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 public?

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.

coxBD:    In the Rake here, just a few weeks ago, I noticed 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.

BD:    Almost like a prompt.

JC:    There were a lot of very subtle effects of this, much more than I think its inventors could ever have foreseen. 

BD:    The 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?

JC:    I 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 these 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 octet!  [Laughs]

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.

JC:    Well that’s very clever, but then that’s exactly the kind of flexibility I’m talking about.  If we can 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?

JC:    Yes, 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 your attention.

BD:    One of my favorite 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?

JC:    Of 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 write 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 survive?

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 the foundation?

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.

BD:    Talking 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 with something new?

JC:    It is a bit 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. 

BD:    Novelty 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 in, 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 don’t 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 parts.

BD:    Then do you decide if you will accept the assignment by whether or not you think you can work with that particular monster?

JC:    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 which I feel I have nothing to bring, and they do not simply press the button in me.

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 within itself.

BD:    Let me turn the coin over.  Again, without naming names are there works that you’ve done that you’d say, “Never again!”?

JC:    [Matter 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 called Tannhäuser.  I 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 Jon Vickers!  [Both laugh]

JC:    I wasn’t the unlucky one doing that production, but I know what colleagues have had that situation.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are now the artistic director at Glyndebourne?

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 director?

coxJC:    Yes.  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!

BD:    You 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?

JC:    Yes, that’s the first job.  For me, the first and most important job
and in ways the most difficult jobis 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 some conceptual statement.

BD:    Is it an artistic marriage?

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 best?

JC:    It 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?

JC:    I’ve 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 and 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 clean book?

JC:    I have a clean book, or no book if I know the piece well enough.  Although there is a basic anatomy, I 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 never get through in the time. 

BD:    After opening night, do you stay around for the next several performances to make sure that it’s all right, or even tinker with it 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 staff.

BD:    Do they look after it?

JC:    They look after it, and they look after it pretty strictly.

BD:    Too  strictly?

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 bit of 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 performance 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 bit?

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?

coxJC:    It depends on the circumstances.  If 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 are!

BD:    Who decides that — you, or the conductor, or both?

JC:    Somebody 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?

JC:    I 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 that 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 it 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 conductor?

JC:    Yes!

BD:    Is it your job also then to convince the audience?

JC:    Yes, 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 painterly 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.  When 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 that 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 sees the 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 was what he thought and always thought because the piece is autobiographical.  So I have a score of Gluck’s Alceste on the harpsichord.  Of course the audience can’t know that’s what it is, but the characters know and they can refer to it.  You’ll see 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 on the cover?

JC:    They’d 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 the 1920s.

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!

JC:    Oh, really?

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?

JC:    Wagner’s 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 something 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 would be my purpose in doing it.  It becomes a sort of secular priest. 

coxBD:    Does that come into conflict if you were in Rome or Milan?

JC:    No.  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 the church.

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?

JC:    Yes, 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, all round?

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.  Any 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 do that.

BD:    It’s 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?

JC:    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 a 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 cameras.

BD:    I would think that would be ideal.

JC:    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 make you 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 this is 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.

BD:    It’s their job to capture the singers, not the singers job to capture the camera?

JC:    Absolutely, absolutely, and I vouchsafe that’s the only way.

BD:    Do you work then with the TV director?

JC:    Oh 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.

*     *     *     *     *

cox[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.]

:    Are you at the point in your career that you 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 as an 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!

BD:    I 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 was one 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.

BD:    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.

JC:    I 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 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.