Opera Warhorses

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A Conversation with Director-Designer John Pascoe, Part 2

August 18th, 2014

This post continues from A Conversation with Director-Designer John Pascoe, Part 1. John has generously permitted me to pursue a much more in-depth discussion of the factors that led and allowed him to pursue an 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.


Wm: John, you were born in postwar Britain. Tell me about your childhood. 

JP: My family lived in a decaying, slightly forbidding but rather grand 18th century detached house, which was inhabited in the 19th century by the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, as he was building the Great Western Railway.

He, in fact, tunneled under the house, putting the great railway directly underneath it, so it simply became known as the Tunnel House. You can still feel the house vibrating every time a train passes underneath it.

[Below: the “Tunnel House”, residence of both railway entrepreneur Isambard Kingdom Brunel and, later, the family Pascoe; resized image of a historical photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


It’s situated in the tiny village of Saltford in the County of Somerset, located a few miles from the beautiful Roman/ Eighteenth Century city of Bath, England.

I was one of three children. My older brother was Tony, and younger sister, Tessa. We had really wonderful parents were Rick and Roma Pascoe.

While mum and dad had plenty of love and attention for all of us, they didn’t have enough money to meet the crushing expenses of maintaining such a type of house, so a huge part of our family life was spent on physically trying to maintain the crumbling old mans.

I remember my Dad, Tony, Tessa and I together trying to force a sheet of hardboard into position to replace part of the plaster ceiling that had collapsed in the hallway.

It should be noted that just after the war in England, there were virtually no “supplies” available, and we would have been scurrying about just to find the aforesaid piece of hardboard.

The roof in winter was a continual nightmare for dad, who didn’t enjoy heights. Yet, he had to stagger around in howling winds or rain trying to fix the roof – as yet another piece of 200 year old roof slate had cracked in the frost and then proceeded to leak profusely.

Being a young Pascoe, life was tough as it could be very cold in winter with no central heating or any carpets outside of the drawing room. But I didn’t know we had no money and I just enjoyed a life that seemed to be …well, perfect.

Saltford, by the way, is the place farthest upstream that tidal action impacts the river Avon. My father and whichever of us could be forced into “crewing” with him (we all found it really boring.), as he sailed (or should I say, endlessly tacked) across the sluggish, but perilous river.

[Below: Rick (left) and Roma (right) Pascoe on their wedding day; edited image, based on a family photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Meanwhile, as kids, we spent most of our free time hurtling around the countryside with other children from the village. Climbing up to Kelston Round Hill was one of the best day trips, which I think would probably kill me if I tried it now.

Finally, my father managed to barter an old, but rather bad tempered, pony (“Spot”) for us to ride, so we progressed to riding around the local fields, with no saddle, of course, as there was simply no way one could be afforded.

Finally, old Spot was just too old to carry us and a much sweeter but equally ancient pony (“Amber”) arrived, apparently by magic.

We all took turns riding him, but darling Amber sort of became mine by dint of the fact that I was happier than either Tony or Tessa to clean out his stall somewhat regularly as that led to both my grooming and riding him more often. Hard work and persistence always seems to win.

Wm: What role did music play in your childhood?

JP: Although I don’t mean in any formal sense, it was nevertheless quite important to all of us. One of the things for which I was (and still am) so grateful was that we had an old upright piano in the dining room. That meant that I was forever bashing out tunes of opera, by ear, of course, as I’ve never really mastered reading all those “spider dots” on the musical page.

But on my 13th birthday, my brother Tony uncharacteristically offered to take me out to the cafe in nearby Keynsham for tea and toast (burned and then slathered with butter . . . fab!)

On my return, and wondering at the electric silence that had engulfed the house, I questioningly went from room to room calling out for my mum and dad who were strangely . . . hiding.

Finally, I went into the drawing room where I found a very large grand piano – apparently it was a birthday present. Surprise! I thought that I’d died and had woken up in a kind of heaven. It was a late 19th century Collard and Collard in a divine rosewood case that contained a fluid action with a wonderful tone. I adored it, so I then progressed to playing for yet more hours every day – crashing out by ear – the easier parts of the great piano concerti or my favorite opera arias.

[Below: John Pascoe’s designs for a costume for a proposed Robert Carsen-John Pascoe production of Moliere’s “Le Bourgeoise Gentilhomme”; resized image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


My dad would somehow have bartered the piano for who knows what? Perhaps a dozen geese and a flock of chicken that he would have been raising? Or maybe a grateful client had just given it to him, as his relationships with his customers were always fantastic. A good clue for a successful business life, but one that took a little longer for me to learn. If you ask the people who worked with me in the first few years of my career and then again later on, I think that they would agree!

My sister was passionate about her folk group, so there was endless guitar strumming to be heard. My elder brother Tony also had a band for which he played drums. So, between Tessa singing and strumming the guitar (she had and has a beautiful voice), Tony playing the drums and me playing the piano by ear for hours, we had a lot of “music”, but not one of us learned to actually read it.

As kids, we all had masses of space in which to expend our childhood energy, and in so doing, to explore our dreams. Having been blessed with the most supportive and loving parents in the world, I think that I can say that we all of us consider we had a virtually ideal childhood.

Wm: What were your earliest memories of operatic music?

JP: Rick, my father, had some recordings of Mario Lanza and Enrico Caruso singing operatic favorites- which he played the whole time while we endeavored to fix up the house, so I knew and loved two of the very best tenor voices.

At the age of 11, I was fortunate to receive a grant to go to a Catholic Christian Brothers school, St Brendan’s, in nearby Bristol.

It was actually quite famous due to the fact that it boasted a fairly continuous supple of national level rugby players (which, sadly, was not my scene), but also offered art and music (which definitely was), plus there was a drama club (I was almost in heaven).

This perfect mixture of sport and arts-based learning was not common then, and in the UK at least, is sadly very much less so now.

A few years later, during on of the music lessons, Mr Luckman – the music master – played the class recordings of two sopranos Maria Callas singing Voi lo sapete o mama from Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” and Joan Sutherland singing the Mad Scene from Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”. I was floored.

Sensing this, and knowing that I was an enthusiastic artist, he suggested I might like to see some pictures of opera productions with these two great artists. He also showed me some photographs of productions designed by some of the great designers: the fabulous Rex Whistler (who had died so tragically in the war), Oliver Messel, whom I thought was rather over the top, and the ultimate stylist – Cecil Beaton.

That was the moment that, as a 13 year old boy from Saltford, I decided to become an international opera designer. Having made that decision, it seemed clear to me that I would, of course, design principally for Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland. (Can one be too ambitious as a young person? I think not).

Sadly, by the time I was actually working in opera (1979) La Divina, had, of course, died two years previously, but my childhood dream was rewarded in an incredibly precise manner – as La Stupenda – the great Dame Joan Sutherland and I would indeed get to work together many times . . . and how.

Meanwhile to continue in my youth – my brother Tony was always obsessed with wildlife and was constantly rescuing injured birds. When one of them died, he had (what seemed to me) a disgusting habit of boiling them down in order to see their bones. In fact, he was learning exactly how they were put together and has become known as something of an expert in the field, with quite a few books on wildlife dedicated to him.

He also had a series of falcons, all of whom pretty much scared me to death.

Tessa played in her band and seemed to be constantly surrounded by a haze of handsome young men, which also scared me pretty much to death, but for other more personal reasons.

As for my wishes in the operatic/theatrical world, mum and dad built me a model theater. My time was soon taken up inventing scenery out of old pieces of carving from some of the disintegrating furniture with which the scullery was partially filled, and by draping bits of gauze I was able to create operatically swaged drapes. Various flashlights were used for the lighting.

Living near the sublime and extremely ancient city of Bath in a fairly large 18th century house that came with perfectly proportioned 1740s paneled Georgian doors in every room, I realize now that it’s not strange that the 18th century’s “grand style” was never foreign for me.

While my lack of musical training doesn’t, in hindsight, seem ideal for a future operatic professional, for me it has not turned out to be the worst thing.

For the last 30 years when I’ve been preparing my direction of an opera, I have actually had to learn every note and word – by heart. Many people far more talented and gifted than I (Plàcido Domingo among them) have apparently been impressed by this ability. What can I say, other than that it was actually forced on me by not being able to pick up the musical score and just . . . read it?

As already stated,  our parents Roma and Rick Pascoe had always encouraged the three of us to follow our interests and, if we were passionate enough about them, told us that we could use them as the basis for constructing our own futures – that is, as long as we worked harder than the competition (a crucial part of the equation – that is frequently missing in some homes.)

So, as for how we all turned out, well. My brother, Tony Pascoe, finally became the co-owner of a rather important Tanzanian-based hot-air balloon company, Serengeti Balloon Safaris. He and his wife Marijka and their son Ivan (a computer wizard), still reside in the lovely old vicarage in Saltford – the same village where we were raised.

My sister – Tessa Kirby – lives just outside of nearby Keynsham on a lake in a wildlife reserve, where her husband Andrew Kirby takes stunning photographs of all the wildlife -has gone on to become a noted clinical hypnotherapist, and I’ve become – well, as planned, an opera director-designer.

[Below: John Pascoe’s designs for Bacchus’ costume for a proposed Robert Carsen-John Pascoe collaboration for a production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”; resized image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: Take me through the steps that start with your designing plays at home and end with an international career as an opera director-designer?

JP: The first step was enrolling in the Wimbledon College of Arts in London, which was not easy as it was the only art school that offered a degree in theater design and there were three thousand applicants for the 22 places in their rather prestigious theater design course. No one was more amazed that I was when I was offered a place.

Wm: What did you learn there?

JP: Lots about how to get images and ideas from one’s imagination down on paper or into model form, but somehow or other  – my obsession with opera didn’t really fit in with their idea of how a theater design student should be.

While I received a record mark in the “History of Theater and Art” final paper, all in all I wasn’t considered a great student. I didn’t pass with flying colors. I graduated with a mere upper second, not the stunning success I had planned for myself. However . . . it’s not over until the fat lady sings – no? 

Wm: What did you do on graduation from Wimbledon College?

JP: I took the first job I could get of course. This was in 1971-72 as an assistant designer (i. e., general dogsbody) at Derby Playhouse, a tiny regional theater in the East Midlands of Britain, where I was paid 14 pounds a week. (Free overtime work was expected, and the base rate was well below Britain’s minimum wage at that time.)

 Wm: Are there general dogsbody skills that you were able to apply in your international opera career?

JP: Actually, yes. I learned how to paint scenery with the type of colors then in use, which was a rabbit glue based medium that had to be heated but not actually boiled, and stank disgustingly when you got the heat wrong.  But way more importantly, I learned theatrical economy of the most stringent sort.

We had to create a new production every two weeks with 15-pounds sterling as the budget.  There was a storeroom of old bits of scenery, and we could use anything from that, plus any paint and plaster we had in stock. Oh, we could then buy anything else we needed, as long as it was within the 15 pound budget. Even back then, that was nothing.

[Below: John Pascoe’s set design for a proposed Robert Carsen-John Pascoe collaboration for a production of Moliere’s “Le Bourgoise Gentilhomme:; edited image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


This early training in severe economy has stood me in excellent stead ever since. My ability to create productions that seem to be considered good looking – even when created on a minimal budget – has significantly increased the appeal of my work to many opera companies around the world.

Following a year at the Derby Playhouse, I spent 1972-3 at the then-new Sheffield Crucible Theater as Assistant Designer in South Yorkshire. In 1973, I became the Resident Designer at the Bristol Old Vic Theater. Then in 1973-74, I worked in the ‘properties’ department of the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Anything to get close to opera.

Wm: What opera props did you work on at ROH Covent Garden?

JP: Among the projects that come to mind was a new scepter for Boris Christoff’s farewell “Boris Goudonov” production, which he sent back three times asking for more glitter (really) I also was decorating the elaborate sedan chairs for the Royal Ballet’s “Manon”, designed by Nicholas Girogiadis, who I promise you didn’t need to practice ANY economy with his designs.

During that period I had tried to show my work as a designer to Ande Anderson (ROH’s Director of Productions). Five years later, in 1979, Anderson made some positive statements about my “props” – a point we’ll get to – that were useful to my career.

However, during the Sheffield Crucible Theater period, my son Nicholas was born to my wife Pamela and I as we tried to survive on my meager stipend. It was not easy. I needed to obtain more consistent and better paying work to support Pamela and Nicholas

Wm; I’m aware that your present relationship situation is quite different than then. Do you want to get into that discussion?

JP Yes, why not? So a word more on the personal front serves at this point I think.

Before marrying, my wife Pamela and  I had talked about my homosexual ‘tendencies’ as they were then described. At the time it was considered that homosexuality was a disease that could be cured by persistence, so we were trying to ‘cure’ it persistently! But finally the reality of my complete homosexuality became so overwhelming a factor in our lives, that we could no longer support our relationship and more importantly were not doing so well looking after our son Nicholas, so we decided to divorce.

The idea of homosexuality being a disease seems archaic now nearly fifty years later, and what torture we all went through together, thinking that it could and indeed should be ‘cured’.

My ex-wife Pamela, was in many senses a saint to have tried to deal with it all and is now, thank the stars – happily married to a great guy and lives with her horses and a large extended family around her. But looking back to when this was happening, it was incredibly difficult for everyone involved.

Also how my dear parents dealt with it is completely beyond me, except that they just decided that the only solution was to throw their love at the situation, and may all the stars bless them for this as for so many other aspects of their lives.

One must remember that at the time we are talking about (late 1970’s in UK) anyone could be arrested for any same sex activity and in theory could be thrown in prison, clearly complete and absolute disgrace would have followed immediately. So from my early teenage years, despite various intense schoolboy ‘pashes’ – I had with all my heart tried to be ‘cured’, to ‘become’ straight. Clearly it’s just not possible.

Following our divorce in 1974-5 – strangely I also left theater and taught art in another Christian Brothers school in Bath’s stunningly beautiful Palladian mansion. ‘Prior Park College’. As a young, deeply responsible, but male homosexual teacher, this in fact became my worst nightmare as I was continuously surrounded by masses of, extremely fit, oversexed young men – some no more than five years my junior.

How most young teachers deal with being surrounded by beautiful youth of either sex – whether they themselves are gay or not . I just don’t know. All that I remember is that I passed the first six months as a teacher with a blinding headache coming from the eternal and completely unbidden and finally rather painful ‘arousal’ that I was desperately hiding. Awful.

[Below: the Christian Brothers School for Boys in 1977; an arrow points to 28 year old arts teacher, John Pascoe; resized image of a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]

E MAIL Prior Park School 1977 w arrow

However, I’ve since heard from many ex-students they considered me a good and understanding teacher. I certainly enjoyed teaching the various drawing & painting techniques that I have to a certain extent mastered. The subsequent exam results of ‘my’ boys were extraordinarily high and somehow or other I became known as a successful teacher. (Except that it was killing me).

However, finally after about four years of this torture – in December of 1978 I left, determined to finally become an opera designer.  God what a relief it was to get out. (I use that phrase in all of its many senses).

Wm: One can understand your desire to move from one world to another, but explain the circumstances that did permit you to move into the opera world.

JP: During this time Robert Carsen, who later would be a world-renowned opera director, had left his home in Canada to study acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School. Bristol is only a short distance from Bath, and that is where Carsen resided with the wealthy and extremely well-connected Jeremy Fry.

Wm: We know Jeremy Fry was from the British chocolate family enriched by sale of the family business to Cadbury.

JP: Indeed, and apart from having wealth, their social circle encompassed both royalty (Princess Margaret  (sister of Queen Elizabeth II) and Anthony Armstrong Jones, the Earl of Snowden (the Queen’s brother-in-law) and artistic figures of the highest level, some of whom occasionally just “dropped in”.

I remember Filippo Sanjust coming to dinner one evening. I was fiercely jealous of his grand manner and enormous fame. I think that I probably  sat in the corner of the glamorous dining room and sulked for the entire evening. Daaa!

But importantly for me, Robert’s and Jeremy’s friendship was one of the first examples of a permanent male-male relationship that I had encountered, and no one seemed to be at risk of being dragged off to prison.

Among their circle, I also met Ian Burton, an extremely talented man who has since become a very well known dramturg, author and director – and one who has since worked with Robert Carsen many times. We all became rather intense friends.

Honestly, I think that without this very positive group of artistically alive persons, who were also supremely confident in their own lifestyles, it would have been more difficult for me to make the artistic leap from provincial Bath to London’s international level. I was again much blessed to have been involved in this sort of “blessed circle”

Robert was completely dedicated to becoming an operatic stage director, rather than an actor. By then, he already had a series of important assistant director assignments under his belt, while I was equally fixated on becoming  a set and costume designer for opera, and  already  had what has turned out to be the important experience of working as a designer in the provincial theatrical world .

Naturally, as young men with masses of energy and high hopes of becoming  ‘someone’ (and we were both very sure of whom we wished to be), Robert and I soon found a project on which to collaborate.

Between us created a scale model and designs for a production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”, with the original prologue using Moliere’s play “Le Bourgoise Gentilhomme.”

When I say “between us” I should explain. Robert was very clear about what he thought everything should be, and so I then created/painted it. I still have some of the designs (some of which we have included as illustrations in this conversation) and they bring back intense memories of working with this power-house, highly intelligent man. I admired him intensely then and that feeling has never waned.

Robert intended that this production be mounted by the Spoleto Festival (in both Italy and the U. S. A.). Once our designs were completed we drove down though Europe in Robert’s very chic Saab to meet with Gian Carlo Menotti, the Spoleto Festival’s general director, to show him our project.

As it turned out, nothing came of the trip, except that through it, I came to the grand old composer’s attention. The next year I designed his “The Saint of Bleeker Street” for an amateur company in Bristol, directed by Ian Burton. Gian Carlo Menotti amazed us by coming to the opening.

[Below: John Pascoe (left) with Gian Carlo Menotti; image of a personal photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Later, after my career as such had started, I renewed our contact at the Royal Opera House when he remembered seeing and liking both my “Ariadne” and “Saint of Bleeker Stret” designs. He then asked me to design his 75th birthday production of his “Amahl and the Night Visitors” that was being staged by the Royal Opera House at Sadler’s Wells Theater.

That was the start of a wonderful, but challenging, relationship with the great old composer and his adopted son Chip (Francis Menotti) which lasted literally until the last moment of Maestro’s life in Monte Carlo in February, 2007, where I was designing his opera “The Medium” when Dear Giancarlo died during his rehearsals. In 2011, Spoleto USA’s ever knowing general director, Nigel Redden, generously asked me to create a new production of this opera to celebrate Maestro’s centenary. But that is looking way into the future.

On returning from Spoleto, Robert valiantly tried to hawk the ‘Ariadne’ project around America using his considerable list of contacts to try to get a company to produce, but with no luck.

But Robert also very generously offered to put me in contact with John Copley, for whom he had already worked as an assistant. Through this introduction, the professional world of opera started to unfold for me, and more specifically with unexpected and glorious “access” to work with one of the very greatest sopranos of the 20th century, whose voice I had first heard as a school-boy in Bristol – Dame Joan Sutherland.

[Part 3 of this conversation will begin with John Pascoe’s first meeting with John Copley. See A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 3.]



Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe