Opera production isn't quite like the National Gallery: whereas we treasure the greats of the past from the world of the visual arts, the average opera production lasts a couple of revivals at most and then gets put away forever.
But, thankfully, one or two have been recognised as being simply too good to dispose of. Chief amongst them is John Copley's legendary production of Puccini's La bohème, which has been in The Royal Opera's repertoire since 1974 and has enjoyed twenty-odd revivals. The staging has been put on for nearly every major singer who has the piece in his or her repertoire – Domingo, Te Kanawa, Pavarotti and Carreras amongst them – and it's back again this Christmas with two alternating casts, amongst whom only a couple of singers have appeared in it before.
As always, Copley himself is here at Covent Garden to guide the artists through their paces – something that not all directors of his stature would bother to do, but it doesn't occur to him to send in a revival director in his place. Copley's sense of the theatre is mixed with an equally keen sense of history: now 76, he's been associated with the opera house for over 60 years, during which time he was stage manager and a resident director.
He looked after Maria Callas while she rehearsed the legendary Zeffirelli staging of Tosca, and even stood in for her when she was too ill to rehearse; he worked with the likes of Janet Baker and Elizabeth Söderström; Solti, Colin Davis and Mackerras all had close associations with him, especially during the 1970s and '80s when he created almost thirty productions for the ROH and ENO; and he even appeared as an extra in Aida in September 1948. Talking to him is to hear an account of the history of the opera house told by someone with an almost unmatched level of experience, and it's a sign of his deep-rooted connection with the company that his Bohème is now by far the oldest production still in the company's repertoire.
We start by talking about the task of staging the piece. 'It might sound ridiculous,' he laughs, 'but I honestly never found it a challenge because I love it so much. It was the first opera I saw, when I was 11, and I fell totally in love with it. The performance was at Sadler's Wells, and it was in English. Joan Cross was Mimi and Arthur Servent was Rodolfo. I went to school the next day, and in whatever breaks we have I wrote a 30-minute play based on the opera I'd seen the night before. Three weeks later, we put it on in the school hall. Isn't that ridiculous?'
Copley's emotional reaction was instinctive. 'I just thought it was terribly touching. Of the verismo operas, I think it's perfection. There isn't a bar or a word that isn't absolutely valuable. People are very snitty about Puccini, but I find this particular opera to be without faults. It took him eight years, so they say, to do it. I'm never bored with it. And if you've got the right people, the emotional part of it is so touching.
'I did a masterclass here recently with kids from the National Opera Studio. I'd never done Bohème with them before. We did the last act, from the entrance of Mimi to her death. Of course, they were all the right age – in their early twenties – and they were absolutely extraordinary. The audience was in tears!'
It's not merely about heart-on-sleeve emotion, though: the piece provides plenty for the mind to think about, too. 'If you go back to Murger [on whose Scenes de la vie de bohème the opera is based], all those characters are terribly interesting,' Copley enthuses. 'And the opera is not just a weepie, it's a comedy, too, and there's an enormous amount of fun to it. This particular production is extremely interesting to look at: there's a lot of originality in it, because I'd grown up with it. I've done about six or seven productions in my time; I have an idea of how the first and last acts should go, but Acts 2 and 3 can vary a lot.
'Above all, the opera is full of humanity. Those four boys couldn't be more fascinating. From the word go, the musical structure depicts the frustration, rage and anger that these guys feel. They can't get their act together, they're not successful; they're no good at anything. They have no money. But they have Schaunard, who plays all these instruments, and he has a piano, so they have a lot of music in their lives. And like all students, they play silly games and pranks on each other. So clearly, there's a lot going on in the piece.'
Unlike many of today's opera directors, Copley is musically proficient, and he thinks this is the key to doing a good job. 'The music is everything; I only work from the music. It always tells me what to do. If you listen to Bohème, it's all there. I've mentioned the rage in the opening scene, and it's not rage like Verdi or Wagner – it has a lightness to it as well. It's mocking music, it's mocking the characters. Everyone has their own theme. And think of Mimi's entrance: you hear her enter, and you hear them falling in love. Later on, her theme comes back, but because the colours in the orchestra have changed, you know she's ill and you know she's going to die. But it's not the text, it's the music that tells you that.'
He says that his original aim when setting up the production originally was 'Just to tell the story. I had done the old production here at Covent Garden before it quite a number of times. I did Pavarotti's debut here in 1963 with that production; I must have done it five or six times. It was a very basic design that had been done during the war. In Act 2, the Café Momus was outside, which I always thought was very strange because it's the winter and it's cold, so I wanted to do it inside and outside.
'I've done it in America a few times, and I've always had the Theatre Momus on one side of the stage opposite the Café, just as the Munich Opera has the café directly opposite the opera house, and everyone goes from the opera to the café afterwards. It seemed to me that that was a very good reason for Musetta's scene, but Julia Trevelyan Oman, who designed this production, was a stickler for reference, and she wasn't happy if it wasn't written in the score. We couldn't find the right theatre in the right place, so I gave up!
'One thing I've always had strong opinions about is the garret. I insist on having four spaces for the four guys, because they don't always live together all the time – a couple of them are often out – but they've all got to have their sleeping areas. So in my production, it's very clear which part of the stage belongs to each character. That's important to me, because I've seen productions that don't seem to have considered the practicalities they face in living together in this space. They need a place to go!
'I think it's one of the operas that you can update, because the illness can be changed to an equivalent illness in a later era, and I did enjoy the Baz Luhrmann production in Australia. I'd never do it in the present day myself, but I have brought it forward to the fin-de-siècle, where the illness is still legitimate.'
Clearly, Copley's opinion of the work hasn't changed much over the years. 'I let the others update it!' he says wryly. 'I can never work out with Tosca, for instance, how you can change the period. It's 1 June 1800, isn't it? It's the Battle of Marengo. They talk about the battle going on in Act 2. So how can you update that to the twentieth century and have Goering and Goebbels speaking these lines, as if it's about the Nazi world? It's the same with Traviata – that's such a nineteenth-century piece.'
I ask why he chooses to come back and revive the staging so often, but Copley seems to find the question irrelevant: 'I have to do it, really, because I think it's a good show and I like to keep it up. I have a new set of people, so there's plenty of work to do. I often have people I've worked with before; I have a lot of friends in the business. I've made lots of friends over sixty years of working here, and I want to continue to make friends. I'm having a great time with this group, most of whom are new to the production. I know I can bring something with my experience. We have a lot of fun. And it's my job, isn't it? I've been working here for over six decades, and it's nice to come back. I have other operas in the rep at the Met and San Francisco, but this is the only one left to me at Covent Garden, so I like to come back.'
He confesses it makes him sad to have only this one production left in the repertoire over here. 'It's strange that people don't think that directors improve with age in the way conductors do. Look at Mackerras conducting Turn of the Screw at ENO or Colin Davis doing an extraordinary Otello at the Barbican last week: why don't people think the same goes for us directors?'
Music started for Copley while he was at school. 'When I was a little boy, I was a chorister. A lot of my life revolved around the church, with choir practices, and a Tuesday club, and plays at Christmas, and other things. I was surrounded by musical people, though my family wasn't musical. I wanted to play the piano, and my father bought me one when I was six. I still have it and I'm terribly attached to it. I love music; it absolutely does it for me. And I love all sorts: the C minor Mass finishes me off every time. I was a boy soprano, and sang very well. 'Exsultate, jubilate' was my party piece. I loved G&S, and saw my first one when I was nine. We had an extraordinary music master at my school, who'd been a pilot, and he was also an excellent musician. I sang all the time until my voice suddenly broke in the middle of 'Voi che sapete'; I'd been a bit of a star at school, but nobody told me this was going to happen. I was swept aside, and it was literally the worst day of my life.'
Copley thought his dreams of a career in music were shattered, and he confesses to having ruined his vocal cords by trying to continue to sing in the soprano register through his break. 'I have no tenor or baritone voice,' he explains, 'but I do have quite a loud falsetto, and I auditioned at one point to do Oberon for Georg Solti. He said I was the loudest! But my intonation was all over the place, so it didn't happen.'
Training as a dancer at Sadler's Wells and as a designer at Central School of Arts and Crafts gave him an all-round background in the theatre. 'Ninette de Valois sent for me after about a year and announced that she was transferring me to the opera – she didn't ask if I wanted to, she just announced it! I was sixteen, and she said it would be much better for me. She was absolutely right. I became a student here, and went to the Central School to do art design. I could see myself as a choreographer or perhaps a director, but I hadn't made the complete mental journey yet. I had lots of experience here, and sat through hundreds of rehearsals: I was either on, or watching them. I did things like the Prince of Persia in Turandot, and walk on and strike a pose – there's a very fetching photograph of me in it in Opera magazine in 1952!
'That was my life. I came here, got lots of friends, and started as stage manager. I learnt about lighting and became very good at that as well. I've had a bit of everything; I've been a jack-of-all-trades. And I don't think I've ever been bored. I have some wonderful friends: I know people now that I knew back then, and they still think of me as "young John".'
And one can understand why: after an hour spent in the director's presence, it's clear to me that Copley has lost none of his youthful fervour and enthusiasm for his job. He's booked well into 2012 in America, where he's still regularly invited to stage new productions. 'Perhaps I'll retire after that,' he comments. But it's so difficult to imagine this energetic, vigorous man giving up that I, for one, seriously doubt it.
La bohème is revived at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, from 17 December.
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