  Butterfly is a perfect piece, too.

BD:    How many of these ‘perfect’ operas are there?

JC:    [With a smile]  Oh, I don’t know...

BD:    Is it a lot, or is it just a handful?

JC:    Oh, I don’t think it’s a lot, but there are really difficult ones.  Don Giovanni is terribly difficult.  It is one of the most difficult, and unless you have a troop of people that you absolutely understand, and absolutely work together, I don’t think it’s feasible.  I’ve never enjoyed doing it, but then I’ve never ever had the perfect cast, I have to say that.  I’ve never had the right group of people.  You need them all to absolutely gel together.  That’s a very hard one.

BD:    But I thought you really needed that for any piece, even for Bohème.

JC:    There are different strains put on people in Don Giovanni because there are no easy answers.  You can take Don Giovanni in so many directions.  There are so many decisions to be made about Don Giovanni.  There aren’t that many decisions to be made about Bohème.  You can decide whether Mimì is a ‘coquette’, or whether she’s a simple girl who happens to meet by chance.  There are two possibilities; there aren’t eight possibilities about their meeting.  In Don Giovanni there are a hundred possibilities about every line.  It’s so complex and so difficult.

BD:    When you do a production and you make these decisions, do those decisions stay the same for the next production?

JC:    No, because it depends totally on the people.  I’m a great one for working with the people on the floor.  When you make the preparation and design the shape of the set, you’ve got a very clear idea what you think it’s about, but what they actually do when they get on the stage depends entirely on them.  It’s never fixed in my mind at all.  For instance, in Act 2 of Figaro, it couldn’t be any clearer.  The hiding place for Susanna for the Trio has to be downstage for the balance of the voices.  Now it may be a trunk, it may be a screen, it may be curtains, it may be something else.  There are many possibilities for places that she can hide, but I have seen productions
sometimes by terribly famous peoplewhere the hiding place is so far upstage that she’s totally inaudible.  Those considerations are to me terribly important because we’re actually doing music.  We’re not doing text.

BD:    So you’re working with the designer, but you’re actually being a substitute conductor as well?

JC:    Of course you are.  Yes, that’s the great interest.  I’m trained as a designer by trade, but I started as a musician, and I’ve also choreographed.  So I’ve done most of the areas.  That’s why I’m hideous to work with.  [Laughs]

BD:    I was just going to ask if you are easier to work with because you understand the musician’s point of view.

JC:    Most conductors think I’m easier to work with because I never give them anything that’s not going to make musical sense.  I can’t see the point because they’re going to start screaming and carrying on, saying, they must have her here.

BD:    Then let me ask you the
Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

JC:    I think they’re absolutely together.  You have to remember that nearly always the text has been done before the composer gets at it.  Therefore, the text is there, and the text is the inspiration for the music.  Then the music is the additive thing.  The text obviously terribly important, but the music has to be served.  It may not be the case with Philip Glass or some of the other modern pieces, but what I’ve just said about Figaro is a case in point.  If you don’t serve the music, what is the point?  It’s the same with Brünnhilde and Siegfried coming out of the cave in Götterdämmerung.  I’ve seen them so far upstage
in a quite famous production recentlythey’re inaudible.  So what is the point?  It’s not a question of them being on the footlights.  I’m not saying it has to be all down at the front, but it has to be created.  For instance, you sometimes have to make an acoustic box.  I’ve worked with a lot of young singers in Australia in some of the very big theaters.  They’re now building very large theaters in Australia, and they don’t have big voices.  Some of the younger voices are very fragile and small, so you actually create an acoustic box, literally, so that they can be heard.  All of the sound is in a solid box within which they can heard.

copleyBD:    With the sides and back of the scenery?

JC:    Yes, absolutely, so that it’s completely closed, and you have it like a loudspeaker.

BD:    With a top, too?

JC:    A top, yes.  Oh, absolutely, yes because it all helps.  All pings of the sound go up. 

BD:    When you’re working with big massive sets, do you purposely place the singer in front of a large column to help focus to voice out?

JC:    [Laughs]  If you’ve got a large singer, you don’t generally need to do that.  But if you’ve got a tiny little soprano and tiny little tenor and a tiny little baritone doing Forza del Destino, you better do something clever.

BD:    Does this cleverness start out on the drawing board, or does the cleverness happen there when you’re working with the singers?

JC:    I don’t really think it’s like a drawing board.  It’s something else if you are suddenly are asked to jump in, but if you’re commissioned to do something, of course you know who’s in it because otherwise you don’t accept.  This particular Forza del Destino was much wanted by the management, and I felt that the singers were much too fragile for it.  So one just actually began with that very premise.  I did a Bohème in Australia for the opening of the Melbourne Opera House, which is a gigantic.  It’s the size of Munich, and there were six very, very young singers.  There was no way they could belt it out in the traditional way.  So we just created a wonderful acoustic box, and they were very audible and very charming

BD:    You’re saying Munich is gigantic, but with 2100 seats it is not nearly the size of the Met or Chicago.

JC:    I’m actually talking about the stage itself.  It has a stage opening as huge as the Met.

BD:    So you don’t really consider the number of seats in the hall?  You consider only the onstage area?

JC:    The inside of the auditorium is very important, too.  Chicago is very long and very distant, but it’s a very good acoustic.  I don’t think the Met is a great acoustic.  That’s a hard one, but the stage is gigantic if you use it all.

BD:    Why does is it seem that every director has to use every inch of that stage?

JC:    The Metropolitan audiences rather want that spectacle.  They seem to love the Turandot and the Tosca and the Bohème.  I think Bohème has about 380 people in the
Café Momus.  They cheer and clap the minute they see that number of people.  That appeals to them.  If you’ve got a gigantic house, it’s quite nice to show it off if you can afford it.  It’s very expensive to do that.  Americans love spectacle; we all do.  We all love to see something spectacular.  One of the most spectacular shows I ever saw was in Paristhe Lila De Nobili Carmen they did in the 50s.  It had ten horses and was a gigantic production, and it was wonderful.

BD:    Let me ask another balance question.  In opera, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value or spectacle? 

JC:    Well, I hope it’s always entertainment.  People, these days, go to the opera because they enjoy it.  It’s not an elitist thing anymore.  I don’t think they just go in there towards and first performance to be seen.  If you think of the Marx Brothers A Night at the Opera, it says some wonderful things about that time.  Remember Margaret Dumont in that wonderful dress (shown below with Groucho Marx)?  That’s what everybody used to think was the audience at the opera.  I remember when I was a child thinking that was the audience that the opera; that they all wore funny frocks and furs and little tiaras, and talked all the way through the performance.


BD:    Are you glad that this idea is now gone?

JC:    Sure.  I’m fifty-five now.  When I started going to the opera in
’46 in England, everybody paid for their ticket.  It was never elitist in my time because it was post-War.  At Covent Garden now you have a great many companies who sponsor the opera and buy the boxes and actually send their people.  They go to be seen, there’s no question about it.  They don’t like the opera, and you do still hear the very, very funny comments.  The famous one at Glyndebourne was during that Henze opera, Elegy for Young Lovers.  These two Glyndebourne ladies were there with the champagne and caviar picnic basket, and they’d only ever heard Mozart at Glyndebourne before.  So one said to the other, Are you enjoying it?  The other replied, [imitating a posh female English accent] Not much.  I don’t think it’s Mozart at his best.  [Both laugh]  There are still people who really don’t know what they’re hearing.

BD:    As the director, what do you expect of the audience that comes to the theater on any given night?

JC:    It depends on what sort of an audience it is.  Along those lines, I was once going around the back of the Grand Tier, and two women came out of a box in the third interval of Le Nozze de Figaro.  The one said,
I suppose in the next scene he sings the famous song?  You know, ‘Figaro here, Figaro there’.  So I went back and said to Geraint Evans, I think you’d better sing Largo al factotum [the famous patter aria from The Barber of Seville] tonight in the last act.  Otherwise they’ll think they’ve come to the wrong opera.  [Both laugh]  But to answer your question, I don’t know.  The audiences vary so much.  I don’t know, for instance, in Chicago why they come because I’m just here for tonight.  I do a show here every two years or every three years, and I don’t see the audiences.  I went to a bit of Aïda the other night, and they seem absolutely wrapped and enthusiastic.  But then Aïda is very popular.  Everybody goes to Aïda.   They’re always wrapped and enthusiastic at Aïda in London.  I don’t know what the great appeal is.  I know what it is for me, but people must go because they enjoy it.  It’s the culmination of so many things.  It’s the music, it’s the design, it’s the singers, it’s the drama, it’s the whole thing.  It’s an event.  It’s more of an event to go to a big opera like Aïda than it is to a little play like Driving Miss Daisy in a small theater at the Kennedy Center.  Enchanting as that is, it’s a different event, isn’t it.  It takes longer and it costs more...

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BD:    I want to ask a little bit about the expectation of the audience vis-à-vis having seen movies, having seen television, and having seen more operas, also.  Does all this change the way you approach directing opera which is rooted in the old traditions?

JC:    I don’t think it’s changed my direction because I’ve always directed in a very naturalistic and a very natural way.  I was taught by people like Tyrone Guthrie and Peter Brook in my youth.  I’ve always produced opera in a realist way, with good acting.  But you don’t always get them.  The thing that has changed a great deal
because of television, and opera on television particularlyis that the singers are much more aware of what they look like.  And they have had to learn to act.  They had to learn to be slimmer, even the great ones.  Pavarotti’s recently lost lots and lots of weight because he wanted to do certain parts, and he feels that he ought to be thinner to do them.  That’s all for the good because the credibility of it is diminished if the singer is too fat.

BD:    Can they be too thin?

melchiorJC:    Oh not if they’re playing Mimì, no.  [Both laugh]  Too thin?  Nice and tall and healthy is more of what we want.  I like to see people looking like the people they’re supposed to be.  I hardly see a Wagner cast come on who look like they’re supposed to look.  When do you see Sieglinde and Siegmund looking like young forest people?  When I saw Peter Hoffmann a few years ago, that was why he was so sensational.  Suddenly there was a Parsifal who looked like Parsifal!  There was a Siegmund who looked like Siegmund.

BD:    Did he sound like Siegmund and Parsifal?

JC:    He came as near to it as somebody of those years could.  It was absolutely thrilling to see him do those parts.  Yes, I was totally taken because it was just so different.  I thought he sang very adequately.  I’d rather have that than some sixty-year old singing it with a fuller sound all the way through, but absolutely looking ridiculous in all those awful skins and skinny legs.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  But then you’re asking for drama above the music.

JC:    No, because they may not have sounded as good as possible.  They were the only ones.  I’m trying to think of all those Wagnerian tenors when there were hardly any that that could do it.  They served the music adequately, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a perfect Siegfried, I have to say.

BD:    We missed Melchior (shown at right), and he’d be the last one.

JC:    Windgassen was the guy who recorded it with Solti, and it was marvelous.  He had such spirit, and he was absolutely marvelous, but come on, you would never believe he was really Siegfried.  I don’t think one can be absolutely clear about the music and the text.  It just goes together, and in every performance you get a bit of one thing and bit of the other.  I don’t think it’s ever balanced unless you do what I call very young opera.  You can go to Santa Fe where they have a very, very young set of people, and you can get as near to it as possible.  I’ve been doing Così for eighteen years, and the cast that I had was very much the same production.  I haven’t changed a lot of my ideas about that because it’s just part of me, but that cast made it absolutely work from A to Z because they were so absolutely right.  They all looked just perfect for those parts, and they were all marvelous actors and actresses.  It was utterly diverting and real.  I can’t say that the music or the drama was served best.  It just absolutely went together.  It was just a complete piece of work.

BD:    I have one question on Così.  Who ends up with whom?

JC:    I’ve done it both ways, and it depends.  The last time I did it with them ending up with the new partner because it looked like it was working out with the people who were doing it, and it suddenly became a very interesting exercise.  I’d not planned to do that at all, and half-way through the rehearsal process I suddenly thought we’re going to do it.  We started moving it, and it changes everything if you do it that way.  The whole of Act 2 works in a different way, and it’s very interesting, but it’s not what they wrote. 

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want it to be like Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice?

JC:    No.  It creates great on-going problems in the finale if you actually end up with them with their new partners because it’s somehow unbalanced.  It’s very interesting, and if you’ve got good actors who can really carry it through, it works.  But it’s not what they wrote, and therefore there’s something not quite right.

BD:    By the same token then does it change your attitude in Figaro to know what happens in the third drama?

The Guilty Mother (French: La Mère coupable) subtitled The Other Tartuffe is the third play of the Figaro trilogy by Pierre Beaumarchais; its predecessors were The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. This was the author's last play. It is rarely revived. Like the earlier plays of the trilogy it has been turned into operatic form, but it has not entered the general opera repertoire.

The action takes place twenty years after the previous play in the trilogy, The Marriage of Figaro. The story's premise is that several years ago, while the Count was away on a long business trip, the Countess and Chérubin spent a night together. When the Countess told Chérubin that what they did was wrong and that she could never see him again, he went away to war and intentionally let himself be mortally wounded on the field. As he lay dying, he wrote a final letter to the Countess, declaring his love and regrets, and making mention of all the things they had done. The Countess did not have the heart to throw away the letter, and instead had a special box supplied by an Irishman called Bégearss, with a secret compartment in which to store the incriminating note, so the Count would never find it. Soon after, to her dismay, the Countess discovered herself pregnant with Chérubin's child.

The Count has been suspicious all these years that he is not the father of Léon, the Countess's son, and so he has been rapidly trying to spend his fortune to ensure the boy won't inherit any of it, even having gone so far as to renounce his title and move the family to Paris; but he has nevertheless held some doubts, and therefore has never officially disowned the boy or even brought up his suspicions to the Countess.

Meanwhile, the Count has an illegitimate child of his own, a daughter named Florestine. Bégearss wants to marry her, and to ensure that she will be the Count's only heir, he begins to stir up trouble over the Countess's secret. Figaro and Suzanne, who are still married, must once again come to the rescue of the Count and Countess; and of their illegitimate children Léon and Florestine, who are secretly in love with each other.

The first proposal to turn the The Guilty Mother into an opera was by André Grétry, but the project came to nothing. Darius Milhaud's La mère coupable (1966) was the first to be completed, and Inger Wikström made an adaptation called Den Brottsliga Modern. In John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, there is a subplot in which the ghost of Beaumarchais, as an entertainment for the ghost of Marie Antoinette (with whom he is in love), conjures up a performance of the play as an opera: A Figaro for Antonia, claiming that by doing so he will change history and that Marie Antoinette will not be executed. In April 2010, the opera L'amour coupable by Thierry Pécou to a libretto by Eugène Green based on the Beaumarchais play, received its world premiere at L'Opéra de Rouen.

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Chérubin is an opera (comédie chantée) in three acts by Jules Massenet to a French libretto by Francis de Croisset and Henri Cain after de Croisset's play of the same name. It was first performed at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo on 14 February 1905, with Mary Garden in the title role.

The story is a light-hearted addition to Beaumarchais' Figaro plays, the action taking place soon after that of The Marriage of Figaro, and imagines festivities in celebration of Chérubin's first military commission and seventeenth birthday. A farcical romp ensues, brought on by Chérubin lusting after each of the female characters and inspiring general confusion.

JC:    I was asked to do the Massenet opera, Chérubin, and I’m absolutely not going to do it.  No, I really don’t think about that next drama.  I just get all up to the end.  We get Figaro on usually in three and a half weeks, but I’m going tomorrow to Sydney to do it in ten days.  It’s such a big piece.  It’s quite difficult to manage to do it as it is without enough rehearsal.

BD:    Do you ever get enough rehearsal?

JC:    Yes.  Certainly I have the last two times I’ve been in Santa Fe.  I’ve just done a very satisfying revival of Semele at Covent Garden, and we did have time.  We had everybody there for three weeks, but it varies.  I don’t think I’ve ever had such a short time as I’ve had for this Tancredi.  We started was after Christmas, after New Year.  Cuberli and Horne were coming from Europe from other performances.  Chris Merritt was coming from La Scala, and his performances didn’t finish until after Christmas.  Getting here and then the reviving, they had to have two days to get over the trip.  Then the chorus was terribly involved up till New Year, so it’s been incredibly timed.  But then you get on with it.  Horne came two and half days later because she was really ill, and she couldn’t really work.  She was voiceless and had terrible bronchitis, so that was a worry.

BD:    So you had to work around that?

JC:    Yes, well, you do.

BD:    Isn’t there enough other material to work on to keep you busy?

copleyJC:    Sure, but the thing is in something like Tancredi, she is the center of it.  Remember what I was saying earlier, that I don’t just plan everything.  I like to do it with the people and what they bring.  It’s a cumulative business.  They actually move you into another area.  They stimulate many, many things.  You suddenly find that they’re on a part of the stage that you would not imagine they would be, and it’s all growing, and then you build on that and move somewhere else, and that’s how the whole process works.  But if you only have your leading lady for a day and a half, it’s quite tricky.

BD:    Do you ever come up to opening night and wonder whether the thing is going to work?

JC:    I had the most hideous experience last year at Covent Garden with Norma.  It upset me very deeply.  Margaret Price was ill for the whole rehearsal period.  She only rehearsed three days in four weeks, and the management would not allow us to postpone even though she hadn’t rehearsed.  We went on opening simply not knowing what would happen, and praying that one would wave a magic wand.  Well, they didn’t!  It was absolutely horrendous.

BD:    Did the third or the fifth performance of the run get better?

JC:    No.  I wouldn’t go and work it again.  I was so angry about this, I really was.  She was too ill to work.  She could only just get through it, and then would pass out for three days.  That was a horrible, horrible experience, and I have to say that I got the blame and nobody else did.

BD:    Does the director take too much blame these days for things that don’t go well?

JC:    I certainly took the blame for that one, and the management actually were very, very wrong.  It’s never been resolved.  They were wrong because they didn’t actually want to upset Margaret, who is a very big name, and they desperately wanted her to go on singing.  She didn’t want an announcement made because she thought the minute it was announced that she wasn’t well, people would have thought that she was flunking out because it’s such difficult part.  A lot of people thought that she might not get there, but I actually carried the can for that, and I was actually extremely angry.

BD:    What about in situations where everybody is well, and you do get two and a half to three weeks.  Do you feel that directors these days
not necessarily yourself all the time, but other directors in generalcome in for too much criticism?

JC:    It depends where you are.  It depends on what sort of show it is, too.  If you’re working in Germany where they are orientated for the direction, they want
concept.  They want you to do a concept.  They want it to happen in the public lavatory, or I don’t know what.  I did L’Elisir d’Amore last year with Pavarotti in Berlin, and it’s a production which went from Covent Garden.  It was a Christmas entertainment, and was based on those pop-up children’s books.  It was enchantingly done by Beni Montresor, but they wanted to know what the concept was.  Why was there no political concept?  [Starts laughing]  Where was the social problem with Nemorino, and women’s lib with Adina?  You couldn’t believe that they couldn’t actually see that it was a perfectly enchanting, simple straightforward version of it.  I got clobbered by the critics in Berlin that want concept, and yet I was lauded by the traditionalists, and they clapped for an hour and twelve minutes after the first act.  So the public obviously liked it.  Some of the critics were aghast that Berlin could do something that they thought was decadent because it was attractive and pretty.  People in the chorus were so enchanted because they actually looked lovely.  They had beautiful peasant costumes, lovely straw hats and everything.  One said it was so marvelous not being in rags or shredded sacks.

BD:    I would think the critics would understand that it was a production coming from the Garden, rather than being built for them.

JC:    Well, they didn’t!  I wasn’t there on the first night.  I had to leave to go on somewhere else, but I know that half the house would have just booed.  You would have just been booed off the stage by all those people who want new things like that.  They have a wonderful Hoffmann which is terribly lewd and rude.  I think it’s absolutely marvelous, but the traditionalists are so horrified, they were actually turning away.  They can’t believe what Hoffmann is doing in that first scene, but other people like all that, or even love it.  It’s very difficult.

*      *      *     *     *

BD:    In London you’ve worked both at Covent Garden and the English National Opera, where they do everything in English.  Does that change your approach knowing that all those words are going to be
— or are supposed to beunderstood?

JC:    It’s a curious thing.  I’ve suddenly come to terms with the fact, very, very late in my career, that I don’t think you do get the words.  You don’t hear anything like enough of the words that we think they do.  If you work on the production, of course you know every word because you just always know it.  But I have been to a lot of opera in English
operas I have not knownand I haven’t heard anything like enough of the text.  Now I don’t know whether the orchestra is getting louder, or whether it is the pitch.  We all know that the pitch is a little bit higher, so the singers have to just that extra effort all the time.  You may raise an eyebrow about that.

BD:    I would think it would only affect the top of the vocal range.

JC:    I’m not so sure.  When you’re singing a very, very long part, if you’re up that notch all the time, there is all the effort in a thing like Lucia.  When you’re singing right up there for a very, very long time
especially in those big ensembles — it may be just that little notch.  But unless you’re a Gruberová, or a June Anderson, whose voice absolutely sits there — there are some voices that sit comfortably in that area, but there are an awful lot that don’t — that might have something to do with it.  The other thing which is interesting, is that I remember when I went to opera at Covent Garden as a childin my teensI surely heard every word then.  I’m perfectly sure we did.

BD:    Are you sure you weren’t concentrating more?

copleyJC:    No.  I don’t think the orchestra was as loud.  With Erich Kleiber and people like that, I don’t think the orchestra was as loud as it is now.  With the recordings and the conductors who have this high-tech precision with a great sheen and great polish on the strings, actually, in terms of decibels, I think it’s louder.

BD:    Can’t you go to the conductor and ask him to turn it down a notch?

JC:    You do sometimes.  For instance, Janáček.  I’ve done Jenůfa a lot, and the minute you start making it much quieter so that you can hear, you do lose the excitement.  You lose the texture, there’s no question about that.  It’s written thickly.  It’s written for those Slavic voices that have that extra edge.  You hear Beňačková
who has no problem.  She just comes through without being loud, but the voices without that edge have problems.  There is something to do with the sheen of the orchestra now that it’s a little bit louder. 

BD:    What about this gimmick of the supertitles?  Do you think that’s the ideal solution?

JC:    It’s a very good solution, I have to say.  People do ask me this question a lot.  I did Le Nozze di Figaro at the New York City Opera in English for a long time.  It was an enormously successful production with people like Sam Ramey and Malfitano, and lots of really excellent people.  Faith Esham was an enchanting Cherubino.  Then when various important singers wanted to do it, they didn’t want to learn it in English.  Beverly Sills decided to do it in Italian, and it was a total flop.  It was a very good cast of excellent people, but the audiences just didn’t respond.  Then two years after that we put it into the surtitles, and it was absolutely back.  It was a great success and an enormously enjoyable evening.  The audience wants to know.  They love those titles.  They really enjoy the whole thing very much more.  At Covent Garden when they did the census, it was an incredible percentage of people that wanted them in spite of adverse criticism.  They have terrible, terrible critics.  Every single critic said it was absolutely useless, and rubbish, and what do they think they were doing putting these words above so everybody was necks craning away?  You never read such appalling things.  But the public absolutely demanded it once they’d seen it, and it’s now done every night.

BD:    Do you think that having it on the television for several years bridged that gap, so that they then were able to have the titles in the theater?

JC:    I don’t know about that.  I think Lotfi Mansouri, who invented it, did the most wonderful job.  My German is not so good, but with the titles I can follow Parsifal, and the Ring, even Rheingold, which is very thick and has all that very invented language.  I enjoy Khovanschina, and I don’t speak Russian at all.  The first time I saw Khovanschina with surtitles it was a fabulous evening.  I had always been bored to death with it in Russian, even having studied it and sat at the piano and played some of it and enjoyed some of it.  Knowing the story and the background, the enjoyment of the actual happening of the piece is what audiences want.  The whole point of the theater is to communicate, and you must communicate the text.  I’ve directed Rosenkavalier so many times, and there
’s a moment in Act 2 where you actually feel the audience just go.  You just lose them.  They just stop listening.  They’re just not there until they suddenly hear [sings the Waltz].  You hear people not exactly waking up, but you feel there’s a buzz, and they’re back with you.  Then they leave you for a bit in Act 3, and...

BD:    ...come back for the Trio.

JC:    Yes.  Then they sit up, and they think,
Oh, this is all right.  But you don’t have that with surtitles, and you don’t have it when it’s in English.  I did Rosenkavalier at the English National Opera [where everything is in English], and you never lost the audience for a second.

BD:    But there you must obviously be getting the words across.

JC:    Well, I think we did in that, but that was one of the extraordinary rehearsal periods because the theater was on strike but the orchestra wasn’t.  We were allowed to rehearse but the theater wasn’t playing.  We had something like seven weeks of rehearsal, and by the time we got to open, it was
like a Salzburg performance.  It was so immaculate, and Mackerras had had all this time to really teach that orchestra.  They played it marvelously, and it was a very enchanting cast.  We had two casts, and it was just very, very beautifully prepared.

BD:    Are Sophie and Octavian happy in the
fourth act?

JC:    Oh, no, I wouldn’t think so.  [Laughter all around]  I don’t think the Marschallin is either.  I don’t think any of them have a good time in the
fourth act’.  She starts eating Sachertorte.  Sophie has some awful child, and Octavian goes off...  I don’t think they’ve settled down.  She’s not right for him, but it’s very sweet when they go off into the moonlight.

BD:    So they have a nice couple of weeks?

JC:    Yes.  I think maybe a couple of years.  I don’t think the Marschallin has much fun.  She probably takes to the booze.

BD:    I always think she’ll find someone else.

JC:    Yes, she will.  Of course she will, but Octavian has been always rather special.  He’s a class act.  I’ve done it with some amazing people like Troyanos, and Fassbaender, and Josephine Barstow.  It is the most marvelous part if you’ve got somebody great in imagination. 

BD:    Did you do it with Janet Baker? 

JC:    No, I didn’t.  She did with Scottish Opera.  She always hated doing it.  She never enjoyed it at all.  I don’t know whether I would have made her into it.  I did most of Janet’s operas, but that’s one I didn’t do.  I always wanted to do Carmen with her.  She used to say,
You’re ridiculous.  I could never do Carmen, and I used to say she could.  She would have been marvelous, an extraordinary Carmen.


BD:    She’s not too much a ‘lady’ to be a Carmen?

JC:    No, no, she’s not.  [Laughs]  She probably thinks she might.  She’s the person of total imagination.  I’m not being naughty.  She’s one of the most total human beings I’ve ever met.  She would think that she couldn’t do Carmen in a quite humble sort of way.  She would think she doesn’t have that allure and those attributes that I think she has.  She never did anything like that.  She could have done it in an extraordinary way.  Her Dido in The Trojans with Vickers was so magnificent and so sensual and so erotic.  She was a very erotic actress, and I’ve always felt that Carmen is a very illusive sort.  I don’t think she is alluring in that obvious sort of way.  She’s very withdrawn, and Janet would have been extraordinary.  She would have sung it so marvelously.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned you had seven weeks of rehearsal for that Rosenkavalier.  Is there any chance that a piece can get over-rehearsed?

JC:    [Thinks a moment]  I have to say that I’ve never had that possibility, but one does wonder when we hear that in Russia that they’ll spend six months on a play.

BD:    Or Felsenstein’s productions at the Kommische Oper?

JC:    What really happens is that if you have that amount of time, and it’s that free, you’d probably do it in about ten different ways.  I don’t think it’s one thing.  You go through endless possibilities if you’re going to have that amount of time, and you probably end up where you started.  But having been through many, many other progressions, no matter how clever he is, I bet it doesn’t change totally from his early idea.  But he will take them through so many imaginative processes.  There’s a very interesting English director called David Freeman who works for very long periods with the singers, and he does lots of extemporization.  They hated it at first.  They all thought it was so silly being trees and umbrellas.  I don’t know how he does it, but he gets the most fantastic results from them.  On the night they seem to be so committed, and so tight, and so absolutely fascinating, and interesting.  He always insists on a long time, and I would like to watch that process, but he doesn’t like people there.  He’s right.  If the singers are tentative about expressing themselves and doing all that, you certainly don’t want an audience trying to find out how you do it.  

BD:    Sounds almost like group therapy.

JC:    I suppose in a way it is.  I always like to think that what I do in certain operas is to open doors for people.  That’s what Janet Baker always said I did.  She said,
You just open the door for me, and I’ll find another door, and then you’ll open that door.  I just keep going through yet another door, and finding another room or another idea.  That’s what I like to do, but you can’t do that in two minutes.

copleyBD:    Is there ever a chance that one of those doors will open on the second or third or fourth performance?

JC:    It depends, because the way opera works I’m hardly ever there past the first night.  It’s one the disappointments
you don’t see a piece develop.  You rush off to the next job the next day.

BD:    Do you ever build into your direction the ability to grow with the performance, or do you expect every moment to be exactly the same?

JC:    Oh, no, no, no, I don’t.  By the time you’ve done it, it’s theirs.  They must do it.  I don’t direct in any sort of rigid way... certainly with Janet, who is a great risk-taker.  If you have Janet as Charlotte in Werther, and John Brecknock, who was a very good actor at that time, they would dare things.  That was a performance I did see quite often because it was on when I back from another job.  That developed amazingly and became wild.  Those two took incredible chances.  It’s always a great deal.  If it’s a huge success, then it gives them a confidence.  You don’t usually find that if it’s not a success or if there’s been a lot of critical flack.  Then they don’t have the confidence to develop.  They’ll think,
“Oh well, we’ll just run it.  But if something is an absolutely huge success when they’re doing a lot of performances, they will work it.  I had such a fantastic cast in RosenkavalierAnne Howells as Octavian could do anything, and it would change enormously.  Michael Langdon and Annie in the second act would play off each other they knew it so well.  They will demand from each other a freshness.  [Vis-à-vis the DVD shown at left, Stafford Dean also participates in the interview with Anne Howells.]

[At this point the cassette needed to be turned over, and while that was being done we continued to chat about various other artists, including Tito Gobbi and Elisabeth Söderström...]

They had this thing in Act 2 of Figaro.  I revived that a lot at Covent Garden before I did my own production in 1971.  It was an old production that had been going for about ten years, and it was not very successful when we did it.  David Webster asked me to, what’s known as, ‘liven it up a bit’.  But I had extraordinary people, and Gobbi and Söderström were so brilliant in that second act.  It was understood that we did not direct that scene; that they were absolutely free, and that they would actually just do it every night.  It wasn’t a long scene; it’s just up to the knocking on the ‘gabinetto’ door.  But that from his entrance in the recitative they would play it, and neither of them knew what the other one was going to do.

BD:    They had that chemistry.  You couldn’t let most couples get away with that?

JC:    Oh, no.  No, you couldn’t, but they were such wonderful performers, and they had such respect for each other.  I just said to them one day,
Do it.  Just do it.  Elisabeth is a master at getting up and inventing and doing, and Tito wondered a bit about what she was doing.  But then they suddenly got it, and they did it every night.  They would watch each other, and it could sometimes take a long time.  They would just look at each other, working out who was going to make the first move.  Sometimes it would be very fast, but it was an enchanting moment.

BD:    Did you know you could get away with this because Gobbi had done some directing of his own?

JC:    He’s just flawless, and he knew that part of the opera terribly, terribly well.  He loved it, and he knew that it was a challenge.  He sometimes wasn’t sure of the ensembles because he hadn’t sung the Count a lot, but that bit he particularly liked, and he was a great actor.

BD:    He was consummate on the stage.

JC:    Yes, a consummate actor, and just to have the chance with a consummate actress was something.  They were both so beautiful; they were such handsome people just demanding from each other.  You can imagine how special that was.

BD:    Not necessarily in a routine cast, but in a cast that isn’t as brilliant as Gobbi or Baker, how can you make sure that the fifth and the ninth performances are still fresh?

JC:    I don’t think one can, but sometimes you make choices.  For instance, if you do a staging and it’s somebody who is perhaps a bit stodgy, you make sure the staging is not stodgy.  Make sure the staging is very lively so that all of the people who perhaps are livelier than Miss A or Miss B or Mr. D or Mr. F will keep it alert and keep it going, so they really don’t have the possibility of relaxing.  That’s chemistry, and that is why I do love working with my friends.  At the age I’ve got to now, I don’t work with people that I don’t work well with.  Since 1991, I have decided I’m not going to work with anybody that I know and that I don’t like working with.  It doesn’t mean that I may not admire them greatly as artists, but I don’t necessarily want to do it.

BD:    What if you have a mostly great cast and then one bad apple?

JC:    It’s not a question of a bad apple, but if there are one or two rather boring people who really don’t want to listen.  They have such terribly fixed ideas, and there’s no moving them.

BD:    Is that laziness?

JC:    No, it’s ego-mania.  They just don’t think that they can learn anything.  They think they’ve nothing to learn about a particular role, and it drives you nuts because we’ve all got everything to learn about everything.   That’s the whole process.  Every day you learn something, and I can’t bear when an artist actually comes into the room, and you know in five seconds that they have decided the way they’re going to do it, and the way they want to do it.  Sometimes they’re in a position to insist of doing that.  Well, as far as I’m concerned, they can get on with it.

BD:    So you just let them go?

JC:    Yes, because it makes for such unhappiness.  With real creative artists and we do almost anything.  We do get stymied because of few singers.  That’s the problem, and if only you could say,
Clear off and we will get somebody else, that would really answer all the problems.  There aren’t many of them, but there are half a dozen of them who are real pains in the bum.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for young directors coming along?  If someone comes to you and says,
I want to start directing opera, what do you tell them?

copleyJC:    Oh, they come every day!  [Laughs]  I don’t know what to tell them.  Opera’s in such transition.  I don’t think that opera in ten years is going to be anything like it is now.

BD:    So tell me where’s it going?

JC:    You haven’t really had
concept opera here in America.  When you think of what it’s like in Germany, there’s the famous Aïda where Aïda has a bucket and a scrubbing brush, and scrubs the floor and wrings out the cloth during Ritorna Vincitor.  I talk to the singers and I do a lot of teaching, and I try to teach the singers to keep an open mind and never say no, and never say this is impossible or it won’t work, or it won’t go with what Verdi wrote, or Verdi would not mean it that way.  We don’t know what any of them meant, really.  If you’ve been lucky enough to work with composers who are still alive, and you ask them about something, they don’t know why they wrote it.  They seem to write it like we direct.  You don’t know exactly why you do anything.  You can do it as the creative artist.  But young people have a wonderful chance because the directors coming up are going to have much more gifted singers.  They have singers who can act and who will look like the people, therefore they will have much greater possibilities.  I think they’re very lucky, and there’s much more opera these days.

BD:    Is there ever a case of too much opera?

JC:    No, you can never have too much opera if the people go and enjoy it.  You have such wonderful singers in America.  You’ve got all these marvelous young singers.  They’re so gifted, and they work so hard, and they’re good with their languages.  This is a great lesson to us, I must say, in England.  I’m very impressed with the young American singers.

BD:    Hurray for us!

JC:    No, hurray to you because they work very, very hard, and they have these marvelous programs like Santa Fe.  They study their languages, and they come prepared, and you can put them on the stage.  They know what people are singing about.  I’m afraid we don’t.

BD:    Is something like the Lyric Opera Center for American artists the way to go for each opera house?

JC:    I don’t know too much about it.  I did a class yesterday, but I haven’t really seen what they do, so I couldn’t really comment.  Any studio or whatever is good.  They have good people working, and they’ve got excellent coaches.  I think all of the schools here are probably all much of a muchness because you have very talented people here in America. 

BD:    Is it easier or harder to direct a world premiere where there’s nothing from previous productions to base your ideas on?

JC:    It is easier to have a critical success because they’ve got nothing to compare it with.  But I don’t know about that from other viewpoints.

BD:    Is it easier to have an artistic success?

JC:    It depends whether it’s a good piece or not.  [Both laugh]  If the piece is a dog, it doesn’t matter what you do.  It’s never ever going to be enjoyed.  We’ve heard a few of those that should never have reached the stage, but one must always go, one must always support them, and one must always hope that people will write better operas.

BD:    What advice do you have for composers?

JC:    Keep working!  [Much laughter]  Keep taking the pills.  Sometimes the modern composers are so difficult for the singers.  They’ll do a score where there’s no good vocal score.  I won’t say what it is, but a new opera has just been done where I work quite regularly, and there was no vocal score.  They had nothing to listen to for four weeks of rehearsal.  They had nothing.  There was nothing written.  They had to listen to each other, and it was terribly hard music.  If they were singing an F#, they were tuning a Db.  Nearly all of them went mad trying to learn it this wretched stuff, and it was wretched, actually.  By the time they got the orchestra part
because he was still busy writing ithe just wrote all these vocal lines, and he hadn’t written the orchestral parts...  I mean, come on!  It should never have reached the stage.  It was commissioned by some very important body, and had to be put on with these poor wretched singers screaming away.  I don’t think that should be allowed.  I was there when it was being rehearsed, and I felt really so sorry for them.  I was so glad I wasn’t doing it.  I would love to do modern operas but not if they’re not good.

BD:    How do you know beforehand if they’re good?

JC:    Well, I don’t think you do, that’s the thing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure and ask you about Massenet.  Tell me a little bit about his works.

JC:    I haven’t thought about Massenet for so long.  When you’re on the road, like I am, you have to keep cued in.  I’ve always enjoyed doing Manon, and I’ve simply loved Werther.  It was one of the happiest shows.  I mean it’s a very unhappy show, but it was one of the happiest times we ever had.  It was the most wonderful, wonderful production.  It eventually transferred to Covent Garden, and we had a very beautiful performance with José Carreras, and that beautiful American, von Stade.  It was wonderful, full of poetry.  You see, Massenet was a stage director, so they always work in the theater from the director’s point of view.  They’re always beautifully placed.  You don’t have to invent anything in the bars between when things happen.  You don’t have to invent ‘business’ because it’s all written.  It’s all in the score.  It’s almost as if he’s directing it as you go.  It
s that simple.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You’re not superfluous, are you???

JC:    [Laughs]  Well, I don’t think so.  It depends.  I happen to be a very musical director.  I always ask what the music is doing, what the music tells me, and the music always tells me what to do.  I have to say that, but I think it doesn’t always tell some of my colleagues what to do.  [Both laugh]  Or else they hear something quite different, shall we put it that way.

BD:    You also did a Don Quichotte.

JC:    Oh, yes!  Oh, that was lovely.  Yes, that was a very interesting show.  It was a wonderful design by Robin Don.  It was very original, and it was very much liked.  I was very upset because it was going to be done in San Francisco, but now they’ve dropped the idea.  They don’t want to do it.

Massenet’s Don Quichotte is a gentle old opera in the sentimental French tradition, a work perhaps easier to love than to admire. Masterly in a minor way, it can work its wiles only when a bass of great authority appears, falls in love with the title role and persuades a company to let him sing it. That is exactly why the New York City Opera's new production of Don Quichotte , which had its premiere Friday night, turned out to be a notable event. Mr. Ramey, as sweetly befuddled an old chevalier as ever tilted at a windmill, immediately took control of the stage, and finally of the audience's heart, in a performance that for once justified opera’s often-abused star system.

Robin Don’s economical sets, inspired by Gustave Dore’s familiar Don Quixote etchings, were ingenious in concept, but they sometimes constricted action owing to their vertiginous tilt. Cutout horses representing Rosinante and Sancho’s mule provided a funny moment or two. Having the flat simulated etchings open out to give three-dimensional effects, like an old-fashioned valentine, helped to evoke a storybook atmosphere. The drab colors, dictated by the etching motif, made sense, but did become monotonous over the five-act span.


Don Quichotte lives or dies by its leading bass, but a fair share of applause for this production’s success must go to Mario Bernardi’s alert and pliant conducting and to an able supporting cast.

John Copley’s staging, simple and uncluttered in the most crucial scenes, allowed for plenty of mock-Iberian bustle by chorus and dancers. 

--  From the review in The New York Times by Donal Henahan, August 3, 1986.  (Text only - photo added from another source.) 

BD:    That’s too bad.  We’ve had it twice here in Chicago recently (1974 with Ghiaurov, Foldi, Cortez, Paige; Fournet and 1981 with Ghiaurov, Gramm, Valentini-Terrani, Gordon; Fournet), and it’s a wonderful show.  [To see photos of Vanni Marcoux as Quichotte in Chicago in 1929, see my article Massenet, Mary Garden, and the Chicago Opera 1910-1932The Don Quichotte items are about half way down the first lengthy page.]

JC:    We did the engravings on a great curved set.  It was like pages of the famous engravings of Gustave Doré (example shown in box above).  There were these wonderful sheets going up on great curves, and each sheet changed for each scene.  The set came out of the engravings.  The pages formed steps, and so they were always stepping out of the engravings.  The very, very last thing was just that marvelous engraving of the horse going into the forest with the big backside of the horse and Sancho leaning on the dead Don Q.  It was so simple and touching.  I enjoyed that.

copleyBD:    Then why did you decline the Chérubin?

JC:    Because two other pieces came up that I actually wanted to do more.  I did Rosenkavalier and Traviata.  I couldn’t have done that show as well.   I didn’t have time do all three productions.

BD:    So you’d go back to it eventually?

JC:    They’re going to do it but somebody else is doing it.

BD:    I mean you weren’t turning that down.  It just didn’t fit into your schedule.

JC:    It just didn’t fit in, but it would have taken a lot of time to get done.  It’s a difficult one.  I had a quick look at it, and it’s very tricky.  It needs a lot of learning, a lot of studying.

BD:    Is directing fun?

JC:    No!

BD:    [Somewhat shocked]  No???  Then why do you do it?

JC:    [Thinks a moment]  It’s your job, Mrs. Delaney.  That comes from Come Back, Little Sheba
It’s a job, Mrs. Delaney, it’s a job.  When you say fun, it has moments of great pleasure, and I love the musical part.  I love exploring the musical part with good people.  [Musing on his current production of Tancredi]  It’s a total joy, every minute you work with Lella Cuberli.  She’s a marvelous musician, a beautiful artist, a beautiful woman, and the whole thing is totally pleasurable.  But the whole business of getting something like this on in a week, how can it be fun?  Three weeks and it would have been fun; it would have been lovely.  You’ll see it.  We’ve done something very original with it.  It’s a pretty funny old opera, really, but it’s always beguiling to the eye.  Everybody seems to be thrilled to bits with it, but it took an awful lot of working out.  I enjoyed the technical part, too, with a good lighting designer.  It’s the best lighting designer really in the world here, Duane Schuler, and that’s a total joy.  I always enjoy the work with the designers, with people like John Conklin and Michael Stennett.  That’s always a great joy.  We really enjoy that … we’re in the middle of so many other shows at the moment but Idomeneo we’re doing in San Francisco.  That’s been so marvelous to do because we all love it so much, and we’re so, sort of, inside it.  Yes, that part of it is deeply satisfying but not all those pains in the arsepeople who don’t want to work and don’t want to do it, and no proper time with it, and when you have to get cleared off the stage because they’ve got set another opera for that night.  No, that isn’t fun.  You said if we ever get enough time, and the answer is hardly ever to put a big show together.

Chicago has the finest opera company in America, Lyric Opera, and the foremost Rossini scholar in the world, Philip Gossett. What could be more natural than to bring together both parties in the service of a worthy, if neglected, early opera by Gioacchino Rossini? That is precisely what took place at the Civic Opera House Saturday night, when Lyric Opera presented the Chicago premiere of Rossini`s Tancredi, in a new production based on the critical edition by Gossett.

John Copley`s production, which Lyric is sharing with the Los Angeles Music Center Opera, proved more than just another quaint bel canto exhumation, but a notable addition to the ongoing international revival of the Italian composer`s stage rarities. The Lyric`s Bruno Bartoletti was in charge in the pit to assure that stage and pit spoke authentic Rossini. With an all-American roster of singers headed by the redoubtable Marilyn Horne giving voice to Rossini`s taxing flights of vocalism, Tancredi was treated as the work of serious art that it is.

Tancredi (1813) was Rossini`s first important opera seria, and the first to fix his star in the international galaxy. The text derives from a tragedy by Voltaire, one that, even in its severely condensed adaptation by librettist Gaetano Rossi, spins a wildly improbable tangle of love, fidelity, duty and patriotism in 11th-Century Sicily. But the much-underrated score shows us that, even at the dewy age of 21, Rossini had the essentials of his mature style firmly in place. If the composer was more interested in probing poignant emotions (through the most florid vocal writing) than in placing his characters within plausible dramatic situations, that`s our problem, not his. Any modern revival must grapple honestly with the problem of how to remain faithful to the Rossinian essence in theater terms acceptable to an audience of the late 20th Century. This tricky juggling act Copley was able to bring off nicely, allowing for some clunky choral maneuvers. Although the play-within-a-play has become one of the hoariest cliches in opera, the director brought his own inventive twists to the conceit, focusing one`s attention on the heartfelt emotions that Rossini delineates through his music. John Conklin (set designer) and Michael Stennett (costumes) provided a handsome visual framework for the ``action,`` whose descending set pieces allowed for swift scene changes-a big plus in a work that needs all the movement it can get. Stennett`s bejeweled, richly textured costumes set an eye-filling array of gold, red and blue fabrics against the stark gray brick of the Syracuse battlements.

--  From a review in the Chicago Tribune by John von Rhein, January 16, 1989 

BD:    Are you coming back to Chicago?  [As can be seen in the box near the top of this page, he would return several times.]

copleyJC:    Not at the moment.  I’m not NOT coming; it’s just that we haven’t sorted it out.  [See the chart at the top of this webpage for his appearances in Chicago, and links to my interviews with many of his artists.]  The next two years are absolutely gone, but I’m being awfully cautious about ’91 and ’92.   I’m only at home seven weeks this year.

BD:    Where’s home

JC:    Yes, and I have a beautiful country house.  I haven’t seen my roses now for three years, and I’ve got a beautiful swimming pool.  It’s so silly.  I am never ever there.  What’s the point?  I’m going to Australia tomorrow to do Figaro for ten days.  Then I go back from there to Los Angeles to do Tancredì in Los Angeles.  Then I’m home for ten days before I go back to Australia.  Can you imagine?  That journey’s twenty-five hours.  I have five Australian trips this year.

BD:    I had an interview with Lord Harewood, and he was saying he went over to Australia twice a year, and he was going to cut it back to once a year because he just didn’t like the long trip.

JC:    I have to go because it’s my job, it’s my career there.  But five times a year is too much.

BD:    Which airline do you fly?  I’m just curious.  [At this time I was also working for the company which put music programs aboard several airlines, including United, Delta, and Eastern, as well as Air Force One, the Presidential Airliner.]

JC:    Quantas.  You have to fly Quantas.  It’s the Australian Opera’s line.  It’s a very good line, and I must say they send us either first or business, depending how much money they have.  So that’s all right.  That part of it is quite comfortable, and the one joy you have a rest.  [With a wink]  Nobody comes up with little tape recorders to make you talk!

BD:    [With a return wink, then pointing to the tape machine on the table between us]  Thank you for talking to me today.  [Roars of laughter all round]

JC:    No, it was a great pleasure.  I’m always very anxious to do that because it’s part of what we do.  Are you coming tonight [to the opening performance of Tancredi]?

BD:    No, we come a week from tonight.

JC:    We might have got it right by then.  [Another huge laugh all around]

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 14, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following week, and again in 1993, 1997, and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.