Opera Warhorses

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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!

[For the continuation of the conversation, see: Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 4.]

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe