Opera Warhorses

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Dean of American Opera Composers: An Interview with Carlisle Floyd

September 27th, 2014

The following interview took place at the War Memorial Opera House, home of the San Francisco Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated. 


[Below: Composer Carlisle Floyd; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of Carlisle Floyd.]


Wm: Often, I ask artists whom I interview about their childhood interests in music. That you were an accomplished concert pianist from an early age is well known. My question is what were some of the piano pieces you performed in recitals at the height of your concert pianist career that were your proudest accomplishments? 

CF: When, at around age 26, I made the decision to devote myself full-time to composing, I was performing Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Beethoven’s 110th Sonata and Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit.

Wm: You had decided that you had to choose between the piano performance and musical composition.

CF: Actually, I had never thought about composing. The process always mystified me. In fact, my chief talent was my ability to draw. My family and friends had thought that I would become an artist. But, in time, I became interested in composing opera, because opera encompassed so much that I liked – music, dramatic writing, and art.

To perform as a solo pianist, I had to spend six or seven hours a day at the piano. When I decided I wanted to compose operas, it was not an option to continue as a concert pianist, especially since I was also determined to write the opera libretti myself.

Wm: You and I are both are descended from Methodist ministers who worked on the church circuits in Upcountry South Carolina in the early 20th century. In your childhood, did you spend a lot of time with the folks in the rural communities to whom your father preached? 

CF: Oh yes, It’s a society in which I feel comfortable.

Wm: How much of New Hope Valley is a product of your own experience?

CF: The area that I grew up in is not necessarily a very small rural community like New Hope Valley. My father had churches in the rural towns, because the circuit minister would have one central church and then several outlying churches. He would hold two or three services a day, alternating between the smaller community churches. Everybody, including myself, of course, would be expected to attend services.

Wm: Your earliest operas “Slow Dusk” and “Susannah” take place in the rural South. “Susannah” is an established hit. I understand that there is new interest in the short work “Slow Dusk”.

CF: Yes. “Slow Dusk” is being revived by a small company in New York City on a double bill with my opera”Markham”. I was very surprised when I learned about this. I’ve not seen “Slow Dusk” performed in a very long time.

Wm: Although the San Francisco Opera lists this as a company premiere, in fact, the San Francisco Opera’s Spring Theater presented this opera 50 years ago (May, 1964) at the War Memorial Opera House. You were the stage director for those performances, which starred the imposing cast of Lee Venora as Susannah, Norman Treigle as Olin Blitch, and Richard Cassilly as Sam Polk. 

[Below: The Reverend Olin Blitch (Norman Treigle, above) reveals his sexual desires to the vulnerable Susannah (Lee Venora, on ground); edited image, based on a Carolyn Mason Jones photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


CF: Treigle and Cassilly were very good friends. I knew Lee Venora less well, but she was a very gifted soprano who had covered Phyllis Curtin in the role of Susannah at the New York City Opera. Davis L. West and Thomas Colangelo designed and constructed a new set for the opera. We all considered it a great success.

WM: What are your memories of that performance?

It was a thoroughly pleasant experience. However, I do remember an incident that was my very first experience upsetting a union member. I moved a chair on the stage and it created quite a discussion.

I stayed at a hotel at Union Square and walked back and forth every day. When I see from my taxicab the area through which I walked when I was considerably younger, I wonder if I shouldn’t have been more cautious.

[Below: Carlisle Floyd at approximately age 29, on the steps of the Florida State University School of Music; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Carlisle Floyd.]


Wm: “Susannah” is closely associated with David Gockley, who is now General Director of the San Francisco Opera, but the decision to mount “Susannah” in 1964 iby the San Francisco Opera was made by Kurt Herbert Adler, when he was general director. How did you and he get along?

CF: I liked Adler very much. I got to know him very well during the time I was out here in San Francisco staging the opera.

His record speaks for himself. He built the San Francisco Opera into a wonderful, forward-thinking international company, which has promoted great singers early in their careers.

Later, Adler and I both sat on the board of directors of the National Endowment for the Arts. I recall that he would fly across the country on the red-eye special to attend endowment board meetings.

Adler was so venerated that the rest of the panel used kid gloves whenever he was there. He would say, “Don’t be so formal around me, Just call me Kurt”. However, so many people worked with him or for him in other venues where they were never comfortable calling him Kurt, that they resorted to “Mr Adler” anyway.

Wm: Sometimes people refer to “Susannah” as a folk opera, but I think of it as a dramatic opera that employs certain musical themes that evoke the mountainous regions of the Southern United States.

CF: I don’t use the term folk opera. My feeling is that it is part of a general idiom that I use for setting the location. When you hear the overture, you know you are in rural America. But, I haven’t extorted any genuine folk material. I call my music folk-like, designed to set up a feeling that you are in a particular place at a particular time in history.

Wm: I’ve often thought that there is much to compare between “Susannah” and “Porgy and Bess”. There was only 20 years between the “Porgy” and “Susannah”. George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were writing about a community on the South Carolina coast, and “Susannah”, even if set in Eastern Tennessee, could very well have been placed in a rural part of the South Carolina Upcountry. 

CF: I believe that one common element to both operas is that both Gershwin and I wrote original music that sounds like it could be folk music. In fact, you know that there were New York critics who were confounded as to whether Gershwin had incorporated traditional Negro spirituals into “Porgy” or had invented them.

Wm: “Susannah” contains idiomatic music for a square dance, for Sam Polk’s folksy “jaybird” song, a couple of rousing church hymns and haunting arias from Susannah and Sam that to me evoke Appalachian plainsong. How were you inspired to write these different musical “sounds”?

CF: It all came very easily to me. I always use each sound in a stylized way, although perhaps the least stylized is the first of the congregation’s hymns. However, I don’t think you’ll ever find any other music that sounds like the congregation’s final hymn.

[Below: Brandon Jovanovich (left) is Sam Polk and Patricia Racette (right) is Susannah Polk in the 2014 San Francisco Opera production of Floyd's "Susannah"; edted image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: When you first started composing, there was some hostility to your style of composing. Would you comment?

CF: Yes, I would say in the 1960s and 1970s, there seemed to be three camps of composers, those that followed the musical theories of Schoenberg, those that wrote in the tradition of Stravinsky or Hindemith, and one that was influenced by native materials and by more accessible or popular kinds of music. The so-called American Operas, of which “Susannah” was considered one, would be considered as part of this latter group.

Wm: You would agree that “Susannah” would have been considered in the same group as the works of Aaron Copland and Douglas Moore.

CF: Certainly, Copland was considered the leader of the movement. Douglas Moore preceded me, although he did not compose folk-like materials to the same extent as I did. We considered him the Dean of American opera composers. He was always encouraging and most generous towards me.

I also met Virgil Thomson in Tallahassee, when he came down to Florida State University to attend a Gian Carlo Menotti play. His advice to me was “Continue to be fecund”!

[Below: Carlisle Floyd (center) with two famous interpreters of the role of Susannah, Phyllis Curtin (left) and Renee Fleming (right); edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Carlisle Floyd.]


Wm: Frequently, I get to Houston Grand Opera, where your participation with David Gockley in creating the HGO Studio is celebrated. Would you give me your thoughts on that endeavor?

CF: I do regard the HGO Studio as a great accomplishment. Many consider it one of the two or three best of its kind of young artists programs in the world, comparable to the program created at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. It has gone far beyond what David and I had expected.

What I am most proud of is that we were the first people to demonstrate that a year-round program of continued instruction in opera could be successful. HGO Studio included coaching in vocal performance, language, and movement, It quickly became a model to be emulated, although few companies approach it as comprehensively as does the HGO Studio.

Wm: Originally, it was a joint project with the University of Houston.

CF: It was. In fact, HGO Studio would not have happened without the financial and educational support from the University of Houston.

It was such a new and costly idea that there was considerable opposition, both within the university and opera company, that it took a lot of work from David and myself to pull it off.

Finally, UH agreed to pay half the budget, the Houston Grand Opera the other half. The instruction took place at UH. I worked with the HGO Studio between 1977 and 1992.

Wm: How did the happen that Houston Grand Opera took over the entire program?

CF: In the early 1990s, financial pressures at the University of Houston required its withdrawal from the project.

Faced with the prospect of closing HGO Studio down or of absorbing the full costs of it, David, very bravely and with great farsightedness, went to his board and convinced them to fund the entire project.

Wm: You seem to have a high regard for the Houston Grand Opera.

CF: Six of my operas have been presented at Houston Grand Opera, and it is there that my next opera, “The Prince of Players” will be presented.

Wm: You have been a close observer of David Gockley through the years at Houston and San Francisco, What do you think will be his legacy?

CF: I think the chief legacy is his support of the operatic efforts of contemporary composers, in particular the young composers he sees on the horizon.

David mounts very fine productions of standard works. He began his career as an opera singer, and I believe that that gives him an insight and a fine ear for the voices of the singers he hires that a non-singer would find hard to match.

He has a theatrical sensitivity and he understands what will make a great visual scene. We’ve known each other for almost 40 years and have become faster and faster friends. He was so much my anchor in Houston, that it took me a while to adjust to his having left there.

Let me give you an example of how he has supported my operatic efforts.

Wm: Please do!

CF: When I first read Olive Ann Burns’ book Cold Sassy Tree I found it so touching and hilarious. I began to wonder if there might be an opera there. I contacted David and asked him to read it. He said it was on his bedside table, and he wanted me to do an opera on it.

I kept re-reading the book until I found a way to create my own libretto. We proceeded with a commission from Houston Grand Opera. He was very patient with me, then not so patient, but he wanted to be sure he had first crack at the opera.

Working with David is such a joy. When we came to the production, he gave me a list and said “Here are ten top directors, choose whomever you want to direct the production. He is that sensitive to every aspect of the production.

[Below: Carlisle Floyd (standing, right center), surrounded by the Houston Grand Opera cast and crew of "Cold Sassy Tree"; edited image, based on a personal photograph, courtesy of Carlisle Floyd.]



Wm: What did you think of the new production of “Susannah” being mounted by the San Francisco Opera?

CF: My first impression of the sketches was unfavorable, but those sketches gave no sense of what the opera would look like with the scrims and projections. But every concern that I raised at the beginning was addressed and exceeded.

I regard this as the most beautiful set for “Susannah” I have ever seen. It is so imaginative and experiential. Because it all works so well, it is the greatest compliment that you can pay the opera.

The constant flow of projections makes the need for big physical sets unnecessary. Watch the scene at the baptismal creek. It opens with a projection of the sun on the bubbling creek.

There is so much detail. When the lights go up, you see that the creek really consists of only two lines and all the water is just an illusion created by the embedded projections.

[Below: Susannah and Sam Polk (Patricia Racette and Brandon Jovanovich, embracing in lower right corner) are at their cabin surrounded by the forest of Eastern Kentucky; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: What are your thoughts on the cast that David Gockley has assembled for you?

CF: I’ve never seen a more committed actress as Patricia Racette. I had first been introduced to her when she created the role of Love Simpson in my opera “Cold Sassy Tree”. She has the acting abilities of the soprano Teresa Stratas. Her voice is in full bloom and is incredible.

I find Raymond Aceto to be very convincing as Olin Blitch.

I had never worked with Brandon Jovanovich before, and frankly, although I knew he had good looks, I did not expect him to be such an extraordinary and committed actor.

David wants his productions to be exquisite. He attends to the smallest details. Since new productions have many opportunities for small mishaps, he made sure that this one was very well-rehearsed.

We’ve worked on six operas together. To see “Susannah” in this beautiful opera house in this unparalleled production is wonderfully satisfying.

Wm: Now that “Susannah” has joined the performance repertory of the “main” San Francisco Opera season, which of your other works would you regard as appropriate for the War Memorial Opera House?

CF: My opera “Of Mice and Men” is the most frequently performed after “Susannah” and should be done here. I think another one that would work well is my comedy, “Cold Sassy Tree”, which, by the way, was dedicated to David Gockley.

[Below: Lennie (Robert Moulson, right) and George (William Chapman, left) in the 1976 Seattle Opera revival of Floyd's "Of Mice and Men"; edited image, based on a photograph for the Seattle Opera.]


Wm: Among the younger generation of opera composers, whom do you believe have a chance for an operatic success as significant as “Susannah”?

CF: There are two whose work has especially impressed me – Jake Heggie and Mark Adamo.

Wm: I’m on record as saying that I believe that Heggie will write the great 21st century American opera.

CF: He will be joining me for the opening night of “Susannah” here.

Wm: I had a very interesting interview with Mark Adamo, who, like you, writes his own libretti, as to the importance of the rhythm of the phrases that he writes to be sung. I raised the example of Vincenzo Bellini and his librettist Felice Romani for “Norma”  (the opera that is in rotation her with “Susannah”) who wrote at a time when the rhythm of each line was considered critical.

I’ve made the observation that the rhythm of what is to be sung is crucially important in an opera, and those composers who neglect it, and produce what is essentially a “sung play”, often diminish their efforts. By the way, Adamo agreed with me. Do you agree also? Obviously, “Susannah” abounds in rhythmically sung speech patterns.

CF: I like to use the term “prosody” for what you are describing. I think those modern composers who ignore an opera’s prosody do so at their peril.

I’m reminded of my first meetings with Mack Harrell, who created the role of Olin Blitch, but before that sang the role of Nick Shadow in the American premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress”. Harrell found the part of Shadow to be quite a trial for him, precisely because the rhythmic structure was so difficult. He said that it was so much harder to learn to sing a role that ignores speech patterns.

Wm: I assume he had no trouble with the prosody of Olin Blitch’s role.

CF: You are right. I actually had offered to alter any phrases that he found awkward, and he said, that, no, it was fine just as I composed it. Every phrase had a purpose.

I have been very conscious of the speech rhythms in my operas. I regard the speech rhythm to be the connective tissue between the words. I try to use words that fit a pattern, that are musical and expressive, but do not sound mechanical. Above all it should have a speech rhythm that is like the rhythms that the audience would speak.

[Below: Stephen Powell and Patricia Racette in the Houston Grand Opera production of Floyd's "Cold Sassy Tree"; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Houston Grand Opera.]


Wm: I am looking forward to your next opera, “Prince of Players”, about the English Restoration actor Edward Kynaston, which is scheduled for the Houston Grand Opera’s 2015-16 season. What is it like to compose a new opera at this time in your career?

CF: When Verdi was late in his composing career, he said he couldn’t composer more than two hours a day without tiring. Since I write my own libretti, I’ve found that over my lifetime it’s taken me about two and a half years between operas.

I completed “Prince of Players” in about the same amount of time as my other works, but I found it much harder and much more fatiguing than ever before.

Wm: How did you choose the subject for your opera?

CF: I had seen Jeffrey Hatcher’s play and his 2004 film “Stage Beauty”, loosely based on the late 17th century English actor Edward Kynaston, one of the two greatest actors of his time, who was noted for playing female parts at the time when all actors on stage were male, regardless of the gender of their character.  The actors who played women were accomplished in a complex set of hand gestures, that is as complicated to learn as are the roles in Japanese kabuki theater.

Samuel Pepys in his famous Diary, remarked that Kynaston would appear as both the most beautiful woman and the most handsome man. There is the report of one performance when the curtain had to be held because the Desdemona had to shave.

Wm: What attracted you to the story?

CF: I became intrigued about the impact on Kynaston of an order by King Charles II requiring that no male actors play female parts. The enactment of King Charles’ ban on men playing female roles was a personal disaster for Kynaston.

Certainly, the material provided me with a fresh start, in that nothing I had written before is like this story. The setting in the era of the restoration of the British monarchy is a change of pace for me. The Restoration theater became extremely popular in reaction to the time previous to it when all social life in England was controlled by the Puritans. The Restoration actors were like our rock stars.

But i was also intrigued by the analogy to the end of the silent film era, in which certain actors could not adapt to the transition between silent and sound films, and, possessing voices of a kind that did not sound right in “talkies”, were forced into retirement.

Wm: What about his story did you find “operatic”?

CF: There is a mix of human drama, that includes Kynaston’s despair, and a period of his dissolution when he is performing as a woman in the dives that existed at that time. But there is abundant opportunity for comic scenes, including very bawdy ones.

In the end, late in his career, he discovers that be successful in men’s roles. In the opera, Kynaston begins a play as Desdemona, and ends it as Othello.

Wm: 2015-16 is, in opera-season planning terms, right around the corner. Do you have your lead singers in mind?

CF: In fact, we have a new member of the HGO Studio, an Australian baritone, Morgan Pearse. He is phenomenally good looking, andhas an androgynous appearance that fits my idea of what Kynaston would have looked like.

Wm: I deeply appreciate that you have spent an hour with me for this interview on the day of the new production’s premiere.

CF: I enjoyed the time very much, and look forward to our meeting again.

Tags: 2008-2014 William's Interviews

Ambassador for Opera: An Interview with Bass-Baritone Greer Grimsley

September 25th, 2014

This interview took place on the “ranch” of the Santa Fe Opera, whose facilitation of the interview is deeply appreciated.


[Below: Bass-baritone Greer Grimsley; edited image of a publicity photograph, from www.greergrimsley.com.]


Wm: What are your earliest memories of music?

GG: I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana, so there was no lack of musical stimuli. When I was a kid there was a fruit-seller who sang about his produce from his horse-drawn cart. It was music as he sang about his strawberries.

Wm: Like in George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.

GG: It was. The ragman would call for people to bring out their rags.

Once Motown hit, trucks would come down the street with speakers, playing the week’s hits.

But even though there was all of the city’s jazz, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of classical music.

Wm: What were your early experiences in musical performance?

GG: I played the trumpet in the high school marching band, but eventually switched from marching band to choir. I was also in the drama club.

My interests in drama and vocal music led me to pursue musicals.

[Below: Jack Rance (Greer Grimsley, center, wearing sheriff's badge) discusses law and order with his men in the 2014 Minnesota Opera production of Puccini's "La Fanciulla del West"; edited image, based on a Michel Daniel photograph, courtesy of the Minnesota Opera.]


Wm: What musicals have you performed?

GG: I’ve played Emil Debeque in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” and small parts in their “Carousel”. I was Sanjar in Bock and Harnick’s “The Apple Tree” and El Gallo in Schmidt and Jones’ “The Fantasticks”. Later I sang Billy Bigelow in “Carousel” in the Frank Lloyd Wright Theater for the Marin Opera Company.

Wm: What was you first operatic experience?

GG: I didn’t see my first opera until I was 17. I was a junior in high school and was part of the high school drama club. The New Orleans Opera asked the high school for extras who would be paid ten dollars each.

Although it was the ten dollars that drew me to the opera, it was the historic production of Halevy’s “La Juive” starring Richard Tucker. He was amazing.

Wm: What’s was that opera’s effect on you?

GG: Up until that time, my two major passions were music and theater. I knew about musical theater. Even though “La Juive” was my first opera, I was able to understand that it was a different way of combining music and drama than musicals.

I had been accepted to Loyola University New Orleans and had been planning to major in archaeology. But I made up my mind that I would pursue music rather than archaeology.

Wm: Tell me about your college experiences. 

GG: My family did not have a lot of money, so I had to pay for college myself. I worked in restaurants, and became an assistant manager. Then I took two years off and managed a dinner theater in Naples, Florida. After my first year, I applied to Juilliard and was accepted.

It was one of the only schools at that time that had professional studies for opera performers. It was a lot of coursework. We had drama, voice lessons, coaching and productions at the American Opera Center. It was very informative.

At the end of my first year, I applied to the Houston Grand Opera Studio, which offered me a position. Carlisle Floyd and David Gockley were the studio co-directors. It was a thrilling experience to be a young singer, working with the two of them, especially Floyd.  They convinced to stay in opera.

I ended up in the HGO Studio for three years. It was a safe place to learn my craft. After I left it, I stayed in Houston.  I would get jobs here and there. As a young singer, you have these long periods without work.

Wm: Have you sung in any of Carlisle Floyd’s operas?

GG: No, but I would love to sing roles he has created. I’m interested in the title role of his “Willie Stark”, especially with its New Orleans connections. I was at its premiere. I thought it was a wonderful opera, based on William Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. The character of Kingfish is something close to my heritage.

Wm: I notice you don’t have a “New Orleans accent”

GG: Well, I never have had one.

Wm: How did you support yourself during these student days? 

GG: I had a friend who was a plumber, so I was his helper.

At the end of my sixth year, I was asked to be in the Texas Opera Theater’s productions of Bizet’s “Carmen” and Johann Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus”. That turned out to be a great opportunity for me. We took those operas on tour, and it was on the tour that I auditioned for the British theater director, Peter Brook.

He had already done a Lincoln Center presentation of “La tragédie de Carmen”, Brook’s adaptation of Bizet’s work, which was about to do a second European tour. I met Luretta Bybee, the Carmen, who later became my wife. We had both flown to New York to do the auditions. We toured as Carmen and Escamillo off and on for three years, working with Peter Brook.

It was an amazing life-changing, career-changing process. Luretta Bybee is a fabulous singer and actress. It really solidified these roles for us, and how we approached future projects dramatically. Between us, we explored much further in our roles as actors than we ever had previously.

[Below: Greer Grimsley as Escamillo and Luretta Bybee, touring as Carmen, at Pompeii, Italy; edited image, based on a photograph from greergrimsley.com.


Luretta and I  tried to establish our careers by auditioning for European opera houses. Luretta’s credentials were stronger than mine. I was still trying to figure out where I fit in the operatic repertory.

We heard that the Scottish Opera was doing auditions. It was that company that asked me to do John the Baptist in Richard Strauss’ “Salome”.

Because of my connection with Peter Brook, this crucial landmark opened up for me. Once I knew that I could do John the Baptist, that’s when I figured out that my repertory would lead to performing Wagnerian Opera.

Wm: John the Baptist is one of your signature roles. What are your thoughts on it?

GG: You start with the amazing combination of Richard Strauss’ music and Oscar Wilde’s lyrics. It was all part of this golden age in Vienna, where the art form was being pushed in both its musical and dramatic boundaries.

A big element in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome is the fascination with the moon. Everyone talks about the moon.

[Below: Salome (Janice Watson, above) is obsessed with John the Baptist (Greer Grimsley, below) in the 2006 Santa Fe Opera production of Richard Strauss' "Salome"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the Santa Fe Opera.]


Even though I didn’t go into archaeology, I retain an interest in these ancient civilizations. In Palestine, at the time of Herod and Salome, there was a great conflict happening bc the Romans were trying to impose their calendar based on the sun and the locals wanted to retain theirs that is based on the moon.

I found that these lunar images guided their conversations. The people were both upset and fascinated.

The music is glorious. It has a fabulous libretto, that, with only a few cuts, follows the play word for word.

Wm: You are now closely associated with Wagner. How did you begin?

GG: I had sung roles in all four of the operas of the “Ring of the Nibelungs”. At first I performed Donner in “Das Rheingold” and Gunther in “Gotterdammerung”.

For my second “Ring” I was singing all three of the Wotan roles. There was no warm-up. It was a great opportunity that I took.

Then in 1994 Speight Jenkins took a chance on me at Seattle Opera, and cast me as Telramund in “Lohengrin” in a production created by Stephen Wadsworth. In fact, I will be returning to Seattle Opera for a gala celebrating my 20 years there.

[Below: A suspicious Telramund (Greer Grimsley, left) listens as King Heinrich (Gidon Saks, center) questions Elsa (Marie Plette, right) in the 2004 Seattle production of Wagner's "Lohengrin"; edited image, based on a Chris Bennion photograph for the Seattle Opera.]


 Wm: I’ve referred to the Seattle Opera “Ring of the Nibelungs” that Stephen Wadsworth created as a “world treasure”. Do you have any information on whether that “Ring” will be preserved for posterity?

GG: I atill don’t know. It would be a shame for it just to disappear.

What I love about the Seattle “Ring” is its emphasis on storytelling and on the relationships between the characters. What I think Wagner envisioned is a revival of Greek theater, which at its best is a group catharsis.

What was started by the Greeks, Wagner was trying to be reinvent. It’s about group investment in the story, about changing peoples lives.

In Europe a lot of productions are influenced by Berthold Brecht’s argument the audience should distance itself from empathy with the characters on stage in order to gain a higher intellectual understanding. What gets perpetrated on the “Ring” are ideas and concepts that Wagner never intended.

[Below: Fricka (Stephanie Blythe, right) is apprehensive about the schemes being pursued by Wotan (Greer Grimsley, left) in the 2013 Seattle Opera production of Wagner's "Das Rheingold"; edited image, based on an Alan Alabastro photograph for the Seattle Opera.]


Wm: At this season’s Santa Fe Opera, your role is Don Pizarro in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”. What is your take on him?

The character of Don Pizarro is very two-dimensional, but all of us who sing that role try to find as much in the character as possible, without resorting to a playing him as a “Snively Whiplash” villain caricature. The reason I love doing it, is that I feel connected with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The opera composers from Mozart through Verdi and Wagner aligned with revolutionary forces and ideas. Mozart promoted Beaumarchais’ egalitarian ideas in “Marriage of Figaro”. Beethoven was a force of nature who saw the injustice about him and tried his best to convince us to support change through his music.

Beethoven wanted to change peoples lives, so did Mozart and Verdi.

Beethoven’s musical commentaries on post-Napoleonic Europe are amazing. More than ever you can see that he is trying to change the lives of people. But Beethoven’s idea of the what the world should be was egalitarian, not despotic as Napoleon himself turned out to be. That’s why I love continuing Beethoven’s message, which is as relevant today as in Beethoven’s time.

Wm: What parts of Mozart’s operas are most interesting to you?

GG: For one, I enjoy singing the final scene of “Don Giovanni”. I actually believe that some Giovannis that I otherwise admire, play the final scene too lyrically. This is when Giovanni needs to roar, defiant of deity, and refusing to take any responsibility for his actions.

The scene has to have an impact. Giovanni has to come off as arrogant as possible. As Don Giovanni’s voice, we who sing that role have to make his defiance evident to the audience.

Wm: One of the arguments I constantly make is that there is a general lack of appreciation for the dramatic innovations that Gounod, Bizet and the other French composers of the Second Empire and Third Republic Paris brought to the operatic stage. As a person interested in the drama in opera who sings both Mephistopheles in Gounod’s “Faust” and Escamillo, do you agree with me on that observation?

GG: I think for a while in the 20th century, French opera was thought to be less serious, but I don’t agree.

Gounod, who, at one point wanted to be a priest, is very French in what he writes for the Devil. I think that the church scene, especially, is dramatically gripping.

We were talking about Bizet. I refer to “Carmen” as French verismo when the work is done right. Bizet added a new kind of dialogue for opera, but unfortunately died before he could do more.

[Below: the Dutchman (Greer Grimsley, left) embraces Senta (Lise Lindstrom, right) in the 2013 San Francisco Opera production of Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman"; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: What are your thoughts on performing with the Santa Fe Opera? 

GG:  I love it, every time I’m here. I like being outdoors and being able to go on hikes in this beautiful country. It affords these young singers a chance to get a toehold in the business. The Santa Fe Opera’s mission statement is a noble one.

You read a lot of news articles talking about the death of opera, but people are outside of the Santa Fe Opera theater enjoying tailgate parties. The parking lot is full. Everyone is excited to be here.

I think that the American Opera World should use Mark Twain’s quote that “the rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”

[Below: Greer Grimsley as Don Pizarro in the 2014 Santa Fe Opera production of Beethoven's "Fidelio"; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera.]


Wm: I assume you believe that this spirit you see in Santa Fe is translatable to all parts of the United States?

GG: Oh, yes! I have worked where people have called opera as “elitist”. I’ve never felt that way. I came from not knowing anything about opera to discovering it and then having a wonderful career in the art form, because of that I feel the need to be an ambassador.

There is a lot of negative imaging that comes of opera. There are always images of overweight persons with horns on their head. When rock was first being marketed, classical music was used as something to push against.

I think we need a “discovery project”. We are still a new country when it comes to this art form.

I took part in a campaign in the 1980s and 1990s to counter that impression about classical music. Unfortunately, it’s an expensive enterprise.

Wm: Describe the campaign in which you participated.

GG: I was part of an organization called Affiliate Artists sponsored by the Arts Council and corporations. We would spend a week or so doing “informances”, sharing parts of our lives mixed in with a musical accent – art songs and and arias, telling your stories, doing a recital. I still do the “informance” version.

Every time I did that, wherever we performed, the room was full of people. We would go to corporate lunchrooms, we’d go to department stores. It wasn’t so much that people got to know my story. The program was interesting enough that people would come to the recital.

The program was constantly reaching out to new people. It successfully reached a lot of people we wouldn’t have ever known we should be looking for. If a person finds something about opera that is appealing, or even interesting to them, then they might be more inclined to try out an opera performance once or twice. It may lead to some critical thinking about the art form.

It’s not to  say that this type of outreach is better than another color in the crayon box. But if persons have no information that would lead them to think that opera is something they might like, then you concede to them the cultural bias against opera.

Wm: Obviously, a large, organized campaign to promote opera could be very valuable. Are there some smaller steps that can be taken as well?

GG: I believe that when we artists share our stories with the public, it helps demystify the art form. We need to realize that when people get to know our individual stories, it can lead to greater appreciation of our art form.

Wm: That’s one of the arguments for this series of interviews and conversations on “operawarhorses.com”.

Thank you, Greer, for your time.

GG: Thank you, also.

Tags: 2008-2014 William's Interviews

A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 3

September 23rd, 2014

This post continues from A Conversation with Director-Designer John Pascoe, Part 2 regarding his international career in opera stage direction and production design. We have committed to posting an ongoing series of discussions on his career influences and on a variety of opera-related subjects. 


[Below: John Pascoe in the year 1980; resized image of a personal photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: In our previous conversation, you had mentioned how director Robert Carsen, who was your friend and colleague in Bath, England in the late 1970s, encouraged a meeting between you and director John Copley. At that time was Copley aware of your work?

JP: Apparently, so. During Royal Opera House Covent Garden’s 1974-5 season, I had worked as a properties maker there and at that time had tried to show Copley my work as a designer through that channel, but with apparently no response.

However, Ande Anderson, who was then the R.O.H. Production Director, wrote a very generous letter of introduction for me, and also had apparently mentioned to John Copley that there was an opera-obsessed prop maker (that would be me) who wanted to become a designer in opera.

So John Copley had apparently already heard of me when finally I called him some years later in early 1978.  But even more important perhaps, Robert Carsen, who had worked with John as an assistant, had been putting in many good words for me. Carsen also furnished me with John Copley’s private telephone number.

Wm: So, you had Copley’s telephone number. What happened then?

JP: Following Robert’s insistence to actually use it (!), I nervously called John Copley and his reply was: “Oh yes, I know all about you ~ I hear you are enormously talented. When are you coming to see me?What? !!!

At this point Copley was flying off to Rome for the following week and asked that I call him a week later. The days following I know you will understand …  dragged past.

[Below: a scene from Prior Park in Bath, England, qhwew John Pascoe had been art director from 1974 to 1978, and near which both John Pascoe and Robert Carsen lived; resized image of a historical photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


The night before I was in fact meant to call him, I started to leave my basement flat to go for a walk to distract myself, and finding it was pouring with rain, had to return to get an umbrella. As I opened the door to my flat, I heard the telephone ring …, and it was John Copley telling me to be at his home the next morning at 10.00 AM.

While Bath is only 120 miles from London, at this time there were no motorways between the two cities and my old car was  not really up to the journey … not having been serviced for months.  So I called a family friend and sort of ‘pressurized’ him into servicing it in the pouring rain at 10.00pm with me holding aforesaid umbrella over him and the engine.  I then leapt into the old car and crawled up the A4 from Bath and London. It was a long journey in pouring rain.

Driving to near where John lived in Central London, I parked and slept (fitfully and very uncomfortably) in a side street in the car.  Next morning at about 5.30 am, finally deciding that anymore sleep was impossible, luckily I found a service station where I thankfully could find some breakfast, so also washed and changed in their loo (rest room) returned to my car and sat nervously waiting for 10.00 to arrive.

Wm: What was this first meeting like?

JP: Well, Robert had already told me that John and his partner were one of the few openly gay couples at that time in 1979.  So knowing my audience shall we say, I wore my very tightest ‘Biba’ pants and took my burgeoning (innuendo somewhat intended I think) portfolio along to show him.

His very charming partner John Chadwyck-Healey, (a real gentleman if ever there was one) opened the door for me and I entered their home which was indeed a magic, operatic kingdom, beautifully furnished with walls hung lavishly with masses of opera designs alongside beautiful pictures of some of the greatest singers being directed by John. I was stunned and wanted with all my heart to be part of this world.

Finally John swished in.

[Below: John Copley, resized image of a publicity photograph.]


He was enormously charming and beamed his dazzling smile at me (and perhaps also at my ‘Biba’ pants)? He then started to barrage me with tales of his sexual adventures, dotted with the occasional moment of actually talking about his experiences of directing opera, but mostly he talked about sex.

As anyone who knows John will tell you, he was / is VERY funny and I had never met anyone who was so open about their sexuality before. Finally we started to look at my portfolio, which included photographs of productions from regional theater that I had designed and for many of which I had also created the actual scenery with my own hands.

Also there were some projects I had created including of course the “Ariadne”-/ “Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme that I had just created with Robert.

[Below: A design that John Pascoe created for the character Dorante in a proposed Robert Carsen-John Pascoe production of Moliere's "Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme"; resized image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: What was Copley’s reaction to your portfolio?

JP: In fact, he didn’t say anything (which made me really nervous), but instead played a series of recordings and asked me who was singing. As these were of some of my favorite singers, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland and Janet Baker among them, I of course knew both them what they were singing (Daaa!) The fact that somehow or other I also managed to remember the names of their conductors and their orchestra  was apparently viewed as a bonus.

He seemed happy, as the music and the artists were clearly important to him (as indeed theuy were to me).

As an opera director, I now know that this is not always the case with some opera directors, strange but true!

At that time John was directing not just a great number of productions on the international scene but was also very generously finding time to work with various high level operatic colleges. So my hopes were up to be invited to be involved in one of his student productions.

He then he invited me to stay for lunch.

[Below: John Pascoe's set design for a scene for a proposed Robert Carsen-John Pascoe production of Moliere's "Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme"; resized image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: An invitation to lunch seems a good sign. How did that go?

JP: Perhaps it remains one of the most memorable lunches of my life, William. It went well, but to details . . .

Among the rather elaborate plates he offered was one of braised asparagus ~  which I’d never eaten them before. I simply had no idea what to do with these long limp but inviting objects. (Oh God, not more innuendo?) As I watched how he was eating his, he noted my lack of experience and demonstrated with skill how to manage them without letting the butter drip all over one’s clothes.

As I was now more dexterously (I hoped) sliding one between my teeth, he asked if I’d like to design the scenery for Dame Joan Sutherland’s thirtieth anniversary production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia” for the ROH Covent Garden the following March. A rather weak voice came out of my stunned brain that I think I said something like “Oh that would be nice …”

Wm: So, despite a lack of experience, you are now committed to a major new production at ROH Covent Garden. 

JP: Yes, and to say that I was extremely nerous is understating the reality!

During the next few weeks I visited his studio every day and we worked on creating some initial designs that he would then take to the R.O.H. to show them.

[Below: the John Pascoe set designs for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden production of Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia"; edited image of a John Pascoe drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


As it turned out, the R.O.H. was pleased with our project and I was then moved to work there in the ‘model room’ – which is where the scale models of productions were created.

I would however be creating the scale model myself but worked happily alongside the talented individuals who built models full time and also seemed to view me with rather snooty disdain.

Although being paid virtually nothing, (1500 sterling) I knew that I was having my ‘big chance’ and that they didn’t, so maybe their apparent ‘disdain’ was nothing more than a bit of perfectly normal jealousy?

[Below: a scene from Act I of the John Copley production of Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, with sets by John Pascoe and costumes by Michael Stennet; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.] 


At that time, having sold my flat in Bath to finance my search for operatic work, I was staying with a friend – Chris Limpert Peers who put me up in his flat in nearby Cornwall Gardens which was a stone’s throw from John’s home. So I started driving John and I into town every day in my old Renault 7.

One morning he asked if I had a tape player in the car (CD’s hadn’t yet been invented)  I replied that I hadn’t and he seemed strangely upset by this lack of stereo … in my old wreck!

So later that morning I spent my remaining few pounds on having a Blaupunkt system installed. An incredible extravagance, but John needed a stereo in the car so … it was only money.

[Below: the second act confrontation between Lucrezia (Joan Sutherland front, left), Duke Alfonso d'Este (Stafford Dean, center) and Gennaro (Alfredo Kraus, center right); edited image, based on a production photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Nexxt day he was pleased to see that there was now a stereo in the care and put a tape in, asking me what I thought about the music. While it was clearly by Handel, I had never heard any of it before, but said that I liked its baroque flourish. He seemed happy at that response and told me it was “Julius Caesar”.

Clearly, at that time, I had no idea how important this opera would become to me in the (near) future. He then asked me to bring my portfolio with me in the future. (What?!)

Mystified I did so and some days later, as we were arriving at the stage door of the English National Opera, (E.N.O.) where John was creating a new production of Verdi’s “Aida” he asked me to follow him up to the administration offices and to bring the aforementioned portfolio with me.

[Below: another scene from the John Copley production of Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden; edited image of a production photograph, curtesy of John Pascoe.]


At that time I had not yet discovered the ‘other side’ of John, which was that one could easily fall out of favor with him, and such had apparently happened with Robin Don ~ a remarkably talented designer who at that time was scheduled to design the sets for this Handel rarity.

(At this time there were no main stage productions of Handel. The great composer’s work was only mounted by enthusiasts in smaller and highly specialized venues.)

[Below: Gennaro (Alfredo Kraus, left) speaks with Maffio Orsini (Anne Howells, right) in the John Copley production, with sets by John Pascoe and costumes by Michael Stennet, of Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


However, meekly and extremely nervously, I followed John into Lord Harewood’s office (the boss at E.N.O.) and was interviewed or should I say ‘grilled’ by the tall, alarmingly aristocratic but very suave gentleman.

At some point he turned and asked me if I actually liked the baroque period. (I did and do.) So he then asked me with a rather sardonic smile – if could in fact draw. John smilingly indicated to me that I should take a paper and pen and draw something ‘baroque’ …

While I have no idea what I drew, Lord Harewood seemed happy and during the following days I was announced as the new set designer for ‘Julius Caesar’. (It would be performed in English).

[Below: the John Pascoe design for Ptolemy's court in the John Copley production of Handel's "Julius Caesar"; resized image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


What? Two prestigious new productions within 6 months at two of  the leading opera houses of Britain? While it was difficult to keep breathing, at the same time my head expanded enormously and I’m sure I was a complete brat to all I encountered.

But somehow or other people seemed to forgive me, or in any case to allow me to keep on working – thank the stars. In point of fact, learning how to handle success took a little longer for me, but finally (perhaps 30 years later?) I seemed to have gotten the hang of it, at least for now.

Wm: The ENO “Julius Caesar” was a renowned production, one I, myself saw. What was its creative process like?

JP: Very, very exciting William, and also . . . extremely challenging. We were only a few months away from opening and I had to start designing it from scratch on a mini budget of 15,000 sterling. But I found contractors from all over UK who would build the sets for me for sums that even then were considered ridiculously low and searched through the ‘dead store’ at E.N.O. (where props were stored from old ‘dead’ productions). Anything I found in it was free and could therefore be used without impacting the tiny budget.

Some of the cushions and a huge gilded bedspread (from a long dead production of Wagner’s “Lohengrin”) made it possible to create a vast canopied bed for Cleopatra. (See my design below).

By the way, the gilded Sphinx’ seen on top of the main obelisks that were used for most of the show, I found from a long dead E.N.O. production of Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte”. Also, when the budget finally gave out, I carved the two seven foor high baroque Sphinxes needed for another scene – in the tiny garden of my partner’s Titos’ and my first home in Hackney-London.

My normal practice of seeing what already exists that can possibly be of use in creating a new show is a method for saving money without sacrificing quality. I recommend it to all designers!

[Below: John Pascoe's set design for Cleopatra's bed in the John Copley production of Handel's "Julius Caesar" for the English National Opera; resized image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Somehow or other, we opened and did so with a success that was truly  … incredible. My parents were in the audience and you will understand that they were happy and very proud.

John Copley then generously invited all of us to dinner afterwards and I remember my father commenting privately to my mum that thankfully ‘our Johnny’ (me) was now not the odd one out as everyone seemed to be homosexual in this operatic world!

Indeed, not entirely so, but one understands his point. In fact at this time I also met my first partner, the talented and extremely handsome Cypriot architect: Titos Argyris. We were to have a wonderful but challenging life together for another 15 years.

The “Julius Caesar”, with the great Janet Baker as Caesar, Sir Charles Mackerras conducting and with the stunningly gorgeous costumes by Michael Stennet, turned out to be my ticket to the international scene as it was the first Handel opera to be seen in that circuit within the twentieth century. In the same week of the Caesar’s opening,

I also had two other shows opening … one of which was in London, “She stoops to conquer” at Greenwich, and then out of town in far away Manchester  – Paisiello’s ‘Il Barbiere di Siviglia’. At that time there were also no high-speed trains, so shall we just say that I was frantic? However these three shows marked my debut as set designer in December 1979.

The ‘Caesar’ went on to win the Evening Standard Award for Opera was released commercially, toured the world, including the West Coast’s San Francisco Opera  in 1982 finally arrived at New York’s Met’ in 1988 and continued to be seen there through 2007. What a start, and what a great return on E.N.O.’s tiny investment of 15000 sterling for the sets!

[Below: a model of John Pascoe set designs for John Copley's production of Handel's "Orlando"; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: You HAD said you wanted to break into the operatic big time. What happened next?

JP: Indeed! Next up in March 1980, our ‘Lucrezia Borgia’ starring the incredible Joan Sutherland and Alfredo Kraus, with Richard Bonynge conducting, featured yet another range of incredibly lavish and very beautiful costumes by Michael Stennet. It opened at London’s R.O.H. with a Royal Gala for the H.R.H. The Queen Mother and H.R.H. Prince Charles.

What a start! And all of this was due to the introduction to John Copley offered to me by Robert Carsen and to John’s faith in my abilities.

Of course, as previously mentioned all of this was initially due to my parenting and family. It was there that I had learnt that dreams don’t just happen to become a reality. As my father was fond of saying “Good luck is opportunity met half – way”. Good advice! To this day I still produce projects when I am excited by something or someone and amazingly some of them even become reality

In the following years I went on to design two more productions for John Copley, the final one being Handel’s ‘Orlando’ with Marilyn Horne, June Anderson, Ruth Ann Swenson and Jeffrey Gall, again conducted by reigning Handel specialist – Sir Charles Mackerass and with yet more Stennet Stunners as we all called Michael’s remarkably beautiful costuming . This was for San Francisco Opera and Chicago Lyric Opera. (where we had already mounted our ‘Cesare’ .. which had been produced in its correct Italian version)

[Below: John Pascoe set designs for John Copley's production of Handel's "Orlando"; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


As it turned out, the budget offered by San Francisco and Chicago was not sufficient to have the enormously tall horses and riders created for the false proscenium, (see above) so I offered to carve them for what turned out to be half of the lowest quotation and did so in our rather tall hallway in our next home in Highbury – London.

By then I had a record of achieving high quality results on tiny budgets and had in fact already carved the two baroque Sphinx’s needed for one scene in the E.N.O. Julius Caesar in the tiny garden of Titos’ and my first home in Hackney –  London.

Despite the ‘Orlando’ being another great success, my professional relationship with John Copley was foundering really on the personal front. At the time, perhaps due to my naiveté, it felt to me due to the fact that as my career had taken off like wild fire with productions being offered to me by other directors, I sensed that felt like a betrayal to John, and nothing I said or did seemed able to mitigate this new feeling of tension between us.

But looking back I feel that perhaps it’s more likely that he just noted that my head had expanded to uncontrollable proportions and couldn’t be dealing with a rather arrogant young John Pascoe who felt he had arrived!

If this is the case, I wish I had the time over again to find a ‘way of being’ that would have been more appropriate to the situation but sadly one doesn’t know at the beginning of a career what life inevitably teaches you later during the endless process of learning.

In fact I’ve since not infrequently thought that it’s been a miracle that my career has been as long and rich as has been the case, but surmise that somehow or other my enthusiasm for the world of opera and everything that we are doing in it has perhaps encouraged people to just forgive me or at least to ignore one’s behavior when it has been shall we say … less than perfect?

Wm: Looking back over 45 years from that time, what did your early experiences with Robert Carsen and John Copley mean to you?

JP: John Copley was and is a remarkably generous man and I benefited from the contact with him not just because of the many successful opera productions we created together. But also as a future director, I was able to observe and try to lean how he created  ‘personalities’ with sometimes less than perfect acting / singers who seemed under his sure touch to become people who apparently reacted naturally on stage.

In my opinion (and in that of many others I am sure) his understanding of the text and music remains a benchmark by which some other directors cannot afford to be measured, and while his visual style has now somewhat slipped from fashion, his contribution to the operatic world remains inestimable.

[Below: John Pascoe set designs for John Copley's production of Handel's "Orlando"; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


While Robert and I never worked together again, after some years I started to note his arrival, and what an arrival it has been. His sense of style was there from the beginning, but his freshness and characteristic sense of theatricality that never feels tired, has been a great joy for me to see as it has developed.

Among the monuments to his inventiveness it is impossible to not comment on the stunning production of Boito’s ‘Mefistofele’ that he created with Sam Ramey in San Francisco, then later, his ‘Rusalka’ for Renée Fleming in Paris plus his ‘Eugene Onegin’ at New York’s Metropolitan Opera again with Renée, opposite the extraordinary Dimitri Hvorostovsky.

Talking again of benchmarks, these remain for me ones up against which I do not care to be measured!

The latest production by Robert that I was thrilled to see was in Vienna’s ‘Theater an der Wien’ was this last spring (2014) which was of J. P. Rameau’s ‘Platée’ which incidentally was the subject of my own not unsuccessful directorial debut in Spoleto Festival USA and then New York’s BAM ~back in 1987/ 8.

Robert’s productions represent for me a pinnacle of intelligence combined with a perfect sense of style and theatricality that always manage to be both challenging and entertaining. Not an easy reality to bring off I would say.

Not many people would utter the names of these two very different directors in the same breath ~ John Copley and Robert Carsen. But I am just thrilled to have had contact with these two deeply wonderful artists. Bravi tutti e GRAZIE MILLE. (Am I sounding pretentious again? Sorry.) THANK YOU GENTLEMEN!

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe

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