An Oral History with John Conklin
On August 22nd, 2019, stage designer John Conklin sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life.
This interview was originally recorded on August 22nd, 2019.
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation.
John Conklin, stage designer
John Conklin has designed sets and costumes for the major America opera houses, such as New York City Opera, Opera Theater of St Louis, the Glimmerglass Opera, and the opera companies of Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Washington, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, and Boston. He designed the world premiere of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, and Jonathan Miller’s production of Pelleas et Melisande, among others. He’s an accomplished designer in both the United States and Europe, for both opera and theater. He taught at the Tisch School of Arts, served as the Associate Artistic Director of the Glimmerglass Opera, and its currently artistic advisor to Boston Lyric Opera.
Oral History Project
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Marc A. Scorca: John Conklin: welcome to the Opera Center and we are so happy to include you in our oral history that we're doing in association with our 50th anniversary. It is our goal that we will capture 50 interviews in the next 18 months - just to hear some of the stories. I always like to know what brings people to opera. What brought you to opera?
John Conklin: I guess in a way, it was sort of a classic route. My parents were both very interested in classical music. My grandfather was quite closely connected to the Boston Symphony and to the New England Conservatory. My father, who grew up in Hartford, played the piano as an amateur. They took me to concerts all the time in Hartford, where I grew up. Interestingly enough, they both, I think to a certain degree or even a large degree, didn't like opera. Coming from a family that has connections to Boston and close connections to the music world in Boston - and then (sort of coincidentally) having recently been working in Boston at Boston Lyric Opera...and this whole question of "Boston is not an opera town" and why isn't it an opera town and why is it? And I think I get one of the clues from my parents (particularly my mother) that Bostonians think opera is sort of vulgar and Brahms and Beethoven are fine; the Boston Symphony is fine. I remember one of my early experiences was going to a symphony concert in Hartford. I can't remember whether it was the Hartford Symphony or whatever. It was the Verdi Requiem. And so I went with my mother, and I remember that she was extremely shocked, in a Bostonian way, at the soprano who was wearing an evening gown split up the side, so that her legs were showing. And much later, cause I've saved all of my programs (or most of them) I was looking through, and discovered that that soprano was Beverly Sills.
Marc A. Scorca: But opera certainly has a lot more obvious sex, than Brahms or Beethoven.
John Conklin: ...and just more overt emotion on the surface; and also people flailing around. Because I had the sort of classic classical moments; because I would go with my grandmother to the Boston Friday afternoon at the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall...and she was wearing her gray Persian lamb coat... and it was just a quintessential sort of Boston experience. But also in Boston, because they were involved with the Boston Conservatory of Music, which was in the days of Boris Goldovsky. So my grandmother used to take me to those productions: so that was some of the first opera I saw - which was at that rather high level, and I remember they were great friends and admirers of Adele Addison. So I heard her sing The Countess and so on in the New England Conservatory. But then the other route that I took was, again in the classic Saturday afternoon broadcast of the Met, and Opera News and the pictures of the sets in Opera News. And I would build little models from the pictures of the thing. So in that sense, I was drawn to opera because it was music and because it had the power of music, but it also had the power of theater; and the power of painting; and the power of architecture; and the power of dance. So it seemed like the ideal thing to do.
Marc A. Scorca: You were making models at home based on the photographs you saw in Opera News. So there's a 10 year old boy in a little workshop making models.
John Conklin: Somewhere I had (and I've misplaced it. I keep hoping that it will surface eventually) a picture of me at about 12 or 13, holding a little model stage with Mount Fuji. So it, I think, must be Butterfly.
Marc A. Scorca: When did you connect the dots that your predisposition to make models and opera / theater was a career path?
John Conklin: Well, I was also very lucky to have, in the high school that I went to in Hartford, strong drama coaches, teachers, and organizers. So I did that kind of theater. I did some acting and some designing. And then when I went to Yale as an undergraduate, I happened to hit the Dramat (which is the undergraduate college theater company), at a very strong moment, because (Nikos) Psacharopoulos had just graduated from the drama school and was taking over. And my first job for the Dramat was assistant prop master to Dick Cabot. But there were all sorts of people in those classes around me and in my class who wanted to go; who were there, and who wanted to make the theater a profession. I majored in drama, which at that point was very loose [indecipherable]. There was not a lot of requirements. So I was able to take lots of history of art classes and drawing classes and so on. What I think has been very helpful to me is: I grew up and started to work as a theater designer and as an opera designer at the same time, more or less. I mean, I was mostly focused in theater when I went to the graduate school at Yale. One of the students there (graduating directors) was Wes Balk. He went on to found The Center Opera at the Walker Arts Center. So soon after he graduated, he was hired to do Cosi in Santa Fe. I'm not sure whether that was my opera debut, but again, it was a theater connection or a drama school connection. I was always able through my career ... I deliberately tried to balance theater and opera.
Marc A. Scorca: Why was it helpful, do you think, to you, or would it be helpful to anyone, that they are balancing opera and theater?
John Conklin: I think it's a slightly more abstract idea that you get: the lesson you learn is that opera and theater are the same. And that your duty and your joy is, in the end, to release the performance: that the performance is what it is. You are not a designer; you are an aid to the performer. And even though the styles are completely, (or not completely) different between theater and opera - they're still people. They're human performing animals (in the best sense.) So you feel that sense of "how do you do that?" Because soon after I started in designing and had done some designing, I was able to go, with Friedelind Wagner - to Bayreuth to her masterclasses that she ran there for several years, which was a completely amazing experience. She was great friends with Walter Felsenstein. So when we were there, we spent a week in Berlin meeting with Felsenstein and talking about Magic Flute as it happened. And he coached the singers. And then I watched Wieland Wagner (near the end of his career, unfortunately) rehearsing. And again, I saw that particularly Wieland, (who was continuing to sort of revolutionize how operas looked toward some more abstract, psychological view) directed like he was Stanislavsky. Because you don't do abstract acting; well you do to your detriment. You don't do abstract acting in an abstract space. You do completely moment-to-moment psychological, and musical, understanding. Felsenstein: that was a little clearer because he was working, in a way, in a more traditional, visual manner. But, you realize that that's where it is and that the way to make it all work is to get the performer to take you anywhere and you can give a performer almost anything and if they can see where you're going and pick up on that and then do it - you can do anything. But you have to have the performance. That's the thing you cannot give up. You can sort of cover it up; or try to transcend it; or push it along in another way. But that never really works.
Marc A. Scorca: It's interesting to hear you talk about your introduction to your observation of Wieland Wagner and [Walter] Felsenstein because I was going to ask you: when you entered the world of opera design, what was the state of opera design? And I am guessing that it was this dichotomy between very forward-thinking, psychologically-based, theatrically-based opera and some really old-fashioned approach. Not only did the productions not get in the way of singing, they just weren't there. So what was the world of design when you entered opera?
John Conklin: It was a sort of balancing point, a tipping point. Because Wieland's influence, of course, was huge. And controversial, I guess. At the time it was dismissed (by some) as a kind of giving up on the whole idea of opera and what it should add - spectacle and grandeur. But I think he struck a chord. On the other hand, very early on I saw Zeffirelli's Falstaff. So I saw the best of both, and I could see that you didn't have to choose. Interestingly in both Wieland and Zeffirelli, they were directing and designing their own sets. And then another person whose productions I saw a lot and who I knew slightly was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Again, another director/designer. I think that as a solo designer, or as just a designer, I think I was lucky to sort of hit the track at the point where designing was becoming more and more a part of dramaturgy. And just the idea of a dramaturg, although there have been dramaturgs in Germany and so on... Just even the word "dramaturgy," when I was first starting out, was not in common parlance, even for directors. But there was a sense that designers could and were all indeed expected to participate in the dramaturgy and to be a major player in that. And I think that had not been particularly true up until then, except for director/designers who immediately sort of assumed both positions.
Marc A. Scorca: In my chat with Michael Bronson, he talked about the old Met tour where they would move by train and had special train cars that opened at the back end, so that way they could just put the rolled flats in the back end and go off to another city. So you're speaking about Zeffirelli and Ponnelle and Wieland Wagner at a time when The Met on tour and The Met on 39th street had a lot of painted flats, and drops.
John Conklin: Yes. Again, it was a sort of transitional time where built scenery became the sort of accepted thing. Although on the other hand, you know, there's always another side. I remember going to a production of Tosca at the Hartford Opera, and it was all painted drops. And it was as completely dimensional in concept as the Zeffirelli set. You had to keep the lighting very low and you had to light it correctly. And both were evocations of Sant'Andrea della Valle in a sort of realistic-motion-picture way. I think where the architecture, or the built dimensions of things became more crucial (and this was something I did quite a lot) was to fracture the architecture and to use it in pieces that could then be lit to reveal different aspects of them, and to reveal their reality. So again, I think that I hit the career path, at just the right (time). So I kept all my connections to Williamstown and to the theater. But that theater directors were moving into opera, like Wes [Balk]. And so that the path has been, (and unfortunately, I don't think that classic path exists so much anymore)... Because I also was able to work as an assistant to a designer on Broadway, at the same time this was all going on. Either the world has become bigger and more fractured, which would seem to suggest there are more openings at all sorts of different levels (which I think there are)...but my path, because it could involve so much learning from masters...there weren't so many masters, and the masters were able to focus themselves more, like early Zeffirelli as opposed to later Zeffirelli, or early Ponnelle as opposed to later Ponnelle. Wieland was always able to keep his focus because he had a relatively small/large scope in Bayreuth. That ended in Germany, but relatively small. Now it's just everybody is everywhere running at 110 miles an hour and nobody has time to do anything anymore.
Marc A. Scorca: You evoke [much] in talking about the Tosca and then talking about the built scenery and the fractured use of it. We had an interesting debate at our annual conference in San Francisco about the producer's responsibility to tell the story to an audience, many of whom may be seeing it for the first time. And perhaps a European audience is somewhat different because the core repertoire has been seen by many of them, many times. And they know some of the legends in Germany on which the Ring cycle or Parsifal is based. In the United States, so many of the audiences we serve are seeing both core repertoire and non-core repertoire for the first time. And if you're seeing it for the first time, do you have to just tell them the story and not interpret the story? It was an interesting discussion that went on.
John Conklin: It seems, dare I say, a slightly false premise. What is the story? "What is the story" even in the most conservative view certainly goes beyond the narrative surface. I think this whole question of... "What is a conservative production?" "What does it mean?" You would say it was doing it the way the composer intended it, which is again, a completely false premise because - thank God - we and Giuseppe Verdi had no real idea what he was doing. He had a lot of conscious thought and everything. He just did things and it was his unconscious that has made him great...so we, and our part of the original thing, that we call Aida or Falstaff... So it has so muddled the issue of "What is the real thing," and to the detriment of any real (not completely) ...but of any real thought about what that is, and what are the implications of that, and what is the job; or the mandate; or the ethical duty of opera producers, designers, directors, performers to try to create this thing that doesn't really exist? And which can't be. There is no ideal production of Tosca that is true to everything. It doesn't really exist. So it's a kind of a futile search, and a search that confuses everybody. This whole business (if you go back on that idea) that opera, the world of opera is a museum, in which masterpieces are preserved, collected; kept from destruction; preserved for generations to come: that just confuses the issue. Because of course when you actually think of a museum, that still suggests that there is a thing that you can preserve. And I suppose, yes, Rembrandt's self portrait is a thing. It's a definite size. It's made from certain pieces of material and oil mixed with chemicals (or something) and plied to it. So in that sense, it exists. Where does Tosca exist? It exists partially in the libretto. It exists partially in the music. But where does the music actually exist? It doesn't. Yes, it exists in the score. But then why at Bayreuth where all these smart conductors are conducting Parsifal from the score with Wagner's score markings and his tempo markings and everything: (they) are performances which had been timed. Do they vary by one hour? So clearly there is no Parsifal though Wagner gives us as close to getting it. So there isn't a Parsifal. But even the Rembrandt self-portrait: a Rembrandt self-portrait hanging at the Met is very different than a Rembrandt self-portrait hanging in Amsterdam. A Rembrandt self-portrait hanging in a gallery full of Rembrandts is different than the gallery where it has a bare mirror on one side then a vent hole on the other. It's different if its frame is that thick gold or that thick gold. Art just doesn't work that way and certainly performing art doesn't work that way. So instead of trying to deal with that problem, we get sort of lost and other things. The problem with approaching art that way (if you are going to create it as a director or a designer or produce it)... that's hard. That's really hard. It's sort of easier to talk about it and easier to complain about it and easier to carry on about it, than to actually do it. Because not only does it take a lot of work, mental work: it takes a lot of physical work. It takes a lot of money. Because it takes a lot of time. And if you don't have the time, it's not gonna happen. All of those are problems that are really hard to solve. You can write articles and you can write letters and...
Marc A. Scorca: Let me ask you about some of the general directors you've worked with, and I don't mean to speak about them individually, but you've mentioned, of course Felsenstein and Ponnelle and Wieland Wagner on the artistic side. These titans who, coming out of World War Two, took a fresh and new look at what opera is and what opera can be. But you also have worked with legendary general directors. I was thinking of Ardis Krainik, Kurt Adler, Sarah Caldwell, John Crosby. What made these general directors great general directors?
John Conklin: Well, it's a puzzling group of people, because if you put Charles Mackay in there also... Ardis and Kurt Herbert (Adler) were... Well, again: what was their job? I think they would've said their job was to get a group of people together to do good work. I don't know that they had "agendas." I don't know. I was lucky myself that I could be pretty persuasive about things. Because I think what they all eventually wanted was a group of people who knew what they were doing, and who they could trust to do something. Working for Paul Kellogg: very interesting. I think John Crosby, a little bit, felt that. For instance, I did several pieces with Alfred Kirchner, the German director, in Santa Fe. I don't think that John liked those productions or agreed with them aesthetically, but he realized that Kirchner was an important director who knew what he was doing, in his own terms. And they were willing to accept these set designers and directors. Then I don't know about conductors. That would be another interesting [topic]...but certainly productions. Kurt Herbert (Adler) and to a certain extent, Ardis would also keep after you. And as long as you had answers, they were okay. Particularly Mr. Adler. If you didn't have an answer, he would go right at you, because he realized that you didn't know what you were talking about and you hadn't really thought it through. And then he was willing to ask the question that makes you think about it, then ask it again. I think I would hate to be an artistic director because: how would I choose things? I mean you are like a curator, I guess. How do you curate? But I always was lucky with the people that I worked with...who hired me.
Marc A. Scorca: You referenced Boston and I wrote down in my notes here: Sarah Caldwell. Did you ever work with Sarah?
John Conklin: I never actually worked with her. No. I came close several times, but it was too complicated.
Marc A. Scorca: When you are talking about artists wanting answers, or Kurt Herbert Adler wanting answers: my guess is that these were general directors who knew their repertoire. They knew what to ask you. They understood the answers that you gave them.
John Conklin: With Kirchner, the Henze operas (which were American premieres): that was not a repertory that John Crosby knew or could ask (about)...in a way, intelligent questions. But I think it was just that they could sense from the way we talked about it and the way we worked that something was going to happen. And they were very supportive through difficult and complicated and emotionally, sometimes upsetting experiences. I'm sure it was hard being a general director in those days, but it must be even harder now, because the stakes seem higher, but lower at the same time, and nobody knows what to do. I think they knew: they wanted to do productions that were effective and involving.
Marc A. Scorca: The repertoire since you've entered the field has expanded in so many directions. And when you first entered opera, probably thinking about Handel or Mozart - even Abduction, let alone Idomeneo - or thinking about new work, or the work of Britten and Janacek. What aspect of this broader repertoire has most interested you?
John Conklin: Well Handel of course, I find one of the most interesting aesthetics to contemplate because he is the most anti-naturalistic: -which seems why I think he has become our sort of top tolerance or need or desire for...And that sense of abstraction has become more and more present. The aesthetic of Handel has.... to me he even makes Mozart seem sort of timidly psychologically coherent, because Handel was just sort of incoherent. And since we are all relatively in a world of increasing incoherence, he seems more normal. But I have been fascinated and have done quite lot of Handel. The new pieces; I mean really new pieces....Of the 20th century pieces, I've done some Janacek and some Britten. Britten is a composer, I think in my mind is not standing up well actually. But the Henzes were the few pieces of contemporary that were not, at any point, part of the repertory yet. So operas newer than that, I haven't really been interested in, in a way, because my mind is full of this other stuff, which is enough to keep me going.
Marc A. Scorca: Every so often I put up a "no-vacancy sign": I know that it's interesting, but there's no vacancy in this motel anymore.
John Conklin: Because I treat any opera as a new opera, (in a way) to be explored as if it had never been performed. And to say, "what is this really?" So I have not had much experience with, for instance, working with composers and pieces, although one experience I did have was a very interesting parable or lesson about this. I've done work with Dominick Argento. And Mark Lamos and I were hired. I'd worked a lot with Mark as a theater director in Hartford. We were hired to do The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe, in its European premiere. It had been done by Wesley [Balk] in the United States. So we were doing it in Göteborg. And we completely ignored the physical ambience that Argento had carefully expressed in the libretto (which I can't remember whether he wrote or not). But anyway, it was all set on a boat that was going between New York and Richmond. So we didn't do any of that. No boat at all. So we did it, and at the dress rehearsal the intendant said "And Mr. Argento's coming!" "Oh, great. He's going to hate all of this." We clearly ignored him; ignored his surface. Then he came in and he said: "Mr. Argento would like to see you upstairs in the reading room." We thought: "Great he's going to give us notes. There's no time to do them. What am I going to do?" And so we went up and Dominick was, of course, at all times a total gentleman, a great, sympathetic person. We just talked it over. And then he said, "You know, I have learned more about myself from this production than any production of my opera that I've ever seen." I thought, "Okay guys, this is what you want to hear and this is what very possibly Mr. Puccini or Mr. Verdi would say to somebody."
Marc A. Scorca: How fabulous. What a compliment.
John Conklin: It just made me see that composers are willing to acknowledge that their unconscious is their strength. So they don't get necessarily hysterical on account of the narrative surface or the stage directions or the words. So maybe they like this. But then the story has a very sad sequel. Because Dominick so liked this production, he was doing the premiere of The Aspern Papers in Dallas. Dallas, Chicago, Washington, but I think it was first in Dallas, with Söderström and von Stade. It was again a quite complicated and specific narrative scenario, scenically. And we thought: it took place inside the villa; in the garden of the villa - all over the place. We thought, "it's just like what you don't want to do." So we came up with this much more abstracted idea: it all took place in a big salon that had a piano and so on. But Dominick particularly didn't like it...didn't let us do it that way. Because he said...(I can't remember whether he actually said this or not), but that because this was a premiere, he preferred that it be done in a more straightforward way. And of course it was not very successful. And we did it. There was the interior; there was the garden; there were these pieces that came on and walls. When it was a premiere, when it was in the United States, his mind reverted back to this kind of unorganic way of thinking. He wouldn't trust his organic sense and he wouldn't trust our organic sense. And we had shown him that we could do this.
Marc A. Scorca: When we sat down to chat, you mentioned that classes start up at NYU. And we've mentioned before that young designers are interested in opera; that this sense of opera somehow fading away or being older, ossified: - that the young artists you are teaching are really interested in our art form. What captures their interest?
John Conklin: Because it's like really fun. It's exciting. It's big in emotional scale. So, we still have to somehow get them over their fear of their inadequacy to understand opera. Because that's something that opera has. Opera says, "We're not elite; we're not elite; we're not elite"; and opera's saying, "We're elite; we're elite." We say: "We're not, but we are, because everything we're doing is making it elite." And they're perfectly, understandably fearful of being wrong. But you can get them over that.
Marc A. Scorca: How do you get them over that fear, or that sense of inadequacy?
John Conklin: Well, I do it a lot by showing that there is no such thing as "opera." So they don't really need to be fearful or apprehensive about something that does not exist as a force. Or it exists as a force so diffuse, that they can be part of it. Last year, for the first year (and then we're doing it again this year) we take them to The Met. And for many of them, it's their first opera, and for many, many of them, it's their first time at The Met. And we just discuss what that is and what is their reaction. And if you just talk about things, because I teach it now with Sam Helfrich and since we have a very easy attitude towards it, I think they will go along and they will...and we keep saying, "You don't need to know anything." That's the trouble: is that we keep, ("we" as "opera world") saying "You have to know something about this." The thing that I still come back to (and I've been thinking a lot about this recently) is that one of the really, really - even fatal - things that we've done, is to have surtitles, and not have opera in English. And opera, to a large extent, is in a foreign language. We think that surtitles have solved the problem: a) of comprehension moment to moment; and b) has diffused this idea that opera is foreign. But it is foreign. I mean, if it's in a foreign language, it's foreign; it's elite. I mean if you went to St Louis, the only place where they're still doing everything in English, whether you would find somehow a different attitude than.... But since now we do things in English with titles....
Marc A. Scorca:...as they do in St Louis now.
John Conklin:...it's an even more horrifying attempt to make it more available and it's making it less available: less psychologically available. Because it's just setting up this weird language thing. And apart from the titles, as a composer-destroying mechanism, which completely, to me, has had a kind of toxic effect on opera performance. It's just very insidious; to me almost tragically destructive, because it has taken control away from the music; not even away from the words, but from the music and given it to some words, which seems insane. It's taken it away from the composer, it's taken it away from the music and it's taken it away from the performers. So why would you do that? And why would you think that was the solution to this problem?
Marc A. Scorca: Are there stage technologies you celebrate? Thank goodness we can do today what we couldn't do then.
John Conklin: To me the biggest thing, (because in essence: scenery - from painted scenery to built scenery - is sort of the same) is lighting. And moving lights. Because tech time has, if anything, decreased. Tech time in the theater has decreased over the years. Now with moving lights, you can move them anywhere or you can make them any color; you can focus them anyway. So you can create. You don't have to pull out the ladder, get up. Because I worked with Robert Wierzel a lot and it was like "Robert, you know, could we just like?...What if we just like?...something to hit the edge there?" And they go (noise of something happening) ... and there it is. I keep thinking "How on earth did we ever do this before these"...because what we didn't do was: we didn't do a lot of things. We just didn't do them. Because costumes are essentially the same. Related to lighting are projections, but more video. I don't know whether I'm a fan of projections. I tend not to be, and video I have not done that much work with. But then I see something like...Did you see the streaming of the new Tannhäuser from Bayreuth?
Marc A. Scorca: No.
John Conklin: Oh, you should absolutely see that.
Marc A. Scorca: I've heard wonderful reports from Bayreuth about it.
John Conklin:...and it's on YouTube. You think: "Okay, if you're going to do it like that, I'm with you 100%." It's wild. A lot of it is video and in the second act, you don't really see what they do. Because they divide the stage in half: a video screen and the action. Now of course, what you're watching with streaming, you're watching a video of the video, so you don't constantly... In the house you have constantly this sort of (quote unquote) "traditional production of Tannhäuser" going on and this video and they were both going on at that scale, for the whole time. You don't obviously get that in the streaming. And, it is so... Who would have ever thought you would describe Tannhäuser as "delightful?" It was delightful in that really witty and then ultimately disturbing way. So you think, "If you use video like that," then if you use it badly or un-thoughtfully or uncarefully, it's not going to be good. Just the way costume use without thought can be distracting and ugly and terrible. The sophistication of video and the sophistication of projections, in that it can be brighter and you can do all of that: that's really changed the game. I don't think, in terms of scenery, you know, the mech revolves and things like that have been around since 1620. But I think lighting and the ability of lighting to move quickly and be brighter and therefore more present is a huge change.
Marc A. Scorca: Is there something you've never been able to do on stage that you still wish you could do?
John Conklin:...or I think needs to be done: closeups.
Marc A. Scorca: Say more.
John Conklin: The two things that have supposedly saved opera: are titles and streaming/HD. I am pessimistically and deeply convinced, that universal use of titles now all around the world and for all languages has, in some essence, destroyed the form. Streaming and HD is trickier because I've always felt that part of the problem of opera, (particularly in the United States) is the size of the houses. So you can't even pretend you have a closeup, which I think is a fatal flaw in the opera house that's bigger than 1,500 seats...1,200 seats maybe? In some sense (in a theater that's bigger than that) you can't do opera, because you can't see it. You can't see somebody's eyes. You can hear them (depending on the acoustics, better or worse) but you can't see them. You can hear what they're doing, but you can't see what they're doing. It's not just that you can't see their blocking or you can't see their expressions, but you can't even see what the expression is in their eyes, which can be different from the expression on them. So there's that. But now the HD has complicated that, because I have trouble watching operas in The Met because I can't see them. I can get the idea. You know if it's Jonas Kaufmann or so on, I get a pretty strong idea. But it is just a kind of general idea. Now the stronger the performer, the stronger the general idea is going to be. But then you see closeups and think, "Oh," but then: what does that mean? You don't have any performances in big houses? Yes: that would be good, but that (I guess) is not going to happen. I had a friend who watched HD broadcasts all the time and she lived in Milwaukee. She would come to New York for a trip and we would go to The Met. And the last time we went she said, "You know, I can't see anything. I have no sense that I'm in it, because I can't see anything. All I can see is this thing that's sort of that big with people moving around."
Marc A. Scorca: Do you have a sense of what closeups would look like?
John Conklin: Well, I suppose my question is: "Should there ever be performances on stage?" Then, what do you do with the acoustic? What do you do with the acoustic and what do you do with this sensation of being in an opera house with people? I mean, I remember I was sitting way on the side for Parsifal, the first time it was in the house at The Met. And I remember because (so I could sort of look: ...the stage was here and the house was here) ...so I was almost looking more at the house, than I was looking at the stage. But you have the sense you could turn away from the stage and you could look at these 4,000 people totally silent and totally compelled. I thought: "Well, that's like really interesting." And then when we took the class to The Met, we got the cheap seats way up in the top, which I hadn't sat in for a long time. And you know, when the stage was that big, just as I expected and the sound was so utterly amazing. So I thought, "Now wait a minute; now I don't know what to do. What am I supposed to do here? I can't put this together."
Marc A. Scorca: Well, I think the thing to do is to keep asking the question.
John Conklin: There is something so compelling about...because again, you can see the performance. You just get back to the performance and you see the specificity. Even in the Tannhäuser which is interesting: it's a conceptual idea, God knows. And it's a quite spectacular (in a way) mise-en-scène and the spectacular use of these videos. And yet then the closeups of these people, and it's Lise Davidsen (who is a remarkable artist) and Stephen Gould, who does Tannhäuser. The intensity with which he does, particularly his whole thing where he's made up as a clown in the whole first scene - you simply wouldn't get that if you were even in the house. You just wouldn't get it. You would get something else equally valuable or slightly less valuable or more...I don't know what. But you would not get the intensity, because you could see his eyes and you could see his pain and his humiliation, and you could see it through the makeup because you were close enough to see through the makeup, which was quite extensively clownish. I don't know, I guess you do what I do, which is to have everything. Sit upstairs; sit downstairs; go to The Met; look at streaming; buy DVDs. But that's my solution. I don't know for people who were doing it, because I'm not really doing it anymore. I can just sit back and observe how interesting all of these problems are, but I don't have to do it for people. It's just the performer who's been betrayed by titles; who's been betrayed by the size of houses; who's been betrayed by the lack of rehearsal time; who's been betrayed by the force of glamour and prizes, and critics. That's all betraying them. Taken away their power. That's what we have left. That's all that's there. They, infused with the power of Mozart or Handel.
Marc A. Scorca: Oh, John, I am so grateful for your time today. As you know, I'm always mesmerized by being allowed into your thought world and I'm just really glad to be able to capture this piece of our ongoing conversation.