Sixty Glorious Years: The Career of John Copley [Royal Opera’s La bohème, 11-18 October 2008]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

The latest revival of John Copley’s production of La bohème at Covent Garden also marks his sixtieth anniversary of working for The Royal Opera. Mansel Stimpson talks to him…

John Copley

It was in 1938 that Herbert Wilcox presenting his second film about Queen Victoria used the title Sixty Glorious Years and it was another ten years before a fifteen-year-old named John Copley was associated for the first time with the company that is now The Royal Opera. But since that occasion led to an international career and since his relationship with Covent Garden continues to flourish – this month’s revival of his acclaimed 1974 production of Puccini’s La bohème is the 22nd, no less – it seems entirely appropriate to purloin Wilcox’s title when considering Copley’s record as a director of various stage-works but especially of opera.

In acknowledging this anniversary, John is inevitably drawing attention to his age, but what is so splendid about meeting this man who is now 75 is the fact that he is so alive and alert and functioning in every sense. When I visited his South Kensington home, he was not only looking forward to this year’s second revival of La bohème (it also closed the 2007/08 season) but was about to depart for San Francisco to stage Mozart’s Idomeneo. Copley may enjoy reminiscing but he is also eager to look forward and would clearly welcome it if someone were to offer him now one of the works that have regrettably never come his way. “An opera that I’ve always wanted to do is Kát’a Kabanová. I would love to have done that, and I’ve never done any Monteverdi which surprises me because they say that I’m good at Handel and I’ve always thought that it would have suited me a treat.”

John grew up in Birmingham where as a schoolboy he saw Sadler’s Wells Opera and music became his passion. But that did not make for an easy situation. “My father was a cricketer and an international hockey umpire, so my family background was all sports and they hated the idea of music. But my mother liked the theatre and my father’s work did facilitate coming down to London. I saw a triple bill of ballet at Covent Garden and some six months later we came back to see Sleeping Beauty with Fonteyn, Helpmann and Ashton at a matinee and it was quite a day because that night we went to see Oklahoma! at Drury Lane. It was, though, during the ballet that I thought: ‘This is like being in heaven; this is paradise’. And then I told myself: ‘I’m going to work in this building; I don’t care if I’m a cleaner as long as I’m here’ – and I really did think that I would be a cleaner, polishing the brass and sweeping the steps.”

A scene from the Royal Opera's 'La boheme'. Photograph: Johan Persson

John goes on to explain how his dream – if not the cleaning aspect of it – became reality. “In 1948 Covent Garden advertised in the Birmingham press for extras for the coming season and, having applied, I ended up appearing as a page playing the flute on the banks of the Nile in the third Act of the Audrey Cruddas/Michael Benthall production of Aïda. Other brief appearances followed and also helping out behind the scenes. Then I auditioned for the boy in Peter Grimes and got that. I was also the Prince of Persia in Turandot which was fun since I had, I suppose, a decent body then and was almost naked.”

However, if this suggests an untroubled apprenticeship, it is misleading. For the fact is that, for all his love of opera, John’s real hope in those early days was to become a dancer. He became a student at Sadler’s Wells Ballet School, those being the days before the company became The Royal Ballet. To be there was most encouraging until Ninette de Valois summoned him. “She said to me, ‘You’re absolutely hopeless’ and that was a real blow: I thought that my heart would break. However – and only Ninette could have used the tone she adopted – she added a vital proviso: ‘I’m having you transferred to the opera: you’d do better there’. She knew I was opera-mad and she was very smart: I really owe my career to her.”

While maintaining links with Covent Garden, John Copley in his early twenties was at his most persistent in extending his range, as when he went to the Central School of Arts and Crafts and got a diploma in design. “I went to Sadler’s Wells as a stage manager when I was 20 or 21 and after that I went into the West End and did musicals like Osborne’s The World of Paul Slickey and the John Cranko show. Following an accident that put me out of action for about four months, I got a job as a stage manager on a show that was already running. It was My Fair Lady at Drury Lane which was fabulous and it got me back on my feet. Then Covent Garden’s David Webster rang me and said ‘I think I have a position for you at last: come and see me’. It turned out that he wanted me as an assistant stage manager. Despite my schoolboy thoughts of being a cleaner if necessary, I took the view that, keen as I was to come, my experience now counted for more. ‘I wouldn’t come as an assistant’, I said, ‘but I would start as a deputy stage manager’. And that, indeed, was what I did for about two years before being promoted to being a staff director. Mind you, I think they were mad because for my debut they entrusted me with a revival of Madama Butterfly with Renato Scotto. Later, having done reasonably well generally, they gave me my first new production and that was Suor Angelica. It helped that I had paid a lot of attention to my languages, Italian in particular, and I always memorised all the operas from beginning to end. That impressed them because I could get up and do any role – that was part of what I did.”

Kirsten Malfrid Flagstad (1895-1962)

In other interviews John has stressed his admiration for the great artists of the past such as Barbirolli, Kempe and Erich Kleiber and Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Hotter, Maria Callas and Tito Gobbi. Since he is also very critical of directors with eccentric ideas and of conductors whose egocentricity can be fatal, it would be possible for some to regard John as a firm traditionalist and a reactionary but his comments when properly considered cut across any such verdict despite the relish he has for stories in which he dishes the dirt but without naming names.

“I truly believe that if the music isn’t right you can do the best production in the world but it won’t succeed. Some conductors are very scary because they haven’t been through the business of being a répétiteur, a coach, an assistant conductor: some just go straight into it when they can’t really do it. It’s as bad as those directors who come from the straight theatre babbling on about how exciting it is to be doing an opera but who don’t know how to because it’s not their world. They may be used to handling a cast of three or four, but give them a chorus of, say, seventy, and they are out of their depth. I myself have had several flops as a director not because of the design or because of what I’ve done or not done but simply because the music was so wretched. There are still one or two conductors around who drive you absolutely nuts because of their egos. I worked with one such in a production of Bohème somewhere and his tempo for Benoit’s exit was ludicrous – just so fast that it was impossible to do it, I remonstrated gently by saying ‘It’s a little too fast – I need some help here’. But by way of response he screamed at me: ‘It is my tempo!” For a moment everyone took a step back, but I refused to retreat, I said: ‘Well, all I can say is that it’s the wrong tempo’. He never spoke to me again.” Being an expert raconteur, John pauses here for a moment, before adding with a laugh: “He got terrible reviews.”

A scene from the Royal Opera's 'La boheme'. Photograph: Johan Persson

More seriously we talk about the director’s job as a blend of the objective and the subjective and about John’s feelings regarding Puccini (he is on record as admiring Mozart most of all among composers and his Covent Garden productions of Figaro and of Così lasted for 21 and 24 years respectively although it is Bohème that leads the field). John has always stressed respect for a composer but believes that you don’t just look at the notes but need to get at what lies behind them – which could well be the point at which the subjective element enters in since it is a question of personal instinct and discernment.

“Well, since I am about to do Idomeneo I can take that as an example. It’s a difficult opera because Mozart at 24 had yet to perfect the genius that characterises the Da Ponte operas. It’s opera seria and it’s following Gluck and Handel and the introductions to the arias are much longer than in any other Mozart opera. But – of course, it is subjective – it is so clear what to do because the emotions, be they anger, rage, or indeed self-rage as in that first aria where Idomeneo regrets the bargain he has made to save his life, are so clear. With Ilia’s arias too the introductions work in the same way. I know how to do it because the music tells me where I am with that character. Some people may not feel that and resort to having a lot of people come on doing some business or other, but my certainty grows out of what the music gives me emotionally.

“Mozart is sublime because he understands the human condition better than anybody. He touches the most profound, the most powerful part of my psyche. That happens because I’m terribly lucky in both loving and being loved for the longest possible time and that’s where I come from. It helps me to get at things immediately because most operas are about love and I don’t mean it in a sentimental way at all. Puccini does it too, but at a different level, I think. Undoubtedly Bohème and Butterfly and Tosca are works of genius. They haven’t lasted this long with people absolutely adoring them and being excited by them for any other reason than that they are brilliant. With really good players a work like Bohème can reduce an audience to tears. But the characters don’t have the sublimity of the leading figures in Figaro and that is perhaps because there was a greater sophistication in the way those characters were conceived.”

A scene from the Royal Opera's 'La boheme'. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

Referring to the original 1974 staging of Bohème at Covent Garden, John says that “the brief was that what was wanted was a Bohème that would last and I did it with the late Julia Trevelyan Oman as designer. She was very pernickety about historical detail and I knew that what emerged would be absolutely traditional. Even so, there’s a lot of originality in it, like the Café Momus setting in Act Two derived from an illustration of a café on three étages with a billiard floor. Opting for that, we filled in on the other side with shops. But, since then, I’ve found another way of doing it: in America I have a theatre on the other side of the stage where Musetta is appearing as the star so there are posters of her around and she comes out of the stage-door surrounded by autograph hunters and goes straight into the café because it’s the stage-door café. It makes complete sense and works a treat. If you keep to the original setting, 1830, you have to consider how people behaved then, but in the portrayal of the characters you find nothing old-fashioned in the text. In its way, it’s very modern. As long as the emotion is there you can change the setting. I did one production in America that was turn of the century, 1900, and the clothes of the period helped to make it very successful and glamorous, And then there’s Baz Luhrmann’s Bohème which is modern and the whole thing is very different.”

John’s admiration for Mozart, Handel (second only to Mozart in his estimation) and Puccini, does not prevent him from shifting to a very different work when I ask if he has a favourite among his many productions. “Jenůfa in Sydney – just because it’s one of the greatest of operas and I did have extraordinary people with which to do it.” But let us return finally to Puccini and La bohème. “If I did a new production, it would be totally contrasted to what I’ve done already. I’m not entirely sure about a contemporary treatment, but if a management approached me saying that they wanted me to do a Bohème set in 2008, I’d say, ‘Of course, of course’. It would be a challenge for me but it would be interesting.”

Whatever challenges may come his way, let us hope that John Copley will long be around to take them on. He may be 75, but he’s ready and waiting.

  • The opening night of La bohème is Saturday 11 October 2008 at 7.30 and runs until Saturday 18 October
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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