Legendary opera director John Copley takes his final bow with the Dallas Opera, helming the production that launched his 60-year career
John Copley has been thinking a lot about marriage lately. The most obvious reason for this preoccupation is the opera he is currently directing for the Dallas Opera: Mozart’s "The Marriage of Figaro," about the comic antics of the famed barber of Seville as he plans his wedding. It’s one of the composer’s frothiest confections, a chirpy romance that exudes a swooning love.
But the tone of the opera contrasts with some bad marriage news that was revealed last week: the approval of anti-gay initiatives in several states, including California’s passage of Prop 8 rescinding this summer’s court ruling legalizing same-sex unions in the Golden State.
"It’s terribly depressing that they banned it — it doesn’t seem right," says Copley, a Brit who wed his own partner of 48 years several years ago in London, where civil unions are recognized. "I can’t, as a foreigner, comment on it without getting shot, but we feel very blessed that the issue has been resolved [in England]."
But for now, Copley would prefer to think happy thoughts. And few things make him happier than Mozart’s masterpiece.
"Mozart was just a genius you can’t begin to analyze," he gushes during a break from a tech rehearsal at Fair Park Music Hall. "Every bar has something to tell you about the human condition."
And "Figaro," an opera buffa full of sight gags and physical comedy as well as cooing romance, is plainly in Copley’s wheelhouse.
"I know I’m good at doing love on stage," he confesses. "I adore all the physically parts and this couple is just amazing. But comedy is the most difficult to do. ‘La Boheme’ and ‘Butterfly’ are so easy because it’s all there; comedy is an art. And I have learned from great comedians. I tell jokes a lot to sharpen my sense of timing."
He recently got the chance to tell jokes in front of a rapt audience, when Covent Garden honored him with a gala commemorating his astonishing 60 years with the opera company.
"I was completely gobsmacked," he winks. "I had to do my cabaret with old jokes, but everyone was there."
Copley started in opera as little more than an errand boy, eventually working his way up to director — and becoming an international celebrity in the process. His landmark production of "La Boheme," now in its 34th season, is constantly revived and, he proudly admits, still holds up.
But probably no opera has occupied him more than "Figaro:" It was the first full-length opera he ever directed in London and "it is certainly my most-directed opera." Indeed, the set in the Dallas Opera’s production is borrowed from the New York Opera that Copley created a generation ago.
Which makes this production, which he touts as "absolutely lovely," somewhat bittersweet. After years of announcing he would retire — and then coming back time and again — he insists this time he really means it. And once again, marriage is the reason.
"The opera business takes a huge amount out of you," Copley says. "I have three or four big jobs next year and that will be it. I will retire next year to spent time with my partner," to whom he’s hopelessly devoted.
"He’s always been the nicest man in the world, and I’m not. He’s incredibly well-educated and well-behaved, and I’m incredibly ignorant and misbehaved," he says.
Misbehaved? That’s putting it mildly. Copley’s puckishness is legendary; his first words to me at our most recent interview — our fourth — are "Have you been wicked!?"
He smiles, his eyes flash mischievously, and you want to say, "No, not really… but I’m willing to be now!"
"The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro)," presented by the Dallas Opera. Music Hall at Fair Park, 909 First Ave. Nov. 14,19 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 16 matinee at 2 p.m. $15â€“$199. 214-443-1000. Dallasopera.org.
Upstart Productions, a new local theater company, launches with a production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning "Topdog/ Underdog" at the Dallas Hub Theater. Read the review at Dallasvoice.com
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 14, 2008.