Diva-Loving Copley Revives Hit ‘La Boheme’ at Royal Opera

John Copley
John Copley with Dame Janet Baker, and the cast of "La Boheme" at the Royal Opera House, London. Photographer: Rob Moore/ROH via Bloomberg

When John Copley was asked to direct “La Boheme” at London’s Royal Opera, he was told the production had to be good enough to last at least five or six years.

That was 38 years ago. The current revival, starring gold-throated tenor Joseph Calleja, also marks 50 years since Copley first worked as a director at Covent Garden. We meet at his home in west London to talk about the secrets of the show’s success and about working with some of opera’s most adored and difficult divas.

Copley, who looks at least a decade younger than his 78 years, is a genial, hospitable host. He has a limitless fund of anecdotes that pepper his conversation.

He tells me about a mezzo who found herself working with such a terrible conductor that she wore tap shoes to beat the tempo for the orchestra. The rest of the cast followed suit.

“It was Handel, and it ended up sounding like a Broadway musical,” he says.

There’s another about a singer who phoned him in high dudgeon because no one had told her where she could park her helicopter.

The best ones, unfortunately, are unrepeatable. I steer Copley to safer waters. Why does he think his marvelous “Boheme” has stayed the course?

Practical Tradition

“It’s traditional, and people like it,” he says. “It’s also a very practical production. You can rehearse it in the morning, and do another opera in the evening. And it’s acoustically excellent. Acts One and Four are enclosed, so the set projects the voices outwards into the audience. I’ve never had a singer who didn’t enjoy being in it.”

It also has the late Julia Trevelyan Oman’s colorful multi-level sets, which faithfully recreate details of Parisian life in the 1840s.

“Julia was an expert in period scenery and costume,” says Copley. “Everything had to be fully referenced. We spent hours together in the Victoria & Albert Museum, checking details.”

The oysters in her Cafe Momus are created by slicing bananas into oyster shells. Coins are made from cork, so they can be thrown around. There’s real dough in the pastry shop in the Act Two street scene.

Tiny Frozen Hand

Nothing is left to chance, and everything in the show works. Rodolfo sings “Che gelida manina” (“Your Tiny Hand is Frozen”) while sitting behind Mimi on a flight of steps in the middle of the set. Their hands slide along the banister to meet, and the most famous caress in opera is thus placed fully center-stage.

“That’s exactly how I wanted it to be,” says Copley. “I’m immensely proud of it.”

Has the production changed much over 25 revivals? “It’s always different with different singers,” he says. “It’s not very smart to go in with fixed ideas, if they’re not going to work with the performers that you have.”

The production has hosted many of opera’s superstars, including Placido Domingo, Mirella Freni, Luciano Pavarotti and Kiri Te Kanawa. Does Copley have a favorite couple?

“It was very powerful with Jose Carreras and Katia Ricciarelli, because they’d just become lovers.” He pauses. “They brought something extraordinary to it.”

Callas Substitute

He tells me that one of the reasons for his success in the opera house is that he’s good with divas.

“It’s because I’m a diva myself,” he confesses, with a look which dares me to disagree.

Another secret of his longevity is his dedication to preparation. He learns by heart the vocal lines of any opera he directs, for example. His work ethic paid off when he was assisting on Franco Zeffirelli’s famous production of “Tosca” for Maria Callas in 1964.

“I adored Callas, and I’d watched all her rehearsals,” Copley says. “Then she was ill for three days just before opening. There was no understudy, so I offered to sing the role myself.” He shows me how, in a lively countertenor.

“Fortunately Tito Gobbi, the baritone, knew me and liked me. And I really understood what Callas was trying to achieve. The management were thrilled. I’d saved their bacon.”

His reward was to be given his own production to direct. It was Puccini’s “Suor Angelica.”

Dinosaur Joke

Since then, he’s worked in most of the world’s greatest opera houses. His last new production at Covent Garden, however, was “Norma” in 1987. Is he bitter that the phone hasn’t rung more often?

“Oh, I’m a dinosaur,” he says in a tone of voice which implies otherwise. “When I was young, we wanted to move the old fogies out of the way, and do our own thing. The young have to be given their chance now too.

“Am I bitter?” He laughs again. “Of course I am!”

“La Boheme” is in repertoire at Covent Garden until May 17. On May 17 it is relayed to 22 BP Summer Screens around the country. The production returns in June with Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna as Mimi and Rodolfo. For more information, go to http://www.roh.org.uk or call +44-20-7304-4000.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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