Opera + Classical Music Features

Interview: John Copley

This year, John Copley celebrates 60 years of work at the Royal Opera House, marked by not one but two runs of his celebrated production of La bohme.

He began as a 15 year old walk-on in Aida in 1948 before graduating to stage management and then to directing in the 1960s.

A stream of work followed, building into an almost unparalleled career, with the long-running Puccini a major highlight.

Copley’s La bohme has been in the Royal Opera’s repertoire for a staggering 34 years, making it almost as much a fixture as Zefferelli’s famous Tosca, ousted only two years ago. He puts its longevity down to a combination of straightforward traditional staging (“which is what people want”) with an approach steeped in the work’s musicality. “I put on the stage what the music tells me to,” he says. It may sound obvious but it’s something that’s too often ignored by directors today.

His methods may not be fashionable now but trusting in and respecting what the composer has written is surely an essential starting point for any opera production, no matter what you then choose to do with it. Copley self-deprecatingly refers to himself as “a dinosaur” but one senses that he doesn’t truly believe that and is unrepentant about his trademark “traditionality”. Ironically, paradoxically even, it’s a refreshing attitude in today’s opera culture, which has become something of a battleground between composers’ intentions and directors’ egos.

Copley sees an important element of the success of his productions his Nozze ran for 21 years and his Cos for 24 as working with designers who provide what he calls “wonderful and beautiful sets.” He admits “In Germany, we’d be laughed off the stage now but here there are plenty of people who still want beautiful dcor rather than plastic bags and dustbins.” He has a point; who hasn’t groaned just a bit inside when confronted by the latest post-modern concept and don’t most of us experience just a twinge of relief when the tabs open on a recognisable setting? Go on admit it.

“Listen, listen listen. Learn, learn, learn”

Since beginning as a lad in the late forties, Copley has seen many changes, including two rebuilds of the Royal Opera House. I asked him what the biggest differences are between now and when he started. “It’s probably that there are fewer divas, people who are difficult to work with,” he says. “There are still a few, of course I actually turned down a very important production this year because there was an artist I didn’t want to direct but young singers today are very focused on working hard and there’s less bad behaviour. There are some wonderful singers now but not the great, great stars there once were.” He cites Flagstad and Hotter (neither of whom were difficult) and Zinka Milanov, who he says did throw her weight around.

He tells how Milanov was reputed to have once addressed an auditorium of understudies at the Met (one of whom was no other than Renata Tebaldi) and lectured them with (and he adopts the accent) the need to “Listen, listen, listen. Learn, learn, learn.” For him, this wisdom was applied to observing and learning from the likes of Barbarolli, Kempe and Erich Kleiber.

From his beginnings as a supernumary in Aida, he went on to a variety of small parts including Peter Grimes’ apprentice and then, in 1960, moved into stage management. Directing was his ardent wish from early on, though, and his chance came in 1962. And what a chance it was: directing Renata Scotto in Madama Butterfly.

“You have to be able to move 250 people around a stage”

His own assistants during a career that, at its height, took in 13 opera productions a year for a 26 year period, included Nicholas Hytner, Graham Vick and Richard Jones. I asked him what he felt he had been able to hand on to them. “They learned an order,” he says, “which is so important. Opera has to be orderly. You have to be able to move 250 people around a stage, which isn’t easy. Some directors coming in now become overwhelmed because they don’t learn that basic craft.” It’s the sort of thing you hear an older generation of actors, directors, singers say often but there’s no denying the truth of it and you don’t have to go to the opera that often to recognise what he’s talking about.

Among his proudest moments in a long career were the first night of his Nozze di Figaro in 1970, with Colin Davis, which introduced a young Kiri te Kanawa to the house. There were several royal galas, produced alongside Patrick Garland, which also figure highly and he describes the first night of his 1967 Cos fan tutte with Solti as “overwhelming”. Then there were numerous productions with Janet Baker, including the famous trilogy with which she left the stage (Maria Stuarda, Julius Caesar and Alceste), all directed by him. “Working with Sderstrm, Callas, Gobbi were all thrilling experiences. I’ve been very spoiled.”

“I’ve been very spoiled”

His recent Merry Widow at ENO, another company he’s worked with extensively, was an unexpected pleasure (he was a late replacement for an indisposed Jude Kelly). As far as the future is concerned, there’s still plenty to keep him occupied. “Next year is already very busy and I’ve been offered work as far ahead as 2011, although I did say I’ll probably be dead by then.”

During the second run this year of La bohme (11-18 Oct), Copley will mark the actual anniversary of his first step onto the Covent Garden stage. He clearly has a lot to look forward to, as well as an enviable wealth of experiences to look back on from 60 years of working with London’s major companies, as well as opera houses around the world. With only just over half of that time to look back on as an operagoer myself, I can count many John Copley productions among my own memories. With his knack of longevity, there may well be future generations who can say the same.

Tickets are on sale for both runs of La bohme (13-19 July and 11-18 Oct 2008) on 020 7304 4000 or www.royalopera.org.uk

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