Director John Cox
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Cox has been at Lyric Opera of Chicago on several occasions, directing
operas of Strauss (Capriccio
in 1994 and Ariadne auf Naxos
in 1998 and 2011), Massenet (Thaïs
in 2002), Puccini (Tosca in
2004), and Mozart (Così fan
tutte in 2006). It was during his debut season that he
agreed to speak with me about his craft.
We met on the day before the opening night of Capriccio in one of the conference
rooms in the office suite of the company, which had posters from
previous seasons on the walls. Keep this fact in mind as
reference for later in the chat. Also, a few names he mentions
are links, and they refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.
As we got settled in for the conversation, the topic turned to the use
of supertitles in the theater . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Are
you in favor of having the translations there on the screen for the
John Cox: Yes, I
am. I’m most in favor of
having text clearly sung to an audience in the language that they
understand. That’s what I’m most in favor of, but I know
in an imperfect world that is now a rare thing. From the
experiences of this house with The
Rake’s Progress, even in an
opera in English it’s deemed advisable to have supertitles even for
that. That we don’t do at Glyndebourne. We have
supertitles for the foreign language pieces, but for Rake we don’t use
them. I think there the balance is good enough and the house is
small enough. I would hate to arrive at a situation where the
singers began to think it wasn’t necessary to project the text
because the reception of the audience of the supertitles made that
unnecessary. That would be a great shame. It would be a
great loss to the art of singing and the art of opera.
BD: In the Rake here, just a few weeks ago, I
that often times I would read the title and then I would hear them
singing those words since it was the
direct set of texts rather than a singing translation. I
would hear those words then coming out of the mouths, and I would start
paying attention even more closely to the text, which was a help.
JC: Yes, you
preview it and then you hear it.
like a prompt.
were a lot of very subtle effects of this,
much more than I think its inventors could ever have foreseen.
Italian singers have told me a number of times
that they will get two laughs — once when
the audience reads it and
then when the audience sees them do the gag on the stage. As a
director, is there any way of anticipating
that or working with that?
wouldn’t want to work with it. All I would
want to do is encourage the people who operate the supertitles to get
it right! At the moment it is not as subtle as it
might be. For example, if you put a score in front of a fiddle
player or a wind player, you expect him to play the notes exactly where
they’re written, and sooner or later we directors I think are
going to insist that the supertitles operators get the words exactly
where they are spoken. At the moment, the technology is a little
bit cranky. It’s a little bit too undeveloped. For example,
you have to trade letters. I’ve been working very closely on
supertitles for this Capriccio,
and the operator said he’d love to use that
other word but it’s one letter too long! Or he’ll just have to
split the line,
or lament that it’s too bad that the character says the first half of
that line to one person and
the other half to another. Naturally I don’t think that’s a bad
thing, but sooner or later they’re going to
have to develop means of being as subtle and as flexible as what’s
being said. I think that’s possible.
BD: I have
seen titles that have been divided so you
have actually two titles, and they’re over the appropriate person.
JC: That I
think must be very difficult. I can see it might be possible in a
duet, but of course I have an
BD: The most
I’ve seen was
three in Figaro. There
were three people singing with three texts, and
the right person was under the right amount of text.
that’s very clever, but then
that’s exactly the kind of flexibility I’m talking about. If we
ever get that, then fine. On the other hand, I don’t want the
audience to be spending too much time reading when they’ve come to use
their eyes in a different way basically.
BD: Do you
find that inhibiting at all, knowing
that the audience’s attention is going to be misdirected at times?
there are times,
certainly. In a piece like Capriccio
which is a relatively static
piece, it doesn’t worry me too much. But in a more frantic piece
where action is drama,
there is clearly a risk that you might just be getting the
text and when you look down you ask, “My God, who killed her?” Or
something radical might have escaped
BD: One of my
questions for everyone involved in opera is ‘the Capriccio
question’. Where is the
balance between the music and the drama — not necessarily in the
opera Capriccio, but in all
of the operas that you direct?
course, the drama in a masterpiece. The drama is carried in the
music. There’s no denying that the
composer will have been inspired by the text as he got it, or the
situation as represented by the text — not always by the words, but
sometimes by the situation itself. He will have been inspired to
the music that we listen to, and in a great composer the drama is
contained within that tissue. I know that’s where it is,
and I know that on balance — to put it at its
simplest — an opera to be great has to have great music. A great
text with poor music is not going to survive, so I know where the
balance is really.
BD: Do we
find that great music with poor text does
JC: Yes, it
does, I’m afraid. [Laughs] But then directors have a job to
do, and one
of the jobs we have to do is to provide strength where it’s
needed. I don’t admire directors who approach a piece by saying,
“This piece has certain weaknesses, and I’m now going to demonstrate
them to the audience.” My job is to conceal them and provide
strength where strength is lacking.
BD: Can you
provide strength where there is nothing under
JC: That’s a
difficult question. It’s not very often that one is invited to
direct an absolutely
worthless opera. I think the odd occasion where I have been was
for brand new pieces where they’ve been
commissioned and you don’t know what you’re going to get in
advance. Without naming names, one has found oneself desperately
trying to make bricks
without straw, and I’m not
claiming to be a total magician, but occasionally
one can provide a few odd tricks from up one’s sleeve just to tie
it over the really utterly worthless bits.
about premieres, is it easier
or harder or just different to work where you have nothing to
look at? If you’re doing Traviata,
there have been
thousands of productions. Is that too much of a burden to come up
JC: It is a
of a burden. What makes it burdensome is the thought that
there are some people in the audience — especially critics — who will
have seen these pieces so many times that they are desperate
for novelty’s sake?
JC: They just
don’t want to board, like
anybody else, but they start with a disadvantage over someone
who’s never seen it before. The thrill of seeing Traviata
for the first time and not really knowing what’s going to happen is
something which I can barely remember, but you know that it
happened. One day it happened. I can remember the
first time I saw Faust
because it was the first opera I ever saw, and I
remember going home in a total trance. I was completely
captivated by it. I’m not sure that I would be now, but I
remember that experience very well. I think when I come to direct
a piece, I do try to keep in mind that
there are a lot of people who are seeing it for the first time. I
don’t want to betray those people, nor do I want to betray the
work. The work is what it is. It’s the text. But
you’re right to point out that in the performing arts from the second
performance of anything onwards, a piece has a performance
history. Then it starts to become a little bit like
architecture. It gets a ‘patina’. Bits
get knocked off, bits get accreted, colors change slightly,
perceptions change of what makes a handsome building. Victorians
Victorians out! Richard Strauss is in, Richard
Strauss is out! This will happen because fashion is part of the
perception of art in any time in history.
BD: Is it
your job as the stage director
to repaint the outside of the building, or to knock down all of it to
the steel and re-clothe it?
JC: I’m not
such a ‘deconstructionist’ because I know that’s the wrong word, but I
really believe in really taking things totally apart to the skeleton
and then re-fleshing the skeleton. No, I’m more in the
Frankenstein mold. I rather prefer to breathe life into
the monster and articulate it that way, rather than re-assemble its
BD: Then do
you decide if you will accept the
assignment by whether or not you think you can work with that
Yes. There are certain operas — and I’m not going to mention one
single one of them [Both laugh] — which I really don’t want to
do. Although, being like any artist I am a little bit of a cynic
and a little
bit of an ironist. I would probably say the fee would have to
be enormous before I’d say yes to them, and there are about half a
dozen, and they’re all famous. They’re all pieces, frankly, to
feel I have nothing to bring, and they do not simply press the button
BD: Has that
list changed over the years? Are there some
things that were on the list, and all of a sudden you realize, “I’ll
take that off the list and do it?”
JC: Yes, of
course that does happen. It
happened with Frau ohne Schatten
— not because I detested it but
because I didn’t understand it. I really didn’t understand
it, not in a superficial level but in a level of what it was doing
BD: Let me
turn the coin over. Again,
without naming names are there works that you’ve done that you’d say,
of factly] Yes. [Seeing a poster on the wall of the
conference room] I’m looking at the name of one now, and it’s
find Tannhäuser a deeply
dishonest piece of work. I hope it
wasn’t me. Maybe it was my understanding.
BD: Maybe it
was your long conversation with
JC: I wasn’t
one doing that production, but I know what colleagues have had that
BD: You are
now the artistic director at
JC: No, I was
director of productions at
Glyndebourne. I was artistic director for Scottish Opera, and I
was director of productions Covent Garden until last August. So
I’ve done it!
BD: Does your
idea of what to do in opera change when you are guest director or even
a resident director, as opposed to artistic
An artistic director’s job is different. One is there colleagues
making decisions about programming, the
structuring of a season’s programs, or maybe five seasons’ programs
over a five-year plan. That is a creative act, but it is
something which one has to not place total primacy on one’s own
personal taste. One is then constructing an agenda for a public
service, rather than playing at being an artist and having
fun in the vestry!
wouldn’t keep Tannhäuser
out; you just
wouldn’t do it?
JC: I would
certainly assign it to some other
director, but I wouldn’t rule it out. It’s got a lot of
wonderful music in it, let’s face it! [Laughs]
BD: When you
come to a new
production and you’re going to be working on it and staging it, I
assume you’re going to be in very close connection with the designer?
that’s the first job. For me,
the first and most important job — and in ways
the most difficult job — is the
choice of the designer. Once that choice is made, there is a
strong sense of the irrevocable, and you then work together to devise a
scenic solution to the internal dramatic demands of the piece.
But you also have to make some kind of stylistic statement and maybe
BD: Is it an
JC: Yes, it
is a marriage. It is
absolutely a marriage, at least for me it is. But I suppose a
director has the opportunity of being married
several times over, which is something not every man or woman can
have. And each marriage has a different quality to it.
There’s no doubt at all that in some marriages the director is
uppermost, and in some it’s the
designer. Occasionally you proceed into the unknown together, and
that makes for a happy equal union.
BD: Is that
doesn’t necessarily produce the best results,
but it is the most satisfying way of working if you’re talking about
personal artistic fulfillment and satisfaction. But in the end,
one or other of you might have an absolute brilliant idea that hadn’t
occurred to the other, and then the hope is that the one who didn’t
have the idea says, “My God, that’s great! We’ll go with
that. Forget everything I’ve said so far.”
BD: You mean
a basic idea?
JC: A basic
idea, yes, about how to realize it scenically.
BD: Are there
ever times when you do your own designs?
never done my own designs. Once or twice I’ve taken a very, very
well formed idea
of how I want something to look to a designer, and was fortunate enough
to be working with someone who was happy about that. But usually
for me it’s the collaborative process.
BD: When you
get assigned or decide you’re going
to do a new production, how long do you need to get the whole concept
worked out and be ready?
JC: One of
the best productions I ever did, which was
in Santa Fe, happened when I was having a drink
with the conductor on Christmas Eve, and he told me that somebody had
just dropped out. The person they had almost certain going to
direct the show had finally said no, he didn’t want to do it, and they
were really at their wits end. I said I was free, and we phoned
John Crosby straightaway. That
was only six months from beginning to end, and that is very short.
BD: So it was
the following season that the production was produced.
JC: Yes, it
was that very season coming up. That was the shortest. On
the other hand one has done
things over a much longer time, like the decision to do Frau ohne
Schatten with David Hockney. Persuading him he was going
to do it, persuading him not to change his mind, getting the designs
everything else probably took some three and a half
years. So it varies really.
BD: When you
come to the beginning of the
rehearsal period, do you have all of the blocking and all of the
movements in your head, or do you work with the actors?
JC: No, I
work with the actors. I know pretty well what I want the outcome
of each scene
to be, but I would much rather to respond to them and to not only the
reality of the actors but the reality of that chair, the
reality of that table, the reality of that door. This is
all where it begins to take shape — in the rehearsal room. For
me, that’s the joy of it. I would really hate replicating.
That’s why when I do a thing which I’ve done many times
before, I approach the piece all fresh. I never have last
season’s or the
last production put with me.
BD: You use a
JC: I have a
clean book, or no book if I know the piece
well enough. Although there is a basic
like it to be as varied and flexible as possible.
BD: I would
assume though that some things are just
inevitable. If you have a door upstage one direction, you can’t
bring characters in upstage the other direction.
JC: That is
quite correct. That is the kind of
decision one has made with the designer. When I get to the
point of rehearsing, obviously I have closed a large number of
options. When you start working with a designer the options are
infinite, and part of your job is to start closing options.
That’s the negative read-out of what you do, and you’re closing options
all the way until you haven’t got too many left. Otherwise you’d
get through in the time.
opening night, do you stay around for the next
several performances to make sure that it’s all right, or even tinker
a little bit during the run?
JC: No, but
that’s not because I don’t want to.
Usually the structure of the profession is that you do a piece, and
then if you’re fortunate you’re off to do something else. You get
into the habit of leaving after the first night. Opera
companies of any repute will have good back-up staff, a production
BD: Do they
look after it?
JC: They look
after it, and they look after it pretty
JC: No, I
wouldn’t say too strictly. If they
have the task of putting people into roles half-way through the
run because the casting might change, then they have to have a little
flexibility I would hope that they would learn from me in the
rehearsal process just how much flexibility was permissible.
BD: If you
have the same cast for
seven, eight, nine performances, can your influence keep it fresh for
number seven and number eight?
JC: I hope
so. What I like to do is to lay down
for the artists the ground rules within which their development, the
enrichment of their role will take place without my presence, but with
a fidelity to our joint agreed concept. I very, very
seldom come back and see the seventh or eighth performance and see
something I’ve disliked. I’ve seen occasionally things have
got a bit slack maybe, but not that somebody is doing something which
is really against the spirit of the piece.
BD: Do you
assume that it will grow at least a little
JC: I hope it
will, yes, certainly.
BD: We have
talked about your collaboration with the
designer. At what point do you begin collaborating with the music
director, the conductor?
JC: It depends on the
I’m working in a company of which I’m a member and with a conductor
who is also a member of that company, it’s pretty well from
day one. If you’re guesting or if you’re both guesting another
company, it’s really basically as soon as the management can bring you
together. This varies because the geographical problems with
this profession are well-known. They apply to directors and
conductors as well as to singers.
BD: As soon
you know the assignment, don’t you make contact over the phone?
JC: Yes, I
would want to make
contact over the phone. First of all, you’ve got to find out, in
most cases, whether there are any cuts and what they
decides that — you, or the conductor,
starts. It just depends on who’s got the strongest ideas or who’s
away any one
time. It might be me suggesting the following cuts with dramatic
reasons, getting a response from the conductor, saying: “I
wouldn’t like to do that for such and such a reason.” I
remember I had very fruitful collaborations with John Pritchard,
with whom I worked on several occasions, but
there were two occasions when we had to really make an edition.
One was to Idomeneo which we
did together at Glyndebourne, and another was
Don Carlo in San
Francisco. Both works are notoriously problematic, and we had
great joy in sitting down and making
the ‘Cox-Pritchard’ edition of each — which were probably never used
again! But it is what we wanted to do
according to our tastes and our intentions with the work. That
was, of course, very good.
BD: Would it
give you a good feeling to know that some
other production elsewhere was using the ‘Cox-Pritchard’ edition?
wouldn’t be upset! Not
at all! I certainly wouldn’t be asking for royalty
either! [Both laugh]
BD: Would you
then be particularly curious to go
and see how it worked and what they came up with?
JC: I would
be very curious, yes, very!
BD: When you
get into the rehearsal period and you’re
working with the conductor much more closely, who has the final word?
JC: Yes, this
is like a ‘Capriccio’ all over again, slightly transposed. In the
end, what any stage director has to accept — and is wise to accept — is
the conductor is in fact one of the performers, which the director
never is. The conductor has control over all kinds of things
which, in the legitimate theater, the director has control over — like
pace, dynamic, color and so on. Things of that sort are
usually pretty indicated in the score by the composer anyway, and the
conductor is merely doing his bidding. Maybe I shouldn’t have
said ‘merely’, but occasionally in rehearsal you really have to argue
out if there’s a serious problem, and usually you get a satisfactory
solution. It’s really part-answer to your previous
question. I like to get in
touch with the conductor if I haven’t done so already as soon as the
designs are ready, and discuss them with the conductor, because
if the conductor cannot bear the designs, then something’s got to
give. It’s no good going into it unwillingly
on any side. I’ve known many occasions — especially recently with
the more radical interpretations of standard works — when conductors
either haven’t looked at the set designs and the costume
designs, or maybe haven’t had sufficient theatrical imagination to see
that little model writ large, and to imagine the behavior of the
characters within that wearing those costumes. Then there’s
a lot of heartache. Generally speaking, nowadays you do get
early enough contact between conductors and director and designer to
ensure you proceed together.
BD: So it’s
your job then to convince the
BD: Is it
your job also then to convince the
totally, absolutely. But you missed
out one very vital stage, which is to convince the artists. I say
to people all the time on stage when we’re
rehearsing that the
biggest part of the journey towards convincing the audience is to
convince ourselves. I had a very interesting case of that
recently with Pavarotti. We did Tosca
together, and of course
he’s done Cavaradossi many, many times. He is an amateur painter
of some quality, actually, and of course he loves the opening
scene and doing the painting with real paints and making a real
mess. He loves making a mess with his thumb, rubbing
the paint and wiping it on his smock and
thoroughly making a mess. He loves doing that, and he had a
particularly charming piece business, which I like very much.
Tosca came in, the production was that he should take the stole she was
wearing and put it over one of the pew-chairs in the disused
chapel. When we did the rehearsal
for the first time, instead of doing that, he put it over the easel on
which he was painting, and started to copy the color of the stole onto
the image he had already made of Mary Magdalene. I thought this
was a marvelous
idea, and I said, “One thing is wrong, Luciano. You don’t have
color on the palette.” So he said, “It doesn’t matter, nobody
will see,” and I said, “You will see, and I know! Why don’t
we put it there?” So I put it there, and of course he
saw the point immediately. I don’t know how many people in
the audience saw that he had that color already mixed, but the fact was
that it was in his mind. There’s
another very important case in the Capriccio
we’re doing now. This is controversial of a
different kind, but
I’ll just touch on
it. There’s a lot of reference to Gluck and Gluck’s reforms in
the late eighteenth century in opera in Paris, and the great
controversy between him and Piccini, and the taste or otherwise of the
‘opera buffa’. The Countess, in particular, adores Gluck, and
future of opera in Gluck’s method, which
recognizes the value of text and the setting of text through music
as being the way forward. Of course, Strauss was telling us that
what he thought and always thought because the piece is
So I have a score of Gluck’s
Alceste on the harpsichord. Of course the audience can’t
what it is, but the characters know and they can refer to it.
once or twice they go and refer to the score on the harpsichord.
BD: It never
would occur to you to have them take the
score and just in passing have it so the audience could read the title
have to have pretty powerful opera glasses
to do that. In any case, it probably wouldn’t show, no. The
important thing is the conviction of the ideas. Somehow it
becomes almost an icon. It becomes an amulet, if you like, to
have something of Gluck on the set, even though I’ve moved the time to
BD: In The Barber of Seville which was
recently here, they made a big point of that. They had scores
around, and when they picked up the scores you could read
all of the other Rossini titles!
BD: They were
pointing it out, and they paid
homage to Rossini. That was how they set up the finale was
by paying homage to Rossini.
JC: Yes, of
course, I remember. I enjoyed that
very much. I appreciated that.
BD: Let me
ask you the big
question. What is the purpose of opera?
concept of the Gesamtkunstwerk
— the idea that the arts could unite, and by uniting gain
power to become even more powerful as a multi-part entity — is
I’m very fond of. Obviously words and music are
the two basics, but Wagner clearly had the visual aspect in mind and
I’ve always placed very, very strong emphasis on those. That’s
why I’ve asked painters and other artists from outside the theater to
design occasionally, just to reinforce that side of it and to give that
additional authority. I don’t know what it’s
like here, but in Western Europe and certainly in Britain there are
not all that many areas where the spiritual dimension of life is really
stretched and exercised. Religious observance in Britain
is now is not particularly strong, and I think it’s not particularly
strong in a lot of Protestant countries and probably not in other
Western European countries as well. It comes and goes a
little bit, but basically the place of religion in our spiritual
lives is partly been supplanted by art, and the combination of these
elements gives to me — and to those who lay themselves open to
it — such a strong spiritual nourishment that finally I think that
be my purpose in doing it. It becomes a sort of secular
BD: Does that come into conflict
if you were in Rome
In a funny
sort of way it may not be so necessary there, but it’s more
recognized as that because maybe it’s simply a second thing to what’s
already there in the great ceremonies of
BD: Does that
influence you at all when there is a
church scene in the opera you’re doing?
JC: I can’t
ever get enough incense in Tosca.
[Both laugh] Even when I’ve got the
whole place stinking of incense and I’ve the chorus complaining, the
lighting is at the wrong level and half of it doesn’t show. But
basically I like the ceremonial side of
opera. A major function of art is inducing faith in mankind
because I remain a secularist.
BD: Is all
the ceremony on the stage, or should the
ceremony spill into the house the way the people come in and go
out? Should they be reverent at all?
JC: I don’t
too much like the idea of the
audience — or indeed the congregation [Laughs] — being
over-pious. Then you get into a situation where you find the
audience’s beginning to act roles of its own, and we’ve seen
that in opera houses. One should come ‘naked before the altar’,
if you know what I mean. Just shed all that and be simple and
receptive to what is being offered.
BD: Does it
ever enter your mind that perhaps there’ll
be a different kind of reverence on the main floor as opposed to
the very top gallery in a large house like Chicago?
that’s probably true in any house,
large or small. It occurs to me, and I would hope that the
artistic experience would be a unifying one. You’re
bound to know when you’re upstairs that you can’t afford to sit
downstairs. It doesn’t escape your notice, and there
are many people upstairs who would prefer to be sitting downstairs,
just as there are few who would rather be exactly where they are.
I don’t see very many people downstairs who would prefer to be sitting
upstairs, I must admit, but I hope that what comes
from the stage makes a unity of that audience however
their pockets are lined.
BD: Is it
your responsibility to make sure that
everything you do on the stage is visible and understandable from the
person in the first row to the person in the last row, left, right,
JC: If it’s
anybody’s responsibility, it’s mine — not to be too much of the
potential martyr — to encourage my
artists that it’s their responsibility. We have a
collective responsibility to perform to the back row as strongly as to
the front. I’ve said that a lot in this house simply because this
is the largest, apart from the
Met, that I’ve worked in, and although I haven’t seen the statistics,
it’s deeper than the Met. Reaching the back is hard in this
house, and it’s not to do with loudness. It’s to do
with intention, which is obviously important, and how to fulfill
the intention is to understand the principle of follow-through.
sportsman — golf, tennis — knows about follow-through, and singers have
to know about follow-through. It is no good just
finishing the phrase and thinking that’s the end of it. You
finish the phrase and you hit it to the back of the theater.
You’ve just got to give it that extra, and there
are some people better at it than others. You
cannot do it without text. I don’t care how clearly it’s
mentioned in the supertitles, you’ve got have the text to
got to work, of course, in the vocalizing. Has is also got
to work in the dramatics? Do you have to be coming from
some place, or if you’re going out, do you have to know where you’re
going so there is a purpose in going out?
Yes. There are probably styles
of performance where that’s less important than others, but
opera is pretty securely logged in the narrative tradition of
theater. We like to know the story, but there are some
operas which aren’t really narrative operas at all, where the story is
less important than some other content — like an emotional content, or
behavioral content, or a psychological content, or as a framework for a
series of brilliant gags or a series of brilliant
arias. Narrative is of varying
importance, but in so far as narrative is important, then the
characters have got to be aware that they’re telling a story, which
means that when they’re going off stage, they’ve got to know
where they’re going. So it is important that everybody knows
where they’re going because it’s going to be part of the
story, and if it’s not going to be part of the story, how do they
know that? A young actor once said to me when we were talking
about telephone conversations on stage, “I like to get telephone
conversations over quickly because the audience can’t hear the other
end of the conversation!” Well, one had to say, “Therefore you’ve
got to make the unheard bit as convincing as the bit
they can hear.” There are all kinds of tricks of this kind that
you have to be aware of.
BD: A number
of the operas that you’ve staged
have wound up being televised. Do you have to change your ideas
on the stage for the television cameras, or would you rather restage it
specifically for the television cameras?
JC: I’ve been
very fortunate in that most of my
televised work has been from Glyndebourne, where the intimacy of the
stage is rather similar to the intimacy of the television
studio. I’m not sure if it’s the same
now, but, for example, when Capriccio
was televised in 1976, the
season ended and we had five days with cameras, just
re-rehearsing. Then we took out the necessary seats and invited
an audience back, so it was still done to an
audience like it would be at any performance there.
BD: But you
could make specific camera adjustments?
JC: We did
actually make a few adjustments for the
BD: I would
think that would be ideal.
but very expensive. It’s certainly done that way less and less
now. As far as I can
see, most television opera is actually taken during a performance
whether it disturbs the paying audience or not, which I think is a
little bit doubtful morally. But it happens.
BD: Does it
schizophrenic at all knowing that sometimes you’ll be playing to a
camera and sometimes you’ll be playing to 4,000 people?
JC: No, and
interesting. It’s the same here but in England, when we
did it at Glyndebourne or in Scotland at the Scottish Opera, the
television companies would always send an outside broadcasting
crew. So it wasn’t an ‘arty’ set, who came along, it was
the people who did the football, and to do football you have to be
quick and you have to get the picture. So even though we
had all that rehearsal time, we had outside people doing the
televising, and I think that tradition has lasted now. So when
they’re in the theaters taking the odd program after
maybe one camera rehearsal or one look at it, they can think quickly
about what’s happening. They are photographing an event,
and so the singers should never have to think about that all.
their job to capture the singers, not the singers job to capture the
Absolutely, absolutely, and I vouchsafe
that’s the only way.
BD: Do you
work then with the TV director?
yes. I would always sit down with
the TV director and discuss the camera plot just in case they were
missing something or getting a false emphasis. I’m perfectly well
aware that by his selection of shots
the camera director can actually do a lot of my work for me better.
[Here we paused for a
moment while he recorded a station break for WNIB, and I asked him his
birthdate, which is March 12, 1935.]
BD: Are you at the point in your career that
expect to be at this age?
JC: That’s an
interesting question. Yes I am, but I’m
happy to say that I don’t feel overly secure there. I’m
here. I’m as good as my last production. It
gives me a certain amount of pleasure to say this... I came
into the profession a long time ago. I first joined Glyndebourne
assistant in 1959. That was my first job in the
theater and in those days there were very few people even
interested in directing opera. It was considered a bit demeaning
to do opera, and you presumably only did opera if they didn’t want you
at the Royal Shakespeare Company, or the National Theater, or
somewhere where they did ‘respectable’ drama. You really had to
work at it. That’s now changed. When I was
younger and getting my foothold in the profession, I didn’t
have that much competition. Now the competition is ferocious, and
the young people coming in to the profession are full of ideas — some
of them outrageous, but that doesn’t matter. There’s a great
ferment of ideas, and a great energy in
theater is in opera at the moment. I find that very, very
exciting, and there are plenty of people fighting hard for the
top jobs. So if I feel insecure at the age of 59 and a half, you
now know why!
understand you directed some purely audio recordings?
JC: There was
a short period in the 1960s when
the record companies thought it was necessary with stereophonic
sound to have the stage director in to steer the people about
on the studio floor, and I did two of those. I did an Otello [photo of recording at right] with
Gwyneth Jones and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and James McCracken,
and The Coronation of Poppea [photo of recording below], which
of the things we did from Glyndebourne with Richard Lewis, Magda
László and Oralia Dominguez.
But that idea went out the window. I think
it was superfluous in the end.
Will you come back to
Chicago, I hope?
JC: I have a
meeting with Miss
Krainik in a minute, and I don’t know what it’s about, but it might
be just that.
BD: Thank you
so much for the conversation. I
appreciate it very much.
appreciate it too. Thank you very much for
giving me the opportunity to air all these ‘nostrums’ and ideas.
© 1994 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in a conference room at the
Civic Opera House in Chicago on November 11, 1994. Portions were
broadcast on WNIB two days later.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.