One of the most enjoyable duties that my job entails is the opportunity to interview guest artists who come through North Texas. This happened again at the Winspear Opera House when I sat down with John Michael Harold Copley, CBE (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, bestowed on him in 2014).
Copley was born in Birmingham, England and attended King Edward VI Five Ways grammar school. Moving right along, he eventually became the stage manager for Sadler’s Wells, followed by resident producer at Covent Garden. Since then, he has worked in all the major opera houses of the world. He has even directed several operas for film.
Copley is in town to direct Madame Butterfly, which opens Friday at The Dallas Opera. We’re very lucky that he could make the trip—he recently took a tumble down a flight of stairs, so he has been using a cane to get around. However, it didn’t interfere in the least with his impish energy and infectious smile. He broke the ice with couple of off-color, and very funny, limericks (that I won’t repeat here).
I was completely charmed, so we turned to the Butterfly production.
TheaterJones: You didn’t design this production. How is that working?
John Michael Harold Copley: I’ve adapted it to the way mine would be. I hardly ever do another’s production. But, I looked at the photos and thought, “I can work with this.” I always have done the whole thing. But I thought this was perfectly possible. Besides, I wanted to come back to Dallas and work in the new theater [Winspear Opera House].
It helps that it is a representational set.
[Laughs]: It’s not set on the Planet of the Apes. No, it is perfectly straightforward.
I am surprised you haven’t been here since the opera house opened.
[With obvious phony chagrin] No, I wasn’t asked. [Pause, then laugh]
Now that you are here, what do you think of the Winspear?
It is a major opera house with lots of room backstage. It is very posh, very grand.
Back to your background, which is quite extensive. How did you begin your fascinating career trajectory?
I started off in ballet. I both designed and choreographed many of them. I can still choreograph a set piece, if I need to.
Did you dance yourself?
[Sly grin]: Once I was at a ballet party and Rudy [Rudolph Nureyev] was there dancing a selection from Swan Lake. He said, “John, do you know the Black Swan pas de deux?” I did, and now I can say that I danced the Black Swan with Nureyev.
I wish I had been there.
I did double pirouettes every time. [Laugh]
Any other such stories?
Well, once when I was directing [Maria] Callas in Tosca, she was ill for three days, so I stepped in for her. I was a counter-tenor back in my singing days. When Callas returned, she said that she heard I was good, so she thought, “I better come back.”
What a story! She was an amazing artist.
I learned a lot from Callas. One important thing was the value of the rests. She said, “They are there for a very good reason.” Ever since, I study to find out all that is written in the score.
The rests, the negative space in music is often ignored., mostly cheated.
This is one reason why I admire Massenet. Everything is written in the score, either in the music or some added instructions.
Copley had to get back to monitoring the lighting for Butterfly. Alas, a discussion of Massenet will have to wait. Hopefully, we can meet up again with a suitable libation. (Off the record, of course).