Director / Designer  John  Pascoe

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


I met with John Pascoe in November of 1998, when he was directing the Chicago Opera Theater
’s production of Hansel and Gretel by, as I always said on the radio, “The ORIGINAL (!) Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921), not the pop sensation (b. 1934) who changed his name from Arnold George Dorsey.

Pascoe would return to COT the following season for The Barber of Seville with David Small, Tracy Watson [who also had played Hansel], Gregory Schmidt, Philip Kraus, William Powers, and Diane Ragains [who had played many roles over the years with COT].  Both operas were led by Lawrence Rapchak, who was then Music Director of the company.  To read more of the history of COT, see my interview with its Founder, Alan Stone.  [Names which are links on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.]

Knowing Pascoe
s British heritage, I began by asking him to compare the operatic situation in the two countries . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   What’s different about America from England in terms of the opera world?
John Pascoe:   It’s a different world in any case, apart from just in the opera world.  The biggest thing is your mythology which includes the fact that every man can become president.  That is so different from England, where nobody else except the Royal Family can become the Royal Family.  That’s the first thing, and that’s the biggest thing.  The Royal Family is still our wealthiest, but they are still the family.  They are extraordinary.

BD:   Have you done anything at all to help them more patronize the arts, so they would want to come?

Pascoe:   I created a company in England, and the Queen’s aunt, the Duchess of Beaufort, was my patron.  I also got the ex-prime minister, Sir Edward Heath, as my president.  [A commercial recording of music by Elgar led by Heath is shown at right.]
BD:   But he’s always been interested in music.

Pascoe:   Always, always!  The Royal Family have their own situation and fulfill their own particular functions.  Their interest in the arts is very intense and wonderful.  Prince Charles is interested in arts in the conventional sense of the word, but it’s not that they’re a big generating force in the arts field in England.  [At the end of my interview with The Earl of Harewood, who was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth II, and Editor of Opera magazine, and Director of the Royal Opera Covent Garden and the English National Opera, I asked about the interest of the Royal Family in the arts.]

BD:   Should they be?

Pascoe:   They should be in a sense, yes.  It would be good if they were.  Leaders should generate interest in the arts.  It’s good for people.

BD:   How should that translate to America, where we don’t have that kind of Family situation?

Pascoe:   You have a different situation.  The people who are successful in America do the same thing as the successful people did in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe.  As a way to prove their cultural background, establish their credentials, and gain access to society, the nouveaux riches patronized the arts and built the most beautiful flashy buildings they could.  So the great palaces of Europe were erected in a sense of show and display.  In England now, the worst thing you can say about a wealthy person is that theirs is self-made money!  Whereas in America that’s the best thing you say.  [Both laugh]  Whilst you may not realize it, in America it’s wonderful that the arts patronage comes in large part from business.  The successful entrepreneur will establish his cultural and social credentials by becoming a great patron of the arts, such as the Gramma Fisher Foundation.  All of your great foundations have their own credentials, and they reinforce those by being great supporters of the arts, and that’s a miracle.  You may not realize it, but it’s a miracle.

BD:   Does it change your ideas of direction, knowing that things are going to be supported by the state, or by the private foundations from one side of the pond to the other?

Pascoe:   No.  [Laughs]  I only ever do what I’m excited in wherever I am.  It’s too complicated if you start thinking about what people want.  You can never make a decision
at least I can’tso I just think what this means to me.  Then I say what I want to do, and people either say, “Wonderful.  Marvelous.  Let’s get Pascoe, or they say, “Hmmm... very interesting.  I’m sure that will be wonderful somewhere else!  But usually they say, “That’s interesting.  Let’s get Pascoe!

BD:   f you’re offered a task, how do you decide yes or no?  Are the ideas always there?

Pascoe:   [Thinks a moment]  You usually are put in a position where you have to be clear about your ideas immediately, as in this situation.  I heard about this project to direct Hansel and Gretel from a close friend of mine, Renée Fleming.  She and I were discussing my style of directing, and she told me I’d be very interested in Chicago Opera Theater because they’re doing very interesting work.  Hansel and Gretel is one of my favorite operas, and I had a contact from them, so I’d already thought about it.  I’m usually not in a position where I am are asked about an opera I don’t know, so I’m expected to express an opinion of it immediately.  Sometimes there is a feeding time, thank God, because there are lots of operas I have no opinion on at all, because I’m not prepared on them.

BD:   How do you see Hansel and Gretel?  I assume it’s more than just a kiddy fairy-tale.

Pascoe:   The thing is that it is a fairy-tale, and fairy-tales aren’t just for children.  Fairy-tales are part of mythology, so they have power because they’re based in psychological realities.  That’s why they’re written in a way.  They define ideas in the same sense that Greek myths define the human condition.  The fairy-tale is there to bring up our basic psychic fears and expectations, and to give them some kind of visual image.  A fairy-tale is just a clear and specific visualization of the psychological realities.  It’s an important real thing in itself, but this Hansel and Gretel is more than that.  The music is so powerful that it takes it into almost a mythological area because of the language of the music.  That’s why you’re right to say it’s not just a fairy-tale, because it becomes a kind of ‘super-fairy-tale’, in the sense that we understand Wagner’s great melodramas, and his great parables.  It has that kind of coloration, not just because it is Wagnerian in its musical character, but because the texture of the music gives its greatness.  Everything is expressed in this extraordinary language, so it becomes big.

BD:   Everything that you decide on is something that you see.  Has this come just from the written text, or does it also come from the music, or a combination of both?

Pascoe:   In this particular instance, it comes from all of it, plus my relationship with Larry [Rapchak, the conductor].  The reality is that the most important thing for me always is the music.  The music fires it first because, after all.  I’ve done a lot of Handel.  I have his Julius Caesar at the Metropolitan this season, so you might say the story of Julius Caesar is a story.  But, on the other hand, if you are directing the Bernard Shaw play on the same subject, it would have an entirely different character than if you were directing a Handel opera from two hundred years ago, or if you were directing a modern film version of the story.  All three versions would be completely different because of the character or the expressions.

BD:   Even though it’s the same subject matter?

Pascoe:   Even though it’s the same subject matter.  So the musical expression is the most important thing for me.  That’s what defines the character, and defines the ideas and the imagery of the show.  Then you see the text.  The text is an amorphous thing, because we specifically are doing this in English.  Therefore we had to decide which translation we would be using.  Thank goodness we’ve been able to generate our own translation.  Larry and I have slaved over that with a lot of input from [Artistic Director] Carl Ratner, and we think we’ve come up with something which is a live-wire version of the German.  It’s not exactly colloquial American, but it has life.

BD:   But it has to work in the theater.

Pascoe:   It has to work in the theater, and with the music.

BD:   Would this English text with you’ve come up with work as a theater piece without the music?

Pascoe:   It’s almost an irrelevant question, because even Verdi couldn’t take a Shakespearean line and not alter it. The greatest composers have always had to alter the written line in order to express it in music.  The thing is that I hope it works in its musical context.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How is your Hansel and Gretel going to be similar or different to what the public is going to expect?

Pascoe:   [Laughs]  I never know what people expect, because I start from a situation of almost willful ignorance about a project.  I try not to become too aware of what people expect.  Typically, when I start on a project, I know very little about what the other versions are, in terms of what the Met does, what New York City Opera does, or what is done at the Royal Opera House.  I usually stun myself by how few opera productions I see.
BD:   In this case, have you also ignored the television version, and the cartoon version, and the story-book version?

Pascoe:   I actually had to go out and get all the cartoon books to find out what they are.  I certainly did see the New York City Opera production the day before I came here, and I have seen the version that Maurice Sendak designed very beautifully.  But I saw those after I’d developed my own project.  I would not do that before I’d developed my own idea.

BD:   So for you, it’s really like a world premiere?

Pascoe:   It is a world premiere for me.  When I directed Don Giovanni for the Florida Grand Opera, which opened this last season there, the critics said it was completely unlike any other Don Giovanni.

BD:   Did that please you?

Pascoe:   It’s of course the only way it’s going to be, because I direct for my dreams, not from the same way it always is.  I’m sure that’s how auditors do it... they just work with the music and the text.  When I’m working, I typically listen to the opera for a month without writing anything down.  Usually, by the end of that, I know it well enough to sing most of the parts, and I suddenly find that I know how the piece goes.

BD:   Is this for your designs, or for your stage action?

Pascoe:   It’s the same thing.  It’s always been the same thing.  It’s not different.  That’s why I’m a stage director and designer.  It’s not separated.  When I’m working on a piece, I get fragments of films showing in my head.  They’re not always just the big images, but they just come in fragmented parts.  Then I suddenly find that the fragmented parts have become a whole.  It kind of creeps up on me.  I suddenly realize that the production is there in my head, and from then it’s a matter finding a way of realizing that image within the physical and financial constraints of the situation.  That trail of thought is the same whether I will be doing it with a $4 million budget at the Metropolitan Opera House, or with a somewhat lesser figure for the Chicago Opera Theater.  The problems are different in each situation, but the ideas will be the same.

BD:   Do you get a certain sense of joy of solving the problems even with the slightly smaller budget?

Pascoe:   Of course.  I always have done!  Since my first show, I’ve been very fortunate.  My early work started in the repertory system in Britain, in the straight theater, working on very, very small budgets, and turning over new productions every month.  It was a great training, paying your dues.  For my first show I had £14 for my budget.  I’m not the youngest person in the business, but even when I started, £14 was still nothing to produce a budgeted show on.  It was real training.  It’s extraordinary how these things turn out to be useful to you later on.

BD:   Are there ever times when you, as the stage director, walk on for rehearsal, and you’ve got your players there ready to work with the sets, and you think it
s a terrible design, or that designer made a mistake?

Pascoe:   [Bursts out laughing]  So far, I have to say no!  I’ve frequently walked on and thought that perhaps I hadn’t realized it as well as I had hoped it was going to be, or that the realization had less magic than it had in my head when I was visualizing it.  Then, my task over the remaining time before we open is to sort out what piece of magic is missing, and make sure it’s there.

BD:   Do you ever get it all right?

Pascoe:   [Thinks a moment]  Mmmm… no.

BD:   Should you?

Pascoe:   I don’t think it’s part of the human condition.  Occasionally I do think that most of our work
meaning the artistic communityfeels worse when I’m doing it than when I look at it in hindsight.  Ten years on, you suddenly think that it was actually rather good!  [More laughter]  At the time, you’re sweating buckets thinking, “My God!  I’ll never get it together.  But I did.  Renée and I made our New York City debuts together in my production of [Rameau’s] Platée from the Spoleto Festival, and the same week I was opening at the at Metropolitan in Julius Caesar.  At the time both shows were such a nightmare to get on that I was swimming through the morass of problems.  It was only when the reviews come out, and I actually had time to read them, that I suddenly heard people say, Wow!  This was so successful that the impact creeps up on you in hindsight.  At the time, you just work with the realities to the best of your own ability, and your environment’s ability.  You try and be a good gardener to the situation, and encourage the growth of the artists you’re working with as much as you can, and give them a fertile situation to blossom in.  That’s the most important thing.

BD:   Do you really feel you have no more control than if you’re growing something from a seed?

Pascoe:   A gardener has complete control in the sense that the plant can grow strong and powerfully, or it can wither and be a pathetic version of itself.  It can be a glorious bloom, and it’s your job as a gardener to know when to take out the pruning shears, and to know when to take out the fertilizer, and to know when to put it in the full blast of the sun, or to put it in the shade.  In those senses, that’s what the job of the stage director must be about in relation to the artists.  So yes, you have a tremendous amount of control, but you are, in a way, helping that artist to blossom.

BD:   Does the artist have no free will at all?

Pascoe:   I’m in a situation where I come to the rehearsals with very specific ideas, and a blocked-out skeleton of where we might go.  In a sense I’m usually I’m over-prepared, and I come with more ideas than any artist is going to want to use.  In any given situation, I’ll come up with three or four possibilities.  We might do it in this manner, or perhaps we could explore another area.  Then it’s very much about the artist locating what they find exciting in what I offer.

BD:   To see what works for them?

Pascoe:   Yes.  Then as you work with the artists, they then hopefully get more and more secure.  We’re talking in a terribly detached way here.  [Thinking in the specific of this production...]  Tracy Watson, who is playing Hansel, is a wonderful singer and an extremely refined artist, as is the rest of the cast.  As the time goes on and on, they are inventing and creating, and living in the parts more and more.  Whereas at the beginning of the rehearsal process, I was very much mapping out the road we were going to take.  Whilst I stay in a position of control of what is happening on stage, it’s a matter of giving those artists the freedom to blossom in the way they’re going to blossom.  I am holding up a mirror for them to see what they’re doing, and then pointing out bits that perhaps aren’t as powerful.  We’ve just had our first piano rehearsal today on the stage of the Athenaeum Theater, and it was an extraordinary experience for all of them, because we’ve gone from a very intimate and intense rehearsal situation onto this relatively big stage.  The experience of going from that tiny situation, where I’m sitting at my desk next to Larry, both of us five feet away from the artists, to suddenly we’re fifty feet away, is very extraordinary.  From here on in, the artists have virtually complete freedom.  They’re the people who are going to give the performance, not me.  They’re the ones who are out there doing it.  It’s not me.  It’s Larry and the artists who are the ones who do it from virtually from here on in.

BD:   [With mock concern]  Should you even take a bow at all???

Pascoe:   [Smiles]  Well, the whole thing about bows is partially vanity.  Of course, I’ve been nursing this baby for the last four months, and I want to be out there with the artists saying that we’ve all thrown this together for you, and we hope you love it!  We hope you’ve had a fabulous time.  It’s the sense of community when you take a bow, and I would feel very odd not being there as part of it.  But the people who have given the performance are the artists, of course.

BD:   Now the artists continue to grow and grow and grow at each rehearsal?

Pascoe:   Yes.

BD:   What happens after the first performance, and you go off for your next project?  Do they continue to grow, or do they stagnate?

Pascoe:   Presumably they continue to grow, but presumably also the stage manager is keeping notes of what the structure is.  Ideally, you have an assistant director who has worked with you on the production, and I’m very fortunate to having Elizabeth [Lukas] working with me.  She’s extremely talented.  I’ve always thought that one’s work can be extremely variable, and it depends in large part on what support team you have around you.  I’m very fortunate, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.  The support team given by the Chicago Opera Theater is very strong, so the work will probably be very good.

BD:   Without mentioning names, do you always get a strong support team?

Pascoe:   I have worked in extremely big houses with extremely famous artists, and the support team sometimes is not as excited by the process as sometimes you find in the smaller situation.

BD:   Are they more blasé?

Pascoe:   In a house where you’re producing the work, there’s that tendency, especially if the production staff have been there a long time.  It’s the same in any corporation.  There comes a time where the longer somebody stays in an organization, the more they just grow used to it.  Then, the freshness and desperate desire to do the best they can, and the uncertainty that they’re good enough
which makes us try harderstarts to disappear.

BD:   Then is it part of your job to shake them up?

Pascoe:   It’s part of my job not to put myself where I’m in that situation!  [Both laugh]  That’s a decision I made five years ago, and it’s one of the reasons I’m thrilled to be here in Chicago.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You mentioned a word I want to pounce on, and that is
success.  What for you makes a successful production?

Pascoe:   [Thinks a moment]  A production where the audience goes out fizzing and [sound of trying to catch one
s breath].  Then it’s successful!  They should go out feeling that it was so good!  The thing is, they shouldn’t know what was so good.  They shouldn’t know that the set was stunning, or that the direction was clever, or that the conducting was wonderful.
BD:   And yet they’ll be trying to put their finger on what it was that made it so enjoyable.

Pascoe:   In this case, they might never have thought Hansel and Gretel was so good.  They should go out in that frame of mind.  Then we’ve had a great collaboration, and it’s been a successful production.  Though critics get a very bad wrap, most critics are very highly educated people.  The reality will be that those productions usually are also going to be the ones that the better critics will praise.  They might say that the conducting by Larry Rapchak was particularly fine.  There were terrific performances, and they’ll mention the characters, and the fact that the voices were extraordinary.  Perhaps they haven’t seen such a wonderful Witch as Susan Nicely before.  They will go through the entire cast, and the critics will be the people who will enumerate the qualities of it.  But the most important thing that defines whether it is a success or not is the audience.  That’s all there is to it.

BD:   You don’t know before it opens whether it will be a success or not?

Pascoe:   [With a slight hesitation]  Well... apparently, I have a higher record of success than failing because I’m still working.  [Both laugh]  People still want me, so once that happens, then I’m comfortable to think that’s sufficient success.  If I’m still working, then apparently people want me around, and are prepared to pay for the inconvenience of dragging me around.  So then that’s fine.  I’m successful!

BD:   Does it please you to know that you’re engaged for the immediate future?

Pascoe:   Yes, I love it!  I love my work.

BD:   How far ahead are you booked?

Pascoe:   We are discussing projects in 2002 at the moment.  [Remember, this interview was held in November of 1998.]

BD:   Is that enough time?  Or, perhaps, too much time?

Pascoe:   It’s just the reality.  If you’re working on the international circuit, then you can’t be working with the greatest artists and planning things for six months’ time, because they’re all booked through for four or five years.

BD:   When you get an engagement for two, or three, or four years hence, when do you start working on it in earnest to really pull everything together?

Pascoe:   It depends on the project.  I can’t name names, but the project I’m working on at the moment for 2002, I’ve already generated ideas for.  It’s a project that I’ve worked on before in a different manner, and wanted to re-visit.  So, it’s something that I have a knowledge of in one sense, and in another I want to generate a completely different vision for.  One has pet projects and pet situations that you enjoy, and feel excited by, and I believe that’s absolutely what Hansel and Gretel has been for Larry.  Its something you’ve been excited by virtually all your life, right?

Lawrence Rapchak [who had brought Pascoe to the interview location, and remained with us throughout]:   Yes.  I did it in a smaller production once, but that doesn’t really count.  For over thirty years it’s been a very, very favorite opera of mine, and a very special opera.  In the repertoire, it occupies its own little corner.  It’s amazing...  On one hand, I was thinking about the number of résumés of singers that I look at who have done some parts in Hansel and Gretel.  Yet, on the other hand, the vast number of people that I talk to have never seen a full production of it.  The only reason that could be is that all these singers were in little school productions, because every opera company across the country trots it out when it’s time to do their bit in Music Education.  [Using an official-sounding tone]  
Of course, we’ll do Hansel and Gretel.  We’ll chop it up into a forty-five-minute thing, and take it out to the schools, [back to his normal voice] and that’s where all the singers get their experience with the work.  John mentioned that it’s just opened at the New York City Opera, and it’s done fairly often in New York.  The Met does it quite often, but a lot of big cities never see it.  We don’t have it here very much.  I don’t know when it’s been performed in Chicago, other than in a truncated version.  So this why it’s a great thrill.  A great number of people that I’ve run into in the last couple of years have said they’d really like see a good production of this work, so it says something about the opera, and its appeal.  It’s much more than just a children’s opera.  John was talking about the fairy-tale elements, and about the depth of the human emotion in it.

Pascoe:   It’s incredibly real.

Rapchak:   The amount of simple truth that is present in folk material of any sort shows the essence of a culture being preserved and handed down in the guise of folk music, or folk melodies, or folk tales.  It’s very impressive, and a very moving thing.

Pascoe:   Just take the phrase itself
folk tales.  They are tales of the folk, of the people.  One of our favorite scenes is this extraordinary situation in the middle of Act 2 where and Hansel and Gretel are alone in the wood.  They have picked the strawberries because they’re starving kids, and they’ve been sent out into the wood by their wicked ‘stepmother’ who, for me, is not in the least bit wicked.  She’s just a mother who is stressed out of her brains.  I hope every mum who comes to see this show will really empathize with her.

BD:   I assume she just did a dumb thing by sending them out.

Pascoe:   She did, because she just lost her temper.  That’s all that’s happened.  She’s not in control of her temper.  She’s not fully adult in that sense.  But there’s this extraordinary scene where the kids are out in the woods, and Hansel says,
Let’s taste some strawberries!  It comes just after this beautiful scene where he sees his sister in this almost visionary situation.  The music is so rapturous and so beautiful, and it nails absolutely perfectly the sublimely beautiful relationship between the young kids.  Their sibling relationship is extraordinarily powerful, and it is one of the most beautiful pieces of opera in that it is completely innocent.  It’s completely lacking in archness, and it takes somebody without pretensions to have written this.  Now I know this sounds extraordinary, because Humperdinck’s music is frequently said by critics as being somewhat Wagnerian, somewhat Richard Strauss.  The reality is that Richard Strauss took from Humperdinck, not that Humperdinck took from Strauss!  Strauss was his pupil [and, incidentally, conducted the first performance in Weimar on December 23, 1893!  In 1894, the opera was led in Hamburg by Gustav Mahler.]  Humperdinck’s a major figure, and he was able to take this extraordinarily innocent attitude towards their relationship, and explore it so beautifully and powerfully in a way that parents will understand, and children will find incredibly charming.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   [At this point we stopped for a moment to take care of some technical details.  I also asked him his birthdate, which is January 19, 1949.]  Are you in the point in your career you want to be at this age?

Pascoe:   As I approach my half-century?  I do rock climbing, and I was traversing a 34ft ceiling upside down a month before I came here...

BD:   [interrupting] see if some soprano could do that on stage?

Pascoe:   [Laughs]  No, just because I’d like to keep fit!  I was blasting across this thing, and I just thought,
God, I’m having such a good time!  I’ve been so blessed.  Here in Chicago, you have without doubt, one of the two or three greatest opera houses on the planet.  I’ve been very fortunate to work here twice with the greatest artists, and also to work in San Francisco, and The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  I’ve been so blessed in my career.  I can only say that I am so happy with my career.  I’m very, very lucky.  Yes, I’m exactly where I’d like to be.

At Lyric Opera Opera of Chicago, Pascoe designed the scenery for Anna Bolena in 1985, with Joan Sutherland, Chris Merritt, Stefania Toczyska, Paul Plishka, Elena Zilio, and Mark S. Doss, conducted by Richard Bonynge, and directed by Lotfi Mansouri; and the following seasons Orlando with Marilyn Horne, Gianna Rolandi, June Anderson, and Jeffrey Gall, conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, and directed by John Copley.

BD:   From the director’s point of view, what is the purpose of opera?

Pascoe:   I have no idea.  I can tell you what it is from my point of view.  It is the only thing that makes any sense out of life.  The only thing that stops me going mad is opera.  It’s an answer to virtually every situation in my life, apart from feeding the pussycat!  [Laughs]  It’s the thing that my life revolves in when I’m working out.  When I have a personal crisis to go through, or when I have work to achieve, or when I’ve got anything to do, I want to listen to opera.  I suppose I’m hooked.  I was hooked when I was twelve.  In one music lesson, I heard recordings of Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland singing.  I asked the music teacher who these creatures were.  I didn’t really know anything of the sopranos.  I had been raised on Mario Lanza.  My father use to play Mario Lanza recordings the whole time, and I also knew Richard Tucker.  Those are the two male voices that I was being raised on, and then I heard Callas and Sutherland, and that finished me off.  At that time, Joan Sutherland was still relatively new, and since then I had always wanted to work with Callas and Sutherland.  Callas, unfortunately, died in 1977, so I didn’t get a chance to work with her.  But then I was fortunate enough to do five productions with Joan Sutherland.

BD:   It
s nice that you completed the circle by working with her.
Pascoe:   Totally!  It was an extraordinary experience.  I directed and designed her final Norma.  I directed and designed her final Anna Bolena, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden [two costume designs are shown on the left, here and above].  She has been such an extraordinary colleague.  Those experiences, working with that level of artist...  Its difficult to communicate how extraordinary it is, coming into contact with that level of artistry.  I designed Orlando with Jackie Horne here in Chicago and San Francisco.  When you work with artists of such high caliber, that becomes the thing which really just sets your eyes so clearly on what the standards are.  That’s what it’s done for me so much.  One feels so privileged to have had that fact of life that this is achievable.  If I say that Joan Sutherland is an ordinary woman, what I mean is she is just as much ordinary as any person out there listening to the radio right now.  It’s just that she had a personal vision, and a need to be as good as she could possibly be, in the same way that whoever is listening to this radio program wants to be the best they can be.  Joan Sutherland happened to be gifted, as many people are, but she had the burning need to be so good, and the fact is that she was able to achieve the kind of standard.  It is so extraordinary knowing that that’s possible, and then I can work with these people, and know that they are just as real as you or I.  They’re not gods or goddesses.  They are just as real as you or I.  They go shopping, and they think about the price of wine they’re buying for dinner for tomorrow night when their friends are coming over.  They wonder if they shall buy this.  Would their friends enjoy this?  They have all the same concerns you and I do, and in the same way that there are so many people who will have those same kinds of incredibly elevated standards in their own different fields, whether it’s business, or commerce, or whatever it is.  Joan had set a level of artistic achievement for herself, which was to be the best in the world, and she worked to achieve that.  That’s the extraordinary experience I’ve been so blessed to have, and to come into contact with those kinds of realities makes you aware of how far one has to go in one’s own field to achieve that.

BD:   Do you yourself have that same kind of burning desire?

Pascoe:   Totally, totally, always have done!  I’ve always, always, always wanted that, always, and I’ve no idea why!  [Laughs]  I just always have wanted to!  I’ve always worked to do whatever I do to be as good as I can be.  That’s why I work out like a maniac.  That’s why I do everything to excess, because I want to give everything I’ve got to whatever I’m working on.  Lots of people do the same thing.  We all do, really.  If we get excited by things, the only way to be is just to throw yourself at it.  In America, that’s thought of as being more normal.  That’s called living through your dream.  In England, it’s called being eccentric!  [Both laugh]  That’s why I spend so much of my time in America.  I spend most of my time in New York now.  I hardly spend any time in my place in London.

BD:   You fit in better?

Pascoe:   Apparently so, yes.  Here, my enthusiasm for things is not thought of as being a little bit odd.  Whereas in England, I always feel people are thinking that I
m very funny, but a little odd.  I get so excited about everything, and over here it’s thought of as being okay.  It’s okay to be excited, thank God.

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BD:   Do you do mostly opera now, or also some straight theater?

Pascoe:   I directed and designed the world premiere of a musical last November in New Orleans called Pretty Baby, based on the film that was put out twenty years before.  It was a very interesting experience.  I was there because a colleague was involved in it, and she and I wanted to have an experience of working together.  This was Michelle Fleming, Renée Fleming’s sister, and we had a wonderful relationship and a great time.  The actual world of opera suits me so well, and that’s where I’m most comfortable, so it’ll be an interesting project when I go into music theater again.  It’ll be an interesting project, but what I live for is opera.

BD:   What advice do you have for someone who wants to be a stage director, or a designer-director?

Pascoe:   [Thinks a moment]  Don’t do it if you can do anything else.  It’s too much hard work.  The theater is not an easy option.  If you have any other option in mind, take it.  It’s terrifically difficult.

BD:   When someone has the burning desire, and can only do that, what should they do?

Pascoe:   They’ll sort it out.  They’ll get the training, and they’ll get in.  When I was in training at art college, I was told I couldn’t possibly be a theater designer, as I didn’t have the right kind of flare.  Three years later, the woman who told me that, turned up.  I was resident designer at the Bristol Vic, and she turned up for a job.  During the interview, I was thinking that I knew this woman, and half-way through the interview, I asked her if we knew each other.  She thought she had an advantage in the job situation because she got some a flicker from me that I knew her.  So I told her that three years ago she had said I’d never be a theater designer, and now I was in a position to offer her a post.
BD:   Did you do so, or did you not?
Pascoe:   Of course, I did!  [Much laughter]  Are you kidding???  [More laughter]  To have somebody working for you who told you that you’d never make it?  It was wonderful!  It was so great!  I loved it.  I can only say that it is the most extraordinary, rewarding world to work in, but if you have a choice about it, if you have any sense of being in two minds about it, don’t do it.  It’s too much stress.  It’s too much stress on your family, and it’s too much stress on everybody!  But if you don’t care, and it’s all you want to do, and you don’t mind that it’s going to take every ounce of your energy, then you’ll find a way of doing it.  The tracks are very clearly laid out in terms of tremendous training schemes.  There are phenomenal young-artists programs throughout the country, which I must say America is incredibly blessed with.  There are so many places young singers can learn their craft, and it’s the same thing with young directors and designers.  You have a phenomenal series of situations for ambitious young people.

BD:   What advice do you have for audiences?

Pascoe:   Oh, I couldn’t give any advice to an audience.  I wouldn’t know how.  Just come!  It’s the best thing in the world being an audience.  I have to say that there’s a lot of opera productions that one goes to where I’ve heard people say it wasn’t what they were expecting!  That’s the only thing.  I know it
s terribly difficult, but if an audience can possibly just manage to put to one side their expectations, then that will give them a situation where they can have a better time.  But the reality is that most of us can’t put aside our expectations in any field.  It’s not possible, so one just hopes that the work we all do will be strong enough to persuade them, and charm them into being and believing in whatever mad world we’re summoning up for them.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of opera?

Pascoe:   [Thinks a moment]  I know an awful lot of people who aren’t, but I am.  I can’t see how it can’t have a wonderful future.  The thing is there … I went to a talk that a friend of mine - Francesca Zambello - was giving in the Guggenheim in Manhattan about a month ago on Salammbô, and once there is work of that quality coming out, and once there are wonderful ventures, like André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, which was extremely interesting.  Once people are trying and out there throwing themselves at projects, trying to make new work, then of course it has a future.  They won’t always be successful, and they won’t always be perfect, but do you think all of Verdi is perfect?  Of course it wasn’t.  The fiascoes at their premieres for the works that we think of being as standard repertoire are absolute part of the history.  We all know how terrible everybody thought Traviata was when it first came out, yet what more standard work could there be?

BD:   Yet his Aroldo is never done...

Pascoe:   Perhaps it should be.  A friend of mine, Patric Schmid, is the artistic director of Opera Rara in Europe.  [More about Schmid and Opera Rara can be found HERE.]  He has his offices in London, and he’s dedicated to presenting the world of the early romantic composers.  His work is absolutely extraordinary.  You only have to look at his catalogue, and pick out any recording, and it’s going to be breath-taking.  He has the greatest singers, such as Bruce Ford, Renée Fleming, Nelly Miricioiu...  They all happen to be friends of mine, but they are all greatest artists.  I’m very fortunate in having very talented friends.  You can’t help it if you’re in the opera business, because people who are working in it are bound to be talented.

BD:   We hope so!

Pascoe:   The thing is there’s lots of stuff that is now well-known, but just because it’s not well-known doesn’t mean it’s not wonderful.  Opera has an astonishing future whilst it’s still being invented, and as long as people are trying to reinvent it.  [Conrad Susa’s] The Dangerous Liaisons in San Francisco a couple of years ago, was extremely interesting.  [John Corigliano’s] The Ghost of Versailles was an astonishing spectacle.  There are new things going on the whole time.  Glimmerglass Opera is sensational.  The world is full of wonderful things.

BD:   Thank you for keeping things alive, and for pushing it all forward.

Pascoe:   It
s my pleasure to do so.

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© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 7, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following day.  This transcription was made in 2023, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.