John Copley directed the revival of San Francisco Opera's Idomeneo, which opens this Wednesday, October 15 and runs until October 31. He has worked on 19 productions for San Francisco Opera since his 1982 debut in Giulio Cesare. The Opera Tattler spoke to Copley on Friday morning in San Francisco.
It has been 60 years this month since you were first a supernumerary for Aida at Covent Garden. How did you get interested in opera?
My mother took me to La bohème when I was 10, and I caught it like the measles. I also studied piano, my father gave me one for my 6th birthday. He only played by ear, so he had me take lessons.
You went on to study ballet, painting, and architecture?
I studied ballet at the Royal Ballet School, but I started too late. Ninette de Valois sent me over to the opera, where I was told I would do better, and I did. I learned about painting, costumes, furniture, and architecture at the Central School of Arts. One of our models for drawing was Quentin Crisp, whose memoir, The Naked Civil Servant, was turned into a movie.
What has changed in the years since you started?
My generation of opera directors insisted on acting, one cannot just stand and sing. So that's one difference.
Also, there aren't as many divas. Perhaps it is just because I'm getting old and people feel they should be nice, since they figure I'll die soon. [Laughs]
Singers do tend to get used up these days, as opera is quite popular. The opera world is littered with causalities. Singers push too hard and take too many roles, they are often pressured by their managers. They need to be more patient if they want to have careers that are more than a few years long.
Mirella Freni had 7 or 8 parts within her voice in her early years, and she was terribly bored with them, but she wanted to keep singing. So she made it to 70 and still could sing. There are those that are very lucky, like Joan Sutherland, who was singing Amelia in Un ballo in maschera and Desdemona very early. But she has vocal cords of steel, and that's very rare.
You call yourself a "dinosaur" because of your traditionalism in staging operas. What are the considerations you make in directing an opera?
I try to find a new way of doing what's written, telling the story, and staging the music. I learned from Callas that you must examine what the music tells you. It doesn't have to be old-fashioned, but there are certain settings that do not work for certain operas. For instance, La Traviata doesn't work after women's liberation, Violetta would not have taken all that abuse, she and Alfredo could have just stayed together. Or Le Nozze di Figaro, the opera is very much about the right of primae noctis, it doesn't make sense in today's world. I saw a production in which Susanna was already pregnant, and it missed the whole point of the story, in which Susanna's virginity and purity are of great importance.
So what do you think of all these film directors directing opera?
Good luck! [laughs] That's what I think! Some of them might think it is going to be easy, and it isn't. I've been told that certain film directors are just so clever, so new and brilliant, but I haven't seen much evidence of this. They don't realize how hard the task is, moving that many people around the stage, knowing the music and the text. There are a lot of options, aren't there? Some film directors are good, Anthony Minghella, for instance. His Madama Butterfly was great.
What do you think of the Met simulcasts in movie theaters? What about the emphasis on how singers look?
I don't mind if singers look good as long as they can sing. I haven't seen the simulcasts but they are very important for expanding the audience. You look around at the average opera audience and people are quite elderly. We were at a performance in St. Louis recently and we counted at least 50 Zimmer frames!
A few days ago we went to a rock concert, and though it was an entrancing show, the music was not generally of a very high quality. The text was certainly not great. I'm not sure how to get a younger audience engaged with something like opera, but it needs to be done. Maybe new opera is a good way of doing this, as with The Bonesetter's Daughter bringing in the Chinese-American community in San Francisco.
What did you think of The Bonesetter's Daughter?
It was an incredible effort and a smashing success. I did have some trouble following what was going on, and would buy the recording if they release it. I would have liked to hear the music more. [Singing from Precious Auntie's part from the end of Act I] "Sit on your pot, grunt all you can, you cannot move your bowels."
Getting back to your work, I went to the dress rehearsal of Ariodante last summer and noticed that the horse heads in Ginevra's mad scene were removed in the actual performances. Why?
The horse heads were based on a Tiepolo painting, and are meant to show Ginerva's madness, but they just bothered people, including Ruth Ann Swenson, who sang the role.
I liked them! You also didn't replace them with anything so the stage is fairly placid at that point.
I liked them too, but so many people were confused by the horse heads, I just didn't want that. The music isn't placid, so the madness comes out there.
How about Idomeneo, what is this production like?
It is much in the same vein as Ariodante, inspired by Tiepolo as far as the sets and costumes, particularly in the colors. Mozart understands the human condition, even at age 24. The opera is very much about the father and son relationship, and about the perils of hubris. Idomeneo gets me every time, it is just so moving.
You are coming back next year to direct Peter Grimes in San Diego and San Francisco?
Yes, the San Diego rehearsals are in March, and the San Francisco ones are about this time next year. The production is based on the post-war Covent Garden one that I was actually in, as Peter Grimes' apprentice. Anthony Dean Griffey is singing the title role in San Diego and Ben Heppner will sing it here.
Did you really stand-in for Maria Callas in rehearsal?
Yes, I was Zeffirelli's assistant for Tosca at Covent Garden. Callas was ill and Franco said to me [Italian accent] "John, you do it, the cover isn't here." In those days there were ways of getting into the house, people would make sure they had to make deliveries, and everyone wanted to hear Callas, of course. Tosca starts off-stage, so when they heard me everyone was sure that Callas was finished!