Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Conversation with Director-Designer John Pascoe, Part 1

June 9th, 2014

The following conversation began at the Park Hyatt in Milan, Italy.


Wm: John, I’m grateful to begin what I hope will be a series of conversations with you. 

[Below: John Pascoe; edited image of a photograph from www.johnpascoe.com.]

PASCOE (400)

Although I have been able to conduct interviews and conversations with many opera personalities, it’s most difficult to arrange to speak with a production designer or stage director. Typically, you and your colleagues finish your work with the opening night performance.

As a reviewer, the opera companies much prefer that I am there for opening night, and that I post my review as soon as possible. There is little opportunity to arrange meetings with directors and production designers.

I’ve admired your work, reviewing your productions of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Washington National Opera and, of course, “Lucrezia Borgia” again with an alternate cast at the San Francisco Opera.

JP:  Thank you, William! I have been really impressed and not a little moved by the fact that you have given so much attention to my conceptualization of the ‘Borgia’. As you said in one review, it has been a labor of love between Renée Fleming and I for many many years, and we were thrilled by its universal success at its premiere in Washington D. C. in 2008 and then by the public’s enthusiastic response in San Francisco.

Wm: I was delighted to have seen two performances with Renée, although my introduction to your concept was with the wonderful Sondra Radvanovsky, who was the scheduled Lucrezia for the final performance.

JP:  Yet your review for the final 2008 performance [Wm: – See The Donizetti Revival, Second Stage: Radvanovsky, Grigolo in Pascoe’s WNO “Lucrezia Borgia” – November 17, 2008] was the highlight for me – as you so clearly understood WHY I had made the decisions i made, especially in relation to the mutual passion shared by the two male warriors.

Wm: Your work fits in with my concept that we are in the second stage of the Donizetti revival – that the first stage – which began in the middle of the 20th century with Maria Callas, Leyla Gencer, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe and Beverly Sills – was most concerned with the musical performances.

Yet I believe that Donizetti’s operas are works of theatrical genius that use the musical conventions of the period – such as the cabalettas and the grand concertati – in ways that enhance the dramatic experience.

The second stage of the Donizetti revival explores the dramatic potential inherent in Donizetti’s dramatic works. When I first saw Sills perform “Lucrezia Borgia” in 1976, many opera goers and probably all critics thought of it as a kind of daffy plot. For me, Gennaro’s suicidal disregard for his personal safety made no sense.

But your decision in your 2008 production to present Gennaro and Maffio Orsini as two soldiers in a gay relationship established a plausible motivation for Gennaro’s behavior.

[Below: Maffio Orsini (Kate Aldrich, left) expresses his love to Gennaro (Vittorio Grigolo, right); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph, courtesy of the John Pascoe. ]


JP: In a way, it was rather surprising for me that none of the reviewers of the 2008 WNO production commented negatively on the relationship between Gennaro and Maffio – everyone viewed it as being a positive part of successfuly bringing the opera to the public, which is always my aim.

As a director, it’s difficult to overestimate how rewarding it is to find that one’s efforts at doing so have born positive fruit. It seems that in the Borgia production my reassessment of both Lucrezia’s character and her relationship with the society in which she lived, and more specifically with her husband Alfonso d’Este, her son Gennaro and with Maffio Orsini (the rival for her son’s affections) combined with the passionate affection displayed by Maffio and Gennaro struck a very positive chord with audiences and critics alike.

Wm: You had designed “Lucrezia Borgia” as part of John Copley’s 1980 Royal Opera House Covent Garden production for Sutherland with Alfredo Kraus and Anne Howells.  When you worked on the opera then, had you considered the possibility of a Gennar0-Maffio romance?

JP: The idea was not present in John Copley’s staging at ROH and honestly I was so stunned by my good fortune to have been asked by John Copley to create the scenery for Dame Joan Sutherland’s thirtieth anniversary production at Covent Garden (which was my first job in the opera world) that it didn’t occur to me to try to reevaluate anything!

I was just incredibly excited to be working at the ROH and to be doing so with Dame Joan Sutherland and Maestro Richard Bonynge in John Copley’s very successful production. We had a huge success. The production then went to Rome and was released commercially (now available on DVD).

It wasn’t until many years later, as I was starting to become known as a director-designer, that I was discovering that there was a gold mine to be uncovered within the text and music of opera, that consisted of dealing with both with what I like to call “straight thinking”.

Clearly this label has nothing to do with sexuality and sexual norms, but, for me, it describes looking at and thinking about the text and music in an honest and straightforward way.

[Below: John Pascoe’s costume sketches for Gennaro and Maffio Orsini for his production of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”; resized image, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


First, I found that one needed to ignore all existing ideas and to allow oneself to ask the simplest of questions: “What are the characters actually saying to each other within this text?” For me , this has nothing to do with trying to create an “historical style” or to think “Well, in the nineteenth century men spoke to each other differently”.

No, just examine the text honestly, stop thinking about what we assume it means and look at what the characters are saying. Then, equally as important, listen to the music and accept its input unquestionably. Clearly, both of these responses will be subjective, but honesty is honesty.

Therefore, one can’t ignore a text from their famous Act III duet that translates as “We are two flowers on a single stem . . . We swear to live and die together, always together”. And then to note that indeed when one of the partners is poisoned that the other refuses an antidote and, in fact, dies rather than to live without the person to whom he said those words. There is simply no choice for me – with “straight thinking”, these are clearly two very passionate and committed male lovers.

What was startling (and deeply exciting for me) about your reviews, has been that you nominated all these dramatic points – without our discussing anything –  years before our meeting.

I find that people have a reaction to my productions that is mostly from the “gut” (as indeed in some ways it should be). One hardly ever comes across anyone analyzing what I’ve done as a director and then understanding the reasons why.

[Below: Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, prostrate on floor) lies dead, his head almost touching the head of his lover, Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth DeShong, head visible, far left) as Alfonso, the Duke of Ferrara (Vitalij Kowaljow, center, above) holds his dying wife, Lucrezia Borgia (Renee Fleming, center); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the vitalij-kowaljow.com.]


To be specific about how this production started, I started work on the show as a project, discussed it with Renée Fleming (with whom I had already created many productions) and I was very excited to find that she loved it. We then discussed Lucrezia’s time period, especially in relation to  what was considered the norm: an incredibly frequent use of extreme violence to achieve political aims by the high-powered (usually male) rulers in Italy.

Within this discussion was the exploration of her relationship with Lucrezia’s husband Duke Alfonso, as well as the relationship with her illegitimate son Gennaro and who he might be. (Rumors of his being the product of an incestuous relationship with one of her brothers, who was then killed by the older brother – Cesare) and how this might lead into creating a Lucrezia who could be understood as a believable person.

By the way, this was perhaps a decade prior to the invitation from Plácido Domingo to create a production for Renée Fleming at the Washington National Opera with Ruggiero Raimondi as Alfonso d’Este, Vittorio Grigolo as Gennaro, Kate Aldrich as Maffio Orsino, with Plácido conducting.

Wm: As I have said in my reviews, not only does “Lucrezia Borgia’s” plot accommodate a long and deeply romantic gay relationship between Gennaro and Maffio Orsini, it provides believability to two plot points that some would consider a weakness in the storyline:

(1) Gennaro risks his life to stay in Ferrara, because his lover discounts the warning that they are in danger, and will not be dissuaded from attending an “A list” party to which they’ve been invited, and (2) when he learns that the antidote is only enough to save himself and that his lover and all of his friends will die, the prospect of living out his life with the mother who poisoned them is unappealing.

(I’m not sure we know the effects of Renaissance poisons on one’s long-term thinking processes, but Gennaro choosing death at that point does seem to be a reasoned choice.)

[Below: Gennaro (Vittorio Girigolo, left) embraces his lover, Maffio Orsini (Kate Aldrich, right); edited image, based on a Karin Cooper photograph from www.johnpascoe.com.]


JP: May I share with you how in practice Vittorio Grigolo (Gennaro) Kate Aldrich (Maffio Orsino), Plácido Domingo (the conductor and, at the time, artistic director of WNO) and I developed the relationship for the two warriors?

Wm: Please do!

JP: During initial rehearsals, while the base of the relationship was established and nominally accepted by all, both Kate’s and Vittorio’s attitude to the idea of being warrior lovers, was coming across as very “best buddies” – especially in the great Act III duet.

So, I then asked that he and Kate ignore the specifics of the relationship as two male warriors (Kate Aldrich, of course, was singing the trouser role of Maffio Orsino) and to just SING the notes and text for what they were.

The text reads: “We are a two flowers on a single stem”, and “I / we swear to live and die together”. This is followed by sections of arpeggios that they sing in unison of the word ‘Ah’, that, for me, had an almost orgasmic sexuality to it.

Wm: I agree that these sentiments go beyond what we would expect of two male officers in the Venetian guards.

JP: Indeed! For me, that “Ah” in combination with the text made it clear that indeed their relationship could not possibly exist in the usual framework of two male officers swearing affection and eternal fidelity to one another.

It needs to be stated that while every artist will have baselines that define their work, for me, a scrupulous honesty in relationship to both text and music is my principal baseline and, after that, my maintaining maximum flexibility with reference to what the artists feel is my other.

So following this idea, I suggested that Kate and Vittorio try to rehearse their duo as male and female ‘lovers’. It functioned perfectly.

So the lovers aspect in the relationship was now established. I suggested to them both that they could be nearly kissing each other while singing those (for me – deeply sexy) arpeggios.

Interestingly, it was following this stage of the rehearsal process that dear Plácido responded to a question about what he thought about the gay aspect of the two male characters. He said that the only problem he had was that he felt that somewhat read as a man and a woman embracing.

Clearly, he was right, as we had not yet arrived at that point of “homo’s sexuality”,  especially with a famously handsome heterosexual tenor!

But I have not infrequently found that input from my conductors has given me some really helpful insight and following his comment , I smilingly discussed this with both Vittorio and Kate – what the differences would be if they were two male warriors kissing.

Finally, they asked if I could give them a “lesson” in how I knew most gay men kissed when excited as opposed to when feeling “romantic”‘ – i.e., first, with tremendous groin contact (!) with hands caressing butts, and secondly with tremendous, almost violent passion – like two lions leaping at each other.

You will understand why, as a gay man in a committed relationship, when I was asked by them both to demonstrate what that meant for me, that i did so with dear Kate rather than with Vittorio!! Following this, we all felt that we were ‘there’.

Wm: As a member of the WNO audience there at the Kennedy Center, I can affirm that even though one knew intellectually that Maffio is played by a woman, that one truly had the sense of observing two male soldiers passionately in love with each other.

JP: Thank you, William! That really is a tribute to their commitment to following through with the idea and that we were working in an entirely positive and supportive environment with everyone “backing the same horse”, shall we say.

[Below: the John Pascoe costume sketches for Lucrezia Borgia’s disguised appearance in Venice; resized image, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Renée had originally given me a strong affirmation of how interesting she found the idea of these two characters being male lovers and has continued to do so, at various times we had discussed it within her family. Indeed, I remember a specific instance was when we were all having dinner one night in Washington D. C. following rehearsals.

It was with Plácido, Renée and one of her daughters, Vittorio and myself. Plácido asked Renée‘s daughter what she felt about the aspect of there being gay male lovers in the production. She replied that she felt it was interesting and made complete sense, that it felt real to her and, best of all, that their relationship was not something usually seen in opera productions.

(I must say that I’m paraphrasing what she said after six years, so I trust she will forgive my quoting her at this distance, if there is any inaccuracy!)

Wm: Three years later, you took the production to San Francisco, to mark the return of Renée Fleming, who, regrettably, had been absent for a decade.

JP: Yes, it was indeed also my return to San Francisco Opera, having previously created three productions there as set designer: Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” with Tatiana Troyanos, Handel’s “Orlando” with Marilyn Horne, and Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” with Joan Sutherland.

Wm: We’ll want to get back to these previous productions later in our series of conversations.

JP: The fact that in returning I was also making my San Francisco Opera directorial debut with Renée Fleming in the title role, Maestro Riccardo Frizza conducting, Vitalij Kowaljow as Alfonso D’Este, Michael Fabiano as Gennaro and Elizabeth DeShong as Maffio Orsini, was, shall we say, a pretty stellar return for me. And I had a truly wonderful time.

[Below: Michael Fabiano as Gennaro; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Wm: I was pleased that the San Francisco Opera chose it as its first release in its series of DVDs in cooperation with EuroArts. As I mentioned in my DVD review, it is a testimony to a very important production in this second stage of the Donizetti revival.

JP:  It was great to read the posting of your extremely engaging review [See Dramatically, Visually Exciting EuroArts DVD of San Francisco Opera Performance of Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”.]

[Below: Gennaro (Michael Fabiano, right) holds Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth DeShong, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I can only say that I continue to be thrilled and humbled by your profound understanding of and appreciation for what I aim to do.  I completely agree with and applaud your unreserved praise for Renèe Fleming’s deeply felt Lucrezia.

The fact that this project exists is entirely due to her long-standing interest in my concept of the opera,  in combination with Plácido‘s active and long-standing support of my work as a director-designer.

Honestly, I am somewhat stunned that two such great artists have continued to show such admiration for my work. I feel deeply honored and profoundly blessed.

William, thank you for your perceptive and incredibly well-informed articles. They are always a joy to read, and when thinking of your reactions to my work, I can only say that I am excited and flattered by your opinions. Thank you.


[Note from William: In the second part of this conversation, I will ask John Pascoe about his early influences and how he got into opera. See: A Conversation with Director-Designer John Pascoe, Part 2.]

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe