Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

John Copley Interview

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column for November 3, 2000

How can a seldom-performed Baroque opera about a bevy of Greek gods and a vain young woman named Semele be made interesting to a sophisticated San Francisco audience?

If anyone is up to the task, it would be John Copley, the highly-regarded British-born director of San Francisco Opera's current production of the 1744 opera Semele by George Frideric Handel. The colorful Mr. Copley explained his approach to this task during a chat last week just before bounding off for a Semele rehearsal. If Franz Hals, the great 17th century Dutch portrait painter were to drop into the San Francisco Opera House this month, I would expect him to quickly stir up his paints and proceed to capture Copley's image on canvas. For that matter, Copley, who hails from Birmingham, would also look quite at home in one of the illustrations depicting a particularly genial character in a Charles Dickens novel.

It is easy to understand why singers and co-workers like him so much. Gentle, voluble, and owner/operator of the most playfully twinkling eyes one could imagine, Copley is the sort of person who brings an added measure of warmth into any room he enters. After introducing himself, he enthusiastically proceeded to talk about why he's enjoying his local dealings with Handel's 1744 Semele.

"It's really a profane oratorio," he said in his dramatically inflected British tones. "It was too bawdy for the 19th century, you know. And it was really quite neglected until lately."

The opera is indeed enjoying a definite revival. When Copley's critically acclaimed 1982 Royal Opera House Covent Garden Semele production went on to Venice, it brought so many raves from its Italian audience that it had to be repeated the very next season. According to Copley, the Venetians, accustomed to big helpings of Verdi and Puccini, frequently asked WHY they hadn't heard more of Handel's beautiful music. "Even the Italian stage hands and chorus members were transfixed by it," Copley said.

Copley conceived his approach to Semele from a production he did in Sweden's King Gustav III 18th century Theater. He described it as having a distinctive "slot" stage that included an ingenious configuration of wings and portals arranged so that creative scene changes could be managed mechanically.

"The theater was one of the reasons that King Gustav was shot," Copley revealed. "He was much more involved with managing the theater than he was with running the country." (Sweden's King Gustav III was the character Verdi portrayed in his opera Un Ballo in Maschera).

Copley described how such a configuration allowed for the depiction of one of his favorite Semele scenes _ the transformation from the brightly lit palace of Thebes to a lush leafy forest during the beautiful aria, "Where'er You Walk," Jupiter's love song to Semele.

It is Handel's music, however, that Copley feels is really responsible for the opera's appeal, both to modern as well as to 18th century audiences. "Handel's music is to me the most sincere; the most profound. It portrays real feelings and passions of real people with plenty of EMS," which, with raised eyebrows and exaggeratedly dramatic tones, he proceeded to define as "envy, malice, and spite - the curses of the opera world."

Handelian opera, according to Copley, is technically very hard to sing, and even harder to memorize, primarily because of its ornamentation difficulties. One of opera's most taxing arias, he believes, is the vain Semele's "Myself I Shall Adore."

According to Copley, Semele, one of two princesses of ancient Thebes, is like an 18th century Manon. "She's a girl who has everything," he says. "And, she doesn't know her place. She wants to be immortal. But Jupiter loves her in a way he didn't love his other dalliances. Semele is the only one of his mortal paramours with whom he has a child - Bacchus."

"Furthermore, I LOVE the language of the opera," he emphasized. "It was, after all, written by Congreve! And Congreve is as witty as they come." (William Congreve had written the libretto some 30 years before for a rather nondescript composer named John Eccles.)

The production's sets and costumes for Copley's version have been influenced by the ornate ceiling paintings by the 18th century Venetian-born artist Giovanni Battista Tiepolo - "a mixture of classical and 18th century," he says.

Copley comes the world of opera directing with an exceptionally broad education. His schooling began with 12 years at King Edward's School in Birmingham where, under the influence of a "particularly wonderful teacher," he played the piano, sang, and received a rounded academic education. He then went on to the university and subsequently time in ballet school as well as an art school, where he studied architecture and painting.

He particularly loved London, especially its theater scene and remembers that he "beseiged" theatrical luminaries like Joan Cross and Tyrone Guthrie. Because of his love for music, however, the operatic stage held a particular appeal for the young Copley. As a youth he played the boy in a London production of Peter Grimes and portrayed the little black page boy, Mahomet, in Der Rosenkavalier under the eminent conductor Erich Kleiber. Much to his delight, Copley was later to have the opportunity to direct a production of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Kleiber's son.

Although he loves "the whole ethos of the 18th century," Copley's career has since included directing operas from every period. San Francisco audiences have been treated to his interpretations of Handel's Julius Caesar in 1982 as well as the U.S. premiere of Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage in 1983. Other local assignments have been Don Giovanni; Eugene Onegin; Le Nozze di Figaro; La Traviata; Suor Angelica; A Midsummer Night's Dream; The Queen of Spades; Il Trovatore; Anna Bolena; Manon; Handel's Orlando and the evocative Magritte-inspired production of Il Barbiere di Siviglia, among many others.

Although he considers London, where he teaches at the Royal Academy, his home, he also teaches with San Francisco's Merola Program and conducts in locations throughout the world. He recently spent time doing Tosca in Sidney during the Olympics, and following his local Semele will fly off to Dallas, then Chicago where he will do the Magritte Barber of Seville, and then on to the Met in New York to direct Norma. A stint in Athens will follow.

He leads what he impishly described as "a life crowded with incident," and when asked what his hobbies were, he retorted "I like to sleep." When I queried him bout how he would like to be remembered in decades to come, he replied, "For making people laugh."

Semele will be conducted by the revered Sir Charles Mackerras for the Nov. 4, 7, 19, and 22 performances, and by William Lacey for shows on Nov. 10, 15, and 25. Featured singers will be Ruth Ann Swenson in the title role; Christine Brandes as her sister Iris; Sarah Connolly in the dual roles of Juno and Ino; Brian Asawa as Prince Athamas; John Mark Ainsley as Jupiter; Todd Geer as Apollo; John Relyea as Cadmus and Somnus; and John Ames as the High Priest of Juno.

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