Opera Warhorses

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Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 5

October 9th, 2014

This continues the series of conversations that I have had with British opera director John Pascoe. This is the second of three parts of the conversation that will memorialize Dame Joan Sutherland. OM. DBE, AC. who (in John’s own words) “passed into legend” on 10th October 2010. This part follows: Homage to Dame Joan Sutherland: A Conversation with Director John Pascoe, Part 4.


Wm: After “Alcina”, what was your next project?

JP: Following the great success of the “Alcina” production in Sydney, and realizing that the show had indeed gone on with a virtually absent director,  I started to look for a project to direct and design and finally was given my chance to do so in Northern Ireland Opera Trust where I created my first ever production on a characteristically tiny budget.

It was ‘La Boheme’ and was to be staged to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of its creation and as such I was asked to create a 19th century looking production, which I enthusiastically did and of necessity landed out painting all of the scenery myself.

[Below: John Pascoe’s sets and costume designs and scenery painting for the Cafe Momus in the 1986 Northern Ireland Opera Trust centenary production of Puccini’s “La Boheme”; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: Even with triumphs achieved in designing baroque and bel canto sets and costumes, stage directing a Puccini opera, seems like quite a different assignment. How did you approach that task?

JP: Good question, William, but honestly pretty much as normal, by working myself into the score and studying hard.

But in reality the great success that greeted this my first project as director /designer was more due to the kindness of the artists involved – the wonderful baritone John Rawnsley as Marcello being most prominent in his help, than to my apparent ability as a totally untrained stage director.

Looking back, I now realize that I had virtually no relevant skills and simply had no idea how to organize the staging, but fortunately I’ve always been able to learn from mistakes. Maybe I’ve made more than many people as I’m perhaps always too ready to just ‘dive in’ and try something.

But I DID learn from my first ‘try out’ as a stage director and this would soon prove to be of utmost importance with my relationship with many artists, of course including Joan and Richard.

However to stick chronologically with Richard and Joan, the year following the Oper Australia’s revival of “Alcina” with Joan in the title role (1983) and a few years before I was venturing into ‘directing land’ with my “Boheme”, Joan and Richard were embarking on their first performances of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” with Lotfi Mansouri directing in his Canadian Opera Company in Toronto.

[Below: John Pascoe’s concept rendering for Act I of the 1984 Canadian Opera Company production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; edited image based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Wm: I eventually saw “Anna Bolena” with Sutherland in your production, when it was done in San Francisco. I’m very interested in the origins of that show.

JP: Thank you, William. Yes, it was wonderful going back there again with it. Of course, I adore San Francisco.

Joan and Rickey suggested me to Lotfi as set designer and so obligingly, he asked me to design the production.  (And later on following its success a notable ‘Cosi’ For Dallas also with him) Michael Stennet would again create the “Anna Bolena” costumes, so evidently I was becoming a part of the ‘Joan and Ricky team’.

[Below: John Pascoe’s scale model for Act II scene 1 of the San Francisco Opera revival of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; resized image, based on a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Following the show’s opening in Toronto it was planned that it would tour America in many of the greatest opera houses, so clearly the design process needed to be extra thorough. First off, I created a series of set design images, and once Lotfi accepted these, I built a half-inch scale model. (See one of teh images above.)

My technical drawings were then based on this, and once all was accepted and the inevitable adjustments that were due to budget restrictions had been implemented, I was asked to go to Toronto to supervise the creation of the actual scenery, and this was to be during the very severe Canadian winter.

Lotfi had asked me if I could be present for the whole 3-month construction process and thankfully, my brother’s wife Marijka who comes from Toronto, suggested that I could stay with her sister Anna.

During the minus 20 degree freeze that constituted business as normal in Toronto’s winter period, I visited the workshops virtually everyday. However it soon became clear that the tremendous skill of the tech department didn’t at that time extend to carving the many over life sized sculptures needed in my design.

So …. after discussing this problem with Lotfi and telling him that I had already had similar experiences in the now famous “Julius Caesar” production in London’s English National Opera, we agreed that I should simply put on overalls and carve them myself.

[Below: John Pascoe’s scale model for Act I scene 2 of the 1984 Canadian Opera Company production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; edited image of a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


One of my strengths as a designer of both sets and costumes has always been that I when creating scenery, if needed I can paint and sculpt or with costumes sew and cut both at a skill level that enables me to guide technicians when occasionally this is needed and when absolutely necessary to be able to do it myself.

This was one of those moments.  But it must be said that I so love actually physically creating  – whether its painting or carving,  that this was in no way a hardship for me.

[Below: John Pascoe’s scale model for Act I scii of the 1984 Canadian Opera Company production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; resized image from the Ssn Francisco Opera, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


But one ‘moment’  that remains with me was due to a panicked telephone call that I received from Lotfi’s secretary.  In it she was saying that she had heard that there was a problem with some of my scale drawings. What?

The head of the carpentry shop had called saying that the doorway in Act I sci had been erected and was clearly ridiculous, i,e, that I must have drawn it to the wrong scale.  The same for the royal throne on which Queen Anna Bolena / Joan Sutherland would first be seen. Ummm!

Clearly if this were so, a truly massive amount of money would have been wasted courtesy of my mistake, so Lotfi and I tore out to the shop together with my muttering that I was absolutely sure I had not made a mistake, but that maybe British scale rulers were different from Canadian ones or …. ?

[Below: scenery designed by and sculptures carved by John Pascoe for the 1984 San Francisco Opera revival of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; resized image based on a photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]



On arriving in the shop indeed it seemed that Pascoe had screwed up as the Act I sci doorway towered over us at well over 40 foot high, with the double doors at about 30 feet.  The throne had been built and looked faintly ridiculous with a rather slight assistant scenic artist sitting within it massive structure.

As a cool head is always the only response in this situation, I agreed that clearly we should just check everything.  So I took the scale model out of its protective box and examined the measurements up against my drafting. All was correct.  Then asked to have the doorway and throne as built – measured again, again all were correct.

So I just said “No it’s all perfect, don’t worry, I’ve designed it for your 66 foot wide stage and more importantly for a soprano who is not the tiniest artist on that stage. I’ve designed it all in a way to make her look vulnerable”.

Wm: Nice save!

JP: Thank you, William, but it wa actually nothing less than the truth. Lotfi turned and looked penetratingly into my wide-open ‘innocent’ blue eyes (and I promise you I’d perfected that ‘believe me’ look years before as a child) and said something like “OK, if John says it’s OK, and then it’s  …  OK”.

So the following weeks passed with my hacking into massive lumps of polystyrene that would become the various sculptures in the show and finally we arrived at the first day of rehearsal.

In such situations the director will have said what pieces of scenery or props he will need for the staging and so there were many bases of columns etc in the rehearsal room plus one truly ENORMOUS royal throne on which I had clearly lavished hours of my time plus that of various properties assistants (and therefore the company’s money) in order to create the elaborate carving and braid work suitable for a 19th century version of a Tudor royal throne.

Privately I gasped, not having seen it out of the massive construction space, and here it truly looked disproportionately  …  large!  (Was I indeed wrong?) But as I’d already double-checked, so inside of me I was sure it was right, so I just kept smiling while shaking inside and said … nothing. But there were many ironic looks coming my way.

Finally Joan and Richard arrived. Kisses all round to Lotfi and then to me, and then Joan’s standard comment … “Now John,  you’ve not giving me too many stairs dear have you?”   “No Joan of course not.”

The throne was in the center of the rehearsal space and a slightly built assistant stage manager was struggling vainly to shove it onto its final mark, it was clearly very much too heavy for her.  Blushingly I took Joan and Ricky towards it and Joan walked over and sat comfortably in it, and Richard or Lotfi (I just can’t remember who) turned to me saying something like “John, finally a chair that’s ‘Joan size’!”  Panic over.

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland seated on the “Tudor Royal Throne” esigned by John Pascoe for the 1984 San Francisco Opera production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; edited image, based on a San Francisco Opera photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


The whole show in fact was ‘Joan size’ and was enormously successful.  The DVD that is available is a great aide memoire for those of use who were there but the visual quality and also that of the sound is very much of the era. However!

By the way, I was pleased to see that ‘Decca’, put the photograph of  Joan sitting on said Royal throne, of course in Michael’s stunner of a costume, as the front cover image of the box set of the CDs of the wonderful “Anna Bolena” recording .

A few years later I heard on the grapevine that the show was due to come to  London’s ROH. Great! But how on earth were those massive sets going to sit on a stage that was 2/3 rds. the size of those in which it sat comfortably in  USA and Canada?

At some stage I was asked to go for a meeting at the ROH and sadly the conclusion from both the R.O.H. tech department and myself was that my sets could not be squeezed onto the much smaller stage of the  Royal Opera no matter how much we could hack and torture it into position. It was just too big.

[Below: John Pascoe’s concept rendering for Act II scene 2 of the 1984 Canadian Opera Company production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; edited image, based on a drawing, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Joan and Ricky were already booked to perform the role at the R. O. H. and didn’t want to do something else instead, but there was no physical production. So the opera house was also investigating taking a modern European production, but Joan and Ricky were not happy with this suggestion. They wanted a ‘period’ production in which Joan would shine, not a modern one where she could risk feeling too ‘big’ and generally out of place.

At this time (1997) I had already made my USA debut  in Spoleto Festival USA as director /  designer of an early 18th  Century opera “Platée” by J.F. Rameau (Yes, I REALLY like the baroque period!) and a year later in early 1988, it had transferred into New York’s prestigious BAM opera with some considerable success.

In fact we had opened in Brooklyn’s ]B.A.M. in the same week as our English National Opera “Julius Caesar” now in it’s correct Italian version  – “Giulio Cesare” – had its opening night at the MET, it was quite a week.

The morning of my meeting at the R.O.H. the British Opera Magazine review had just come out for these two openings where I was highly praised for both shows and also the merits of the young soprano whom I had insisted we use in all three female roles in my production of the Rameau rarity. She was a young completely unknown soprano with whom I had made my NY directorial debut… a certain Renée Fleming. But more of the extraordinary Renée in another conversation perhaps?

At this impasse, Sir John Tooley who was at that time in his last season as boss of the R.O.H. asked if I had any suggestions.  Certainly! I mentioned that I had proposed the same opera to Spoleto Festivals USA andItaly with another wonderful soprano with whom I had just done a “Norma” in Chile  – Rosalind Plowright.

In my portfolio, I had a few initial concept sketches for this version, which I showed to Sir John.  He asked me if thought that Joan and Ricky would be happy with my creating a new show for them although it would have to be on the really tiny budget that was reserved for the proposed rental of the American Canadian “Anna Bolena”.

I replied that I couldn’t possibly comment, but that maybe he could to ask them?  Immediately he picked up the phone and called them in Switzerland and proposed the idea. I was excited to hear a very definite “Yes”.

So, a new ‘Anna Bolena’ as director designer at R.O.H. As it turned out this would be Joan and Richard’s final new show there and the pressure was very definitely on. The first thing was to establish a budget, it was indeed really restricted,  at something just over 20,000 pounds sterling, (1988) so nothing even remotely like the  Canadian American “Anna Bolena” was possible.

[Below: Concept rendering by John Pascoe for Act I scene 2 for the 1988 Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; resized image courtesy of John Pascoe.]


I immediately asked to have Michael Stennet do the costumes, but as I evidently had received a fairly good success as director / designer of both sets and costumes in the USA Sir John wanted me to do it all and of course I was thrilled, scared to death but excited.  I’m sure of the fact that they would be paying just one fee to me instead of adding in that of Michael didn’t enter into their calculations, it was all due to my brilliance of course … NOT!

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland as Anna Bolena and John Aler as Percy in the 1988 Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena, with stage diretcion, sets and costume design by John Pascoe; edited image of a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of Joh Pascoe.]


As it turned out the budget really WAS too small, but somehow or other I created a romantic 19th century version of the famous storyline. The opera was composed in 1830 and when researching the original images from its debut, it was clear that neither Donizetti  nor his contemporaries had any sense of what Tudor England looked like either in costuming or architecture.

But more perhaps importantly for me what would communicate with the audience then in 1988?  The choice of period, of attitude to its historical aspect is fundamental in creating a production, but this idea of creating a romantic reality, that concentrated on the operas passions and not on historically correct copies of existing paintings of Enrico for example, seemed then and still sees to me now to be right for this immensely passionate opera.

I still ask what on earth do Holbein images have to do with Donizetti’s ‘Anna Bolena’?

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland (left) is Anna Bolena and Dimitri Kavrakos (right) is Enrico in the 1988 Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” with stage direction, sets and costume design by John Pascoe; edited image of a production photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


At the R.O.H, somehow I managed to create a uniquely 1830’s version of  the story line and I’m thrilled to be able to share some images of this production with a wider audience through the medium of our conversation William and also on my web site which I am also putting ‘up’ for Oct 10th 2014, to honor dear Dame Joan’s passing.

By the way, the silver gray silk costume I created for Joan’s first act of Anna Bolenna was featured in the exhibition that was mounted to honor her stunning career at the Royal Opera, and is viewable on a You Tube feature.  When she wore it the first time Ricky  said  something like “Good grief Joan where on earth did you get that waist?” She replied gaily “Oh, John gave it to me dear”. Indeed he did!

[Below: Dame Joan Sutherland (left) and Dimitri Kavrakos (right) is Enrico in the 1988 Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” with stage direction, sets and costume design by John Pascoe; edited image of a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


During the “Bolena” performance period, there were clearly quite a few stand out moments for me. One typically funny comment from Richard during early on-stage rehearsals should not go without comment: The ‘Rochefort’ was sung by the very large voiced Peter Rose and during the duo between Rochefort and Percy in the final act, Richard stopped everyone in mid track and said in a voice that was clearly heard throughout the house, “For God sake’s Peter stop shouting, you’ll wake everyone up”!

[Below: Peter Rose is Rochefort and John Aler is Percy in the 1988 Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; edited image, based on a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


I nearly died holding in the laughter that was welling up inside of me. But obviously THE moment to remember was being led on stage by dear Joan at the final curtain call on opening night. The ‘Bravi’ and flowers that hailed down on us  are things not easily forgotten.

Although the flowers were principally for Joan, Richard and company – Suzanne Mentzer (Giovanna), Dimitri Kavrakos (Enrico), John Aler (Percy), Eirian James (Smeton), Peter Rose (Rochefort)and Kim Begley (Hervey) – clearly  the joy of the opening’s success, underlined for me by the sense that in some way I had been able to pull a production ‘out of the hat’ was exhilarating. So some of those bravi were perhaps also for me.

[Below: Dimitri Kavrakos, right, is Enrico (King Henry VIII) and Dame Joan Sutherland is Anna (Ann Buleyn) in th 1988 Royal Opera House production of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena”; edited image of a Clive Barda photograph, courtesy of John Pascoe.]


Yet again my dear Mum and Dad –  Roma and Rick Pascoe and this time also my aunt Angela, were prominent in the cheering audience.  The latter had created a gown especially for the evening that featured a panel of the floating silver silk chiffon that I had was used to such effect in Joan’s silver Act I costume. We were a very happy group of  ‘Pascoes’ that night.

The second memory that remains equally present, was somewhat bizarre, but pure ‘Joan’.

 Wm: And you will recall that memory in Part VI or our “Conversation”.


 The next part of the homage to Dame Joan Sutherland will be published soon.

Tags: William's Conversations with John Pascoe