Designer  John  Conklin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Being a musician all my life, my obsessions revolve around sounds.  How they are produced and what impressions they make are of supreme importance to me.  Abstract music
— such as symphonies, concerti, chamber music, etc. — is first and foremost.  However, even at an early age, I very much enjoyed opera.  I studied it and attended performances as often as possible.  Recordings, which in those days were purely audio, brought standard works and rare repertoire into my home, and I quickly learned that voices could produce pretty much the same artistry as instruments.  At least some voices could! 

When I attended live performances at Lyric Opera of Chicago, the vocal talent could be counted on to be first class and the orchestra supported them in splendid fashion.  The direction of the movements onstage were generally convincing, but my attention was on the sound rather than the sight.  The scenery varied from painted flats to elaborate sets; in other words, some were old fuddy-duddies and others were brilliant and up to date.  Slowly, these backdrops-for-singers became more and more important to me, and I valued the artistry and ingenuity they brought to the productions.  It was not until much later that I began to appreciate the people who conceived the productions.  My visual education was trying to keep up with my aural enjoyment.

Skip ahead many years to when I worked at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  By then, I understood that it took more than just great voices to do justice to opera.  So I included directors and other backstage personnel in my various series, and once in awhile I managed to snare a designer for a chat.  What you are about to read is one of those few conversations with the man behind the scenery, the one who conceives the stage picture and executes the visual settings.

John Conklin had a brilliant reputation in both theater and opera before coming to Chicago, and his settings for Wagner
’s Ring were suggestive as well as literal.  Various scenes had neon lights and others had mountains and caves.  Upon reflection, it seems a balance had been struck between the representational and the suggestive; just the thing for a Wagner series to be seen over four years and later in one week.

To look at a few of the stage-settings designed by John Conklin, do a Google® search of his name and click on
“images.”   More details of his career are listed in the box at the end of this interview.

It was in January of 1995 that I had the chance to speak with Conklin.  A large, burly, bearded guy, his speaking voice was gentle but firm as he outlined his visions and ideas.  He responded to my inquiries and aticulated his point of view, often contrary to what one would expect.  I played sections on the air to promote various performances of his productions, and now I
’m very pleased to be able to present it all on this website.       


Bruce Duffie:    Is it safe to assume that after the director is selected, you are the first one to get involved in the production of an opera?

John Conklin:    Yes, I think it usually happens that way.  I suppose there are some cases where the designer is chosen first, but mainly it’s somebody that the director wants to work with — or has worked with and has some sort of relationship with.

BD:    How much lead time are you given, and is it enough?

JC:    Well, it varies tremendously.  Sometimes it’s very quick because productions can be put together fast.  One always assumes that opera is planned long in advance, and to a certain extent it is. 

BD:    We know that the singers are booked two, three or even four years in advance.

JC:    Right, but that is not so much true for directors and designers, although it is true sometimes.  But once in awhile you get a very short time to work.  One of the problems I’ve found is that often directors, even though they’re chosen and know they’re going to do a certain piece in two years, don’t really want to talk about it; or they can’t, you know, because they just feel like, “Oh, well, I’m going to be doing it in two years.  Why do I really need to make all these decisions now?”  Whereas, as a designer, you have to get those decisions made because you have to get the show drafted up and designed, and into the shops and built long before the director has to start rehearsals.  So sometimes it seems as though you have a lot of lead time, but somehow it all gets eaten away.

BD:    Well, you have lead time but your deadline is so much earlier.

JC:    Earlier.  And also, it just is a lot of problem, sometimes, to get the director to focus, to concentrate on a particular piece.  On the other hand, sometimes when you seemingly have very little time, you just do it and it gets done.

BD:    It all comes together immediately?

JC:    It all comes together relatively quickly.  Of course it varies with designers.  Sometimes designers like to have a long time to work on things and mull them over and do things.  I don’t, particularly; I like that, but I don’t particularly work that way.  I tend to work quickly so that a short time doesn’t bother me.  Some designers really can’t function that way.

BD:    I assume you’re given the option of accepting each opera or not designing it.  How do you decide yes or no?

conklinJC:    It depends; there’s a whole series of factors including the piece itself, if it’s something I’m interested in doing, or haven’t done and am interested in doing it.  If I have done before, am I interested in re-exploring it in a different situation with a different director?  Perhaps it’s a piece I’m not interested in, or it’s a piece I’m not particularly interested in but I like working with the director.  That has happened because often I have not responded to pieces, but I worked with a director that I liked very much and he or she leads me into the piece.  Then I discover things that I didn’t know were there.  Sometimes it’s the organization.  If it
’s an organization that I have a tie with or feel connected to, I will work there almost as a matter of course no matter what the piece is.  Of course the trickiest ones are new operas where you just have to go on your instinct, or rely on who the director is.  You very seldom can hear the new piece.  An exception was when I did Ghosts of Versailles at the Met.  They spent an enormous amount of money preparing a tape of the whole opera, with the orchestra parts all done by synthesizer and the full cast singing it.

BD:    The right cast?

JC:    Not the right cast, but a good cast; a full cast of good singers.  So it was basically like you heard a recording of the piece before it had ever been done.  I’ve never had that clear an experience except for that case.

BD:    Is that the wave of the future, or is it an isolated incident?

JC:    I think it’s an isolated incident because it was so expensive!

BD:    Did it help that it was going to more than one theater?

JC:    I don’t think so.  I think it helped that it was the Met.  They could afford to do it, and they were doing it primarily for the singers, to help them learn the parts.  It was not so much for the designers and the director, although it was, of course, an enormous help.

BD:    You just were able to partake of the extra utility.

JC:    Well yes because what you usually get, at best, is somebody playing the piano
usually the composer playing it not particularly well and sort of singing.  So you get no sense of what the piece is at all!  You don’t get any sense of the orchestral color or tone of it, and it’s very deceiving.  It’s very strange that we do this, that directors and designers try to do new pieces without knowing what they’re going to sound like until you go to the first orchestra rehearsal!

BD:    This was going to be one of my original questions:  how much does the purely visual get influenced by the purely aural?

JC:    In some way I think it does a lot.  I think a lot of it is unconscious, or not direct, and cannot be directly described.  But one of the reasons I like doing opera so much is that you can — except the new pieces — just sort of sit back and listen to it and let the music go into one’s unconscious and pull up images.  I think that’s a very strong part of designing opera.  So when that is taken away, it’s a big drawback.  You sort of hear the opera and you also feel its mood, and that calls up images.  But you also feel the changes and what development the music goes through in the course of the opera, which then can be reflected in what the scenery does and the movement of the scenery if there is that in the piece.  So it’s a very powerful force.  I teach at New York University, and often when I give an opera to the students to design, I tell them to listen to it — get a libretto, cross out all the stage directions and all of the set descriptions, and just listen to the music and the words.

BD:    Even directions that have been put in by the composer?

JC:    Even directions that have been put in by the composer.  One thinks one has to honor what the composer has put in, but I’m not so sure.  Interestingly, working with living composers, I tend to distrust what they say they want.  So I tend not to listen to them, which leads to some conflict.

BD:    Why do you distrust them?

JC:    Because the better the piece, the less the composer knows what he’s done.  I think what they’ve done on an unconscious level is often much more interesting than what they think they have done.  And often they are not that experienced theatrically, so they tend to be very literal.  It’s very strange.

BD:    Would it be better for them just to give you a few ideas in the abstract?

JC:    It would be better for them just to give us the piece.  Give us the music and the words.  An interesting sort of case in point, almost a sort of laboratory experiment of this, was a production that Mark Lamos and I did in Sweden of Dominick Argento’s The Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe.  Strangely enough, I’ve designed two productions of it:  one here in Chicago with Frank Galati, and several years earlier this one with Mark.  Basically we ignored everything that Dominick had written as to what happened in the opera
in terms of the ship arrives and it opens up and these people come out.  We didn’t consult with him.  This was being done in Sweden, so he wasn’t there.

BD:    Did he show up for the premiere?

JC:    He turned up for the dress rehearsal, and I thought, “Oh, God, no!  What is he going to say?”  As I said, we ignored this and we didn’t see him; he came in and he was sitting up in a box watching this.  Then afterwards we met him and he said, “You know, I learned more about myself and this piece from watching this production than from any other production of any of my pieces,” and I thought this is a very good validation of that way of doing a new piece.  He was already operating on a sort of slightly dream-like thing, and we went even further into that.  I think that the job of the singers and the director and the designer is to go beneath the literal surface as the composer has.  The very fact that it’s an opera means that it is unliteral.  I mean, what are those eighty people down there doing?  What are they, literally?  What is that noise that they’re producing, literally?  It has no literal meaning in some cases.

BD:    It’s going from the composer’s heart directly to the audience’s heart through you?

JC:    Partially.  Partially.  But it is a kind of unconscious, unliteral world.

BD:    Are you a filter or an amplifier?

JC:    Well, that’s an interesting question.  It’s an interesting way of putting it.  I would say neither, but then I can’t quite think of the word that would describe it.

BD:    A third choice would be fine.

JC:    But I can’t think of that word!  As a way of answering it, one of the reasons that I like to work with not such literal images is that I want to give the audience freedom to make up and assimilate these images in their way, in their context, through their experiences.  I think part of the problem with a lot of productions that are not literal, that are not illustrative or narrative, is that the audiences feel that there’s some sort of puzzle that has been posed by the designer and the director, the answer to which they need to come up with.  And if they’re not “smart enough” to come up with it, they have failed.

BD:    This is an erroneous assumption?

JC:    It’s not entirely erroneous because sometimes directors and designers do that.  But for me it’s an erroneous assumption, and I hope and pray that audiences don’t feel that.  I don’t know how to diffuse that because everything, in a certain way, is forcing them to this thing.  People have a sense that things mean one thing and that there is a meaning to a piece, a meaning to an image, and they’re looking for an answer
— which I think is a quite crippling problem!

BD:    Are you presenting your answer, or is it just your answer for this time?

JC:    We’re presenting something that means something to us
the designer and the director and the actorsand is set forth on stage through our conviction that it means something.  But as soon as it’s presented there, then we have no control over it; we have no stake in it... well, we have a stake in it but we have no control over it!  I think that what is being presented is energy, not a specific image or a specific meaning, but simply energy — like the energy of the music!  It is analogous to the music because the music doesn’t mean anything.  I know that people are continually arguing about this.

BD:    I assume it should support the drama.

JC:    Yes, but even with Wagner and this whole business of leitmotivs, and this-means-this and this-represents-this...  He was against all that and you can’t label it.  I mean, this theme does not mean love or redemption through love, or the curse, or something else.  As soon as you start doing that, it’s like illustrating it, and you don’t want to do that because it cuts the audience.  Then they think, “Oh, I hear this and I should be thinking of the curse.”  I know Wagner didn’t want that; he wanted something much more complicated.  And when we want to know the meaning, when we want to know the answers, it simplifies things.

BD:    Is it not a meaning, but more like a signpost on the road?

JC:    It assumes a kind of meaning and it assumes a direction, like a signpost.  I think that the whole experience is both.  It needs to be, in a certain sense, vaguer than that, and in a certain sense much more personal and therefore much more specific.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re designing a piece, do you take into account all of these preconceived reactions the audience is going to have, or do you just do what you have to do?

JC:    Mostly I just do what you have to do because if you ask yourself, “Is the audience going to understand this?
or, “Is the audience going to get this?” then you start to wonder, What does that mean?” and Who is the audience? 

BD:    In a thirty-six hundred seat house, do you have thirty-six hundred audiences?

JC:    Yes, yeah.  And I think that you’re not being coercive.  People just think that they are being coerced, and I think it’s just because they don’t feel free enough.  They always want to know.  People are always saying, “Well, what does it mean?  What did you mean by this?”  And of course I always say, “What did it mean to you?”  I remember somebody asking me when, we did Rheingold, “What do all those colored bands mean?”  And I said, “Well, what did they mean to you?”  She replied, “I thought it was like the rainbow had all broken up into these things.”  So I said, “That is a great answer.  It never occurred to me that that was the reason for doing this, but it is a great explanation.”  It was just her explanation, and I didn’t tell her what mine was because mine’s not interesting.  It shouldn’t be interesting to her.  Her reaction was what was interesting.  For a series of complicated reasons, I think audiences feel rather disenfranchised.  They should be forced into feeling that they can make those decisions.  Not only can they, they must!  It’s not that they’re lazy, but I think audiences are blamed for more than they should be.

BD:    Are they more inhibited than they should be?

JC:    They’re more inhibited.

BD:    Are you, then, part shrink?

JC:    No — well, only in the fact that I love hearing people talk about what they have seen, that I have done, and what it means to them.  I never think that they’re wrong, even though it might be diametrically opposed to what I “meant.”  I realize that what I mean has no validity.

BD:    So you mean to stimulate them?

JC:    I mean to stimulate them.  I need to create an energy field in which their minds and emotions, in combination with Wagner’s or Mozart’s or whoever’s, and the specific energy of the performer and conductor, creates an energy field.  Then the meanings can fly in all directions.  In a work of art, I just don’t think that things like Götterdämmerung, or even something as seemingly specific as Guernica, I don’t think you can really say what it means.  As soon as you say what it means, it limits it.  It is not just anti-war; it partakes of all things, but it isn’t any of them.

BD:    Is this what makes the work great, that it transcends?

JC:    I think that.  One of my definitions is that the greater the level of ambiguity, the greater the work of art.  The more complicated and ambiguous it is
unless it’s just sloppy ambiguity or unthinking ambiguity — the better.

BD:    Is there such a thing as purposeful ambiguity?

JC:    Well, yes, because I do that!  [Both laugh]  I don’t consider that ambiguity is productive of confusion
although it is, sometimes — but I see it more as productive of freedom.  The audience member has the freedom to sort it out, and it means that the audience member, as I’m sure Wagner and to a certain extent Mozart would have agreed — certainly Wagner would have agreed — they have to work!  It isn’t a passive experience.  It isn’t just letting the wash of sound sweep one away.  That’s why Wagner is so tricky, because he does do that, but I think he would be appalled to find out that that was the result.  Although it’s complicated because he works, to a certain level, on the principle of hypnosis, which is a kind of manipulative thing.  But it’s a manipulative thing in order to free the unconscious.  He’s a very complicated artist to deal with, but I think that audiences are a bit passive.  I think we’re all a bit passive, in terms of sitting in the theater where it’s dark and the lights go down and this wash of music comes over and we see these beautiful costumes and sets.  It’s sort of culinary art, as Walter Felsenstein calls it.  It’s like a nice meal, like a wonderful meal, a great dessert.  But you have to work at it, and that’s the excitement of it, I think.  It’s not a matter of education or training, or any of this business.

BD:    Like the old cliché, the more the audience puts into it, the more the audience will take away from it?

JC:    Absolutely.  I think that is true, but particularly in opera it’s been confused with a sort of intellectualism or elitism; kind of doing your homework.  I just think that is putting everything so much in the wrong direction that no wonder audiences get either sort of turned off by opera, or simply want to revel in its sensuousness.

BD:    Are you saying they should do more homework, or that they should just come more open?

JC:    They should come more open.  And the people that are doing opera should not expect their audiences to be scholars.  They should treat them in a real way.  That’s the whole question of opera in English, and surtitles, and opera in the original language, and all that.

BD:    Before we get into all that, let
’s explore this just a tiny bit more.  You, obviously, are not trying to clobber the audience over the head with your own agenda.

JC:    No.

BD:    But there are some designers and directors who do that.

JC:    Well, yes; and there are lots of people who accuse me of doing that.  But it’s interesting, because students also do this.  They say, “Well, I don’t know; I don’t really want to clobber the audience over the head with this.”  And I ask, “What is this?  What are you clobbering them over the head with?”

BD:    The message?

JC:    Their message!  But it’s visual; it’s not written out.  That’s why I don’t think that designers and directors should ever write program notes... or, give interviews!  [Both laugh]  They should never explain what they’re doing!  But even in productions that seem as though somebody is clobbering you over the head, I think the reason that people think that is because that’s what they think it’s about.  I have a specific example which was not an opera, but was a production of Peer Gynt that I did in Hartford with Mark Lamos.

BD:    With the Grieg music?

JC:    No.  Without the Grieg music; just the play.  It did have some strange incidental collage music, but the main visual core of the play was that it all took place in a sort of playroom.  You saw toys and then big toys, and this kind of youthful world kept coming back.  So that was clobbering the audience over the head with an idea.  But what was the idea?  One interpretation is that Peer Gynt never grows up; he always remains in this infantile state of the nursery, and that is why he cannot relate to anything.  When he moves out of his world into the big world, he can’t relate and he sees everything in terms of the nursery
and distortions of the nurseryand his mother.  He can’t cope, and that’s why he’s a failure.  On the other hand, as some people did, you could also interpret it as the reason that he fails is that he doesn’t keep his nursery.  He doesn’t keep his child self; he becomes a grownup and loses all of the instinctive innocence of childhood and becomes sort of cynical, and these images of childhood that come back are haunting him and are ironic.  So you get two meanings that are diametrically opposed depending on how you feel about childhood and the inner child, and all that business.  It only looks like you’re being clobbered over the head with the meaning because that’s the meaning you get out of it.  It looks as though they’re saying that very strongly, but that is not necessarily the case because the person next to you is gettingout of exactly the same series of imagesa diametrically opposed result with their own interpretation.  They are also saying, “What they’re doing really is kind of obvious.”

BD:    Then would the greatest praise for you be to have thirty-six hundred people, each with their own ideas, say that you designed that production just for me?

JC:    Absolutely!  And that’s just what I did do!  I didn’t design it with them in mind
in that sensebut I designed it completely personally and completely internally, not objectively.  Then I give it to them and say, “Okay, now it’s yours.”  Mainly because it doesn’t have text to it, I remember another case where there was in audience discussion of a production of Pericles.  It had all these yellow rocking chairs, which were obviously a very strong symbol.  Afterwards we had a discussion, and of course the first question was, “What did you mean by all those yellow rocking chairs?  What did those mean?”  I said, “Well, what did they mean to you?”  A wild discussion broke out in the audience.  Some said, “I thought rocking chairs represent home and things, but they were painted this yellow, which is the color of danger.”  Other people said, “No, no, no, no!  Yellow is the color of the sunlight and buttercups.  It’s the most soothing thing!”  Other people would say, “Rocking chairs are the symbol of comfort and stability,” and still others said, “Not stability!  They rock back and forth!”

BD:    So you succeeded!

JC:    I say, “That’s what they mean.  That’s what they mean.  Don’t ask me.  You know what they mean.”

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now all of these ideas come to you from the score and the text.  How much input does the director have in guiding your hand and your ideas?

JC:    Oh, a lot.  It varies tremendously, but a lot because it’s really a symbiotic relationship between the two of us, and the other designers if I’m not doing costumes or the lighting, as well as the choreographer and conductor.  And one would wish the singers and actors had more input, but it doesn’t happen often just because of the time restriction.  But they should be part of it.

BD:    So it’s better if the singers meet you?

JC:    Oh, yeah, it would be great.  It never happens, but you discuss it.  You find out how Eva Marton feels about Brünnhilde and Brünnhilde’s rock, and what does she think it should be?

BD:    Before you design it?

JC:    Yeah, before I design it.  So that it is a kind of synthesis.  In a good production, you end up with things and you can’t remember whose idea was which because that doesn’t mean anything.

BD:    Does it help you at all to design a work and have it done, and then while it’s being produced, talk with the people so that the next time you do this work those ideas can come in?

JC:    It does.  And it certainly does in terms of just looking at it and seeing what things “work” or don’t work, and have a chance to redo them or rethink them or reshape them.  [Pauses a moment]  When I say that they don’t work, that’s not a phrase I like very much, but it’s hard to think of other ones.  They don’t produce energy, so we
re back to that again.  It’s not that they don’t produce meaning, but that they don’t produce energy.  Meaning is not important.  Sometimes things are just flat or dull, and that’s what I think people mean by productions that fail.  It’s not that they’re misconceived, but people say that.  I think they just simply don’t produce enough energy to sweep people along.

BD:    Is it safe to say, in terms of other directors and designers, that if something doesn’t succeed, they haven’t conceived enough?

JC:    It’s very hard to say because it’s so hard to say why even productions that you’ve worked on sometimes don’t work.  Sometimes you know, but sometimes you just think it’s just that it’s so fragile!  And it’s so dependent on the performers, because there is no such thing as a production that succeeds just because of the scenery or the visual or the direction.  I don’t think you can do that.  You can intellectually figure it out, but it’s the performance, the event that’s happening in the pit and on the stage that is going to make the scenery and the direction work.  You are completely dependent on that, and sometimes you are betrayed.  That’s a hard word to use, but I have felt, sometimes, that all of our work was thrown away because the singers or the conductor, for whatever reason, did not perform with the requisite intensity, and the whole thing just falls apart, like a soufflé. 

BD:    So it’s not the ingredients, it’s the way they’re put together?

JC:    And the way they interact will just push it up or just let it fall plunk, flat.  When people say, “Oh, I love the scenery,” I think, “No, I don’t want to hear that.  That’s of no interest at all.”

BD:    Does it please you that these days the scenic design and the stage direction are getting to be talked about as much as the singers’ voices?

JC:    At the risk of seeming arrogant, yes, I do.  But it’s a two-edged sword.  I think that the power of the director and the designer has been abused by directors and designers, just the way the power of opera performing has been abused by performers and conductors.

BD:    So it’s now your turn?  [Both laugh]

JC:    Yeah, right.  Now we get to misbehave, or we get to have the power to misbehave.  So sure, that happens.  That does happen.  People abuse because being in the theater is being very powerful.  Being a director, a designer, a singer or a conductor is a very powerful position.

BD:    I assume you don’t start out to be abusive?

JC:    No, but I bet some directors and designers and singers do!  Well, I know they do, because I worked with them.  It’s a place for neurotic people.  It’s a place where neurotic people can both exist and exert a lot of neurotic control.

BD:    Then do you make sure not to work with that particular director again?

JC:    I certainly try, yes.  One finally sort of gathers within a group of people that you work well with.  Although, I like working with new people all the time, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.  It’s a very tricky thing, but you just have to think, “Okay, yeah.”  And even people that are very good sometimes fail.  You can’t do it all the time; it doesn’t work.  You have to go on to do the next thing!  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is there too much pressure from the audience that every show must be a masterpiece for the ages?

JC:    I don’t think so.  I don’t even think that we put too much pressure on ourselves in wanting everything we do to be wonderful.  You have to have that!  What you just need to have, when it isn’t, is not to go completely to pieces, and hope the audience doesn’t go completely to pieces either.  [Wistfully]  And also that the critics don’t go completely to pieces, and the board of directors doesn’t go completely to pieces...

BD:    The audience has maybe lost the night, but the board of directors has then lost whatever money they put into the production.

JC:    But, that’s theater.  That is what happens in the theater!  If it was a sure thing, if everybody knew it was always going to be a hit, it would always be a hit, and it just isn’t.  Even the best people in the world with the best “track record,” can do terrible work sometimes!  That just happens! [Both laugh]  That’s life, and it particularly is the theater.  It’s too fragile a thing and I wish that people understood that more.  Sometimes I get very, very annoyed at critics — not that they dislike something, or that they give a bad review
but they simply dismiss the person who has done that and who has done a lot of good work.  This production may be a failure, but they dismiss them as though it’s just a pile of garbage.  That, to me, seems extremely arrogant and unnecessary.

BD:    [Mockingly snide]  So, what have you done for me lately?

JC:    Yeah.  It just seems completely the wrong way to deal with that kind of work...  Not that you have to praise them, but you should set it in some sort of context.

BD:    Then maybe look forward to the next thing, which may not be a failure?

JC:    Yeah, or just discuss why it was a failure in a respectful way; not kowtowing to them, but not just dismissing them as somebody who has done no good work.  That happens so often.

BD:    If there is some good criticism, do you take it to heart and work with those ideas?

JC:    Well, I would if I ever felt it was any really good criticism! [Both laugh]  That is probably something I should not be saying, but I don’t think the level of criticism is very useful to anybody at the moment.  So I try just not to pay much attention to it because I don’t get much out of it.  I think the critics exacerbate the problem with the audiences, because they present the idea that there is a meaning.  This is what this production meant; this is what the director and designer meant.

BD:    They should add two more words:  this is what the production meant to me.

JC:    Yes, to me; they should always say that, but they don’t!

BD:    So are the real critics are the other thirty-five hundred ninety-nine people in the audience?

JC:    I think so, yes.  People are so dependent on critics. I even think that the theater and opera would improve measurably if everybody’s husband or wife did not turn to them at the intermission and say, “Well, what do you think?” because suddenly you have to have an opinion!  You have to verbalize, and you say, “Oh, well I loved it!” or, “Oh, I think it’s terrible,” but that’s just meaningless!  They’re much more complicated.  Sometimes it can be dismissed as that, but then they’re put in the position of being sort of smart, or wondering did they get it?  If everybody could just absorb it in the complicated way in which art should be absorbed, and didn’t have to talk about it or sum it up in a sentence
or sum it up in six paragraphs in a newspaperI think it would be much better all around.

BD:    So you would like everyone to leave the theater with a rosy glow, or perhaps be very downcast?

JC:    Or just thoughtful.  Just thoughtful...  possibly a rosy glow, possibly upset, possibly angry, possibly bored.

BD:    Are you trying to get the energy from the stage into the audience, and leave them with the energy?

JC:    Oh, yeah.  It’s great when the energy ends up in the heart or in the head.  That’s where the performance takes place.  The performance is not taking place on the stage.  That’s the scenery.  Even during the performance when the voice or the orchestra isn’t there, it’s happening in the heart.  It’s just a series of things that stimulate.  Great stimulus or mediocre stimulus, but that’s what Norman Rockwell and Goya are
both stimulate just that way.  But to me, the event is all in the heart.  The objective presence of the singer or the scenery or the direction doesn’t exist in some strange way.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you at the point in your career that you expect to be right now?

JC:    Yeah, I guess.  [Pauses for a moment]  I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently; that’s why I was sort of pausing.  I say to myself, “Well, this is amazing!  How did I end up here?”  I always wanted to be a designer since I was really a little boy.  Then I think here I am, yeah!  [Laughs]  I’m designing at the Met and Chicago, so I think I am.  Of course the next obvious consequence of that is thinking, “And what else should I be doing?”  That’s why I’m considering some other options, other directions within the same field.

BD:    Are you going into directing?

JC:    I did that a little bit, just in a very limited way, and I don’t think so.  I was interested in that but I don’t know; that wasn’t as satisfying as I had thought, and I’m a little bit suspicious of the root of designers becoming directors.

BD:    Are you equally suspicious of directors becoming designers?

JC:    No.  That doesn’t happen so often, but maybe I would be if it happened more often.  The other way happens quite often
designers become directors and simply use the actors as scenery.  They move them around in beautiful ways and they create great pictures, but they don’t know how to get at the energy of the singer or actor.  A director needs to know how to do that.   It isn’t simply telling them where to move; it isn’t even just talking to them about their characterwhich directors and designers can do.  It’s knowing how to psychologically release them, and that is a huge life experience and theater experience that designers don’t have!  I think it’s a kind of arrogance that designers have when they say, “Oh, you know, I can do this.”  Sometimes they can; there are a lot of bad directors!

BD:    Are you not absorbing some of this just through experience?

JC:    Yes, I think you are, but it’s the experience of sitting in rehearsals which designers don’t do.  A lot of times they are at rehearsals
— I try to be and it’s good if they areThey can really contribute, but it’s not the same thing as being there confronting the actor or the singer, and having to not just to block it and not just stage it, but to really work it in.  I really do have a problem with that.

BD:    When you’re designing a piece, do you have any kind of stage direction in mind?

JC:    Yes, often.  A lot, usually, because it’s a symbiotic thing; just the way the director will have visual ideas, the designer has staging ideas and they need to be tied together.  It’s something I tell my students who are learning stage design, that the way to design is to design action, not stuff; not décor, not scenery, not illustrative things, but what is happening here and not what does it look like nor even what is the mood that you want to create in which the action happens.  The action will be taken care of by the director and the actors and singers.  Think about what is happening here and then let that spread out.  The scenery is too often just narrative illustration, but I think that’s not its best.  It’s one of its functions, but it’s maybe not even its most important function.

BD:    That’s not enough?

JC:    It’s certainly not enough.  The important function of the visual is not that.  Yes, the action, what’s happening, staging, movement are all crucial and should be considered right from the beginning.  It isn’t even something that you design and then you put that into it.  You start with that and let that determine what it’s sitting in it.

BD:    Might it be a good idea for singers who are just learning their craft, even at the university level, to take a seminar with a designer and a seminar with a director?

JC:    Yes, and more then a seminar.  They should take years of work.  They really should.  I think that singers are, to a large extent, badly trained in this country, because the emphasis is so much on the music and not on acting and movement
which you would think would be.  Really not even so much on that, but certainly on the larger pictureabout what a theater event or an opera event is, and how it calls upon all of these various functions.  And it would be great if singers would get involved with it.  They shouldn’t just take seminars with designers and directors; they should take design classes and design sets!  They should direct scenes and participate in the whole gestalt because that’s where it happens.

BD:    [With mock astonishment]  You mean you want them to be total performers???

JC:    Mm-hm!  [Both laugh]  And amazingly enough, the good ones always have been!  I’ve had some experiences with music students and young singers, and I don’t blame them, although sometimes I get very, very angry at them.  They seem to be very limited in their vision:  “What’s my part?  What’s my blocking?  What’s my music?  Can I see the conductor?  And, am I going to get a good review?”  That’s it.

BD:    It’s very narrow!

JC:    It’s very narrow, and I think opera suffers hugely from that.  I don’t know whether it’s getting worse; it certainly is not getting any better.  Perhaps I’m getting more and more cynical, but sometimes I really despair about those young singers.  They’re twenty or twenty-two or twenty-five
just starting out in their careerand it’s like they’re forty-five!  They lament, “Oh I don’t really have to do that, do I?  Oh, I can’t sing doing that!  I don’t care what he’s saying.  Don’t bother with this whole stuff; just give me my blocking.”

BD:    [A bit worried]  Are you not optimistic about the future of opera?

JC:    No, I’m not!  I’m increasingly un-optimistic.  I’m increasingly pessimistic about it because I feel that it has gotten itself into something of a hole, and is in certain problems that I think are insoluble.  I don’t understand how to solve them except in very, very limited cases.  For one thing, all the theaters in which opera is performed in the United States, with a few exceptions, are too big.

BD:    Well, that’s almost a given.

JC:    But that’s a crippling given.  And it’s so crippling that nobody will deal with it because if you admitted it, you just would close all these opera companies...  which sometimes, I think, might actually not be such a bad idea.

BD:    Is this what Boulez was talking about years ago when he said to blow up all the opera houses?

JC:    Maybe.  I agree with a lot of what Pierre Boulez says, and that’s one instance.  I just think you cannot create opera in big halls.  You could do concerts in big halls and you could do concert operas in big halls.  That would be a different thing, but when you’re trying to create a theatrical moment or energy, you can’t do it!  You could do it for the first few rows
A through F — but the other three thousand people might as well not be there.  

BD:    So what do you do about that? 

JC:    What I do about it is concentrate more and more in working at a place like Glimmerglass, which seats eight hundred people.  It’s a theater space in which you do opera, and it works.  I’m doing something in Norfolk with the Virginia Opera, which is in a small theater, or in Saint Louis.

BD:    Then why do you even consider an invitation from Chicago?

JC:    Well, because it’s the Ring.  Increasingly, though, I’m thinking I’m not going to accept it; I’m not going to do pieces in big places because I can’t do them!  It can’t be done, and it doesn’t interest me much anymore.  The scale of it is great and that is all fine, and sometimes, to a certain extent, it has a reward.  But increasingly to me, it’s not so interesting.  And very much related to this idea is the problem of opera in English, and surtitles.  When surtitles first came in, I thought they were great.  The first time I really worked with them was the Ring in San Francisco.  I thought this is like a whole new revolution, because it was!  But I think that they are so flawed, and they have produced a really terrible result.

BD:    How so?

JC:    First of all, they produce a physiological complexity.  Jonathan Miller was talking about this.  Never, in the history of performance, has an audience member been asked to listen to an abstract sound pattern, listen to a human voice giving text in a language they don’t understand, look at something in a theater, and read.  Surtitles have been presented as though they don’t really count.  It’s not really an event; it’s just a way of making you understand.  But it is an event; it is a physical event.  In the guise of making opera more popular or more available, it’s actually distanced it because it has distanced the performer.  With opera in America, we have singers who are not singing in a language that is their language, and it is not the same thing
unless they are completely bilingual.  It isn’t that they know what they are saying, even though some of them don’t even know that.  They sort of know the story of the opera, but they don’t know what is actually being said right then.  And even if they do, it’s distanced for them.  They can’t summon up the same energy and feeling in a language that is not their own, even if they’re partially dealing with it through the music.  It doesn’t work that way!  And I think audiences then get sort of lazy; it’s passive because they see.  Another problem of surtitles is how much do you translate?  Do you make clear things that the composer didn’t intend to be clear?  The audience will get the jokes ahead of the singers.  All of those things are real problems.  I don’t think are just little flaws in the system; I think they’re indicative of a huge problem.

BD:    And yet the audience goes away much more satisfied, having thought they are much more close to what’s going on on the stage.

JC:    Right, they think so.  I would say that surtitles are better than no surtitles!  But they are not better than opera in English, or in the language of the audience.  Sure, that’s a problem, but I think it’s the best problem to deal with.

BD:    I see!

JC:    Opera in the original language, with no surtitles, is a kind of dementia.  I sat through the first act of Meistersinger at the Met, and I know that work quite well.  I’ve never designed it, but I know it quite well.  I sat there and I thought I sort of know what’s going on, right?  But here was this hour and twenty minutes worth of dialogue, sung by men so that you could understand every word, and here are four thousand people not understanding a word.  I just wanted to stand up in the middle of it and say, [claps his hands] “Stop, everybody!  Let’s just go home!”  If Wagner came in and saw what was going on, he would say, “Stop, stop.  Everybody go home.  I wrote this so you could understand what they were saying!”  Here are four thousand people paying eighty-five dollars a ticket to listen to this comedy that they can’t understand!

BD:    So they’re getting just the music and nothing more?

JC:    And nothing more!  I just thought this is insane!  How could anybody do this?  If it had had surtitles, at least you would have had an argument to knowledge.  You would have been able to deal with it.  In Sante Fe, they do The Barber of Seville in Italian with all that recitative!

BD:    With an American cast?

JC:    With an American cast.

BD:    With a European cast it’s one thing, but with an American cast...

JC:    This is crazy!  I mean, this is really crazy.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You say opera has dug itself a hole.  Should we try to pull it out of the hole, or should we just cover it up and invent something new?

JC:    Well, part of me says let’s do that.  I think new operas are, to a large extent, are a mess.  I don’t think anybody quite knows.  I do think that John Adams and Philip Glass are at least trying something, and they’re thinking about the problem, and taking, sometimes, faltering steps.  But they’re thinking about what an opera is.  Most of the other operas are just written as though the last opera written was Turandot.  Nobody’s thinking about why, or how to do it.  They all want to do operas; they all want to write operas.  They want to have operas done!

BD:    So we need another big reformer like Gluck?

JC:    Yeah, I think so.  Or we need the whole system to collapse.

BD:    As it starts to collapse, are you going to help to pull it down?

JC:    No, I’ll just let it collapse and then I’ll wait.  I think the theater is in much the same place, because I work about half in the theater and half in opera.  Theater is in sort of the same mess for other reasons.  Sometimes in my more apocalyptic moments, I keep thinking that if it all just collapsed right now — if all the theaters and opera houses closed and there was nothing — then, like Europe after the war, out of the ruins would creep the people who had to do it and the people who have to see it.  They would do things as they did in Hamburg or Munich or wherever.  Two days after the surrender, they hauled their instruments up and they were doing The Barber of Seville on the ruined stage of Munich, with two chairs and these broken instruments.  They had to do that!  But all of that is lost, I think.  Now it’s become big bureaucracies, big producing organizations, big social mechanisms, big prestige things, grants, and all this.  It just doesn’t have an impetus to it; it doesn’t have any passion.

BD:    Is television part of the problem, or part of the solution, or a nonentity in what we’re talking about?

JC:    I think television is a nonentity.  I don’t know that, but at least in my way of thinking, it neither helps nor hinders.  It doesn’t make the problem worse; perhaps it reflects more of the problem.

BD:    Can it be like a substitute theater, so we can get rid of all the theaters but then bring the theater into everybody’s living room?

JC:    Well no, because then you do lose the live event.  Even though it’s Live from Lincoln Center, it never is actually live from Lincoln Center.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Live Yesterday
— or Live Last Month From Lincoln Center.

JC:    Live yesterday.  [Chuckling]  Now wait a minute!  Come on, guys.  It just isn’t the same event.

BD:    But I wonder, with all of this virtual reality and the sitting at home with computers and everything, if we’re not retreating into a different kind of existence in which maybe the theater can transcend into the screen.

JC:    Well, that may be true.  I just have no sympathy for it.  I have no understanding of it and no interest in it, so therefore I have no sympathy for it.  Which isn’t wrong, it’s just me.  I’m not saying that it’s bad or good or what it is, because I’m sure it is something.  It is a medium that people need to explore.  New mediums and things come in and they just add to the vocabulary.  Movies came in and the theater didn’t disappear.  It was just a new thing that used some elements of the theater, and used something else and did something else, and now they both exist.  Television is added to this.  Virtual reality is just another way of dealing with things, but the old things don’t get superseded.  Radio is still here, right?

BD:    I certainly hope so!

JC:    One would think that it would have been superseded, but it hasn’t been.  Everything has its own qualities.  I don’t know.  I guess that I am quite pessimistic.  What I’m thinking about doing is focusing my attention, my energies, on small places where I think that you can do work; a place like Glimmerglass because one of the big problems with opera in the United States is the virtual non-integration of theater and opera.  The theater world and the opera world in the United States are, to all intents and purposes, completely separate.  Occasionally Bob Falls, Frank Galati or Mark Lamos will cross over and do an opera here and there.

BD:    But it sounds like what you really want is to go back to the original idea of community.

JC:    Mm-hm, a community that includes an audience that can be part of the community because it’s a small enough space that they can be part of it.  Not a three thousand or four thousand seat opera house; just where seemingly small events can happen, but where enormous emotional events can happen.  You may be tempted to tear down small theaters
— as has been done even in New York.  You may be completely right economically, but just close it up.  If you can’t run it, close it up, turn the heat off and wait because in ten years you’re going to want it again.  Sure as fate, you’re going to want it!

BD:    Too bad it can’t be disassembled, put in a box and stored, and then reassembled at another time, maybe at another place.

JC:    Yeah.  There’s every reason why you can’t do opera in small spaces, and I understand it.  I swear, I do understand those reasons!  But somehow I think that if you really wanted to change, you could.  I don’t know that people really do want to change all that much.

BD:    Well, as long as opera still goes on and as long as you are working in it, I hope that you will continue to produce superb ideas and thoughts and energy, for us.

JC:    I hope so, too!







John Conklin To Take Home 2008 TDF/Irene Sharaff Award

Legendary designer John Conklin is among the recipients of the 2008 TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards. For his achievements as both a costume and set designer, John Conklin will receive the TDF/Irene Sharaff Awards' special Robert L. B. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Theatrical Design at a ceremony on Friday, March 28, at the Hudson Theatre in New York City.


John Conklin, Winner, Robert L. B. Tobin Lifetime Achievement Award

Conklin first designed on Broadway as scenic and costume designer for Tambourines to Glory (1963). Other Broadway credits include scenic design for The au Pair Man (1973), Lorelei (1974), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof  (1974), costume and scenic design for Rex (1976) and The Bacchae (1980), scenic design for The Philadelphia Story (1980), Awake and Sing (1984), and A Streetcar Named Desire (1988). He was nominated for: a 1974 Tony Award for Best Scenic Design for The Au Pair Man, a 1975 Drama Desk for Outstanding Set Design for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Set Design for the 1992 production of Tis Pity She's a Whore. At the American Repertory Theatre, Conklin has designed costumes for Robert Wilson's Alcestis (1985), sets and costumes for Sweet Table at the Richelieu (1986), sets and costumes for Robert Wilson's production of When We Dead Awaken (1990), sets for Henry IV (parts 1&2) (1993), sets for Henry V (1994), and sets for The Tempest (1995).

Conklin made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1985 when he designed the costumes for Khovanshchina. Other Met credits: scenic design for Semiramide (1990), sets and costumes for The Ghosts of Versailles (1991), and sets for Lucia di Lammermoor (1992), I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (1993), Pelléas et Mélisande (1995), Norma (2001), and Il Pirata (2002). Conklin's extensive Glimmerglass Opera credits include: scenic design for Lizzie Borden (co-produced with New York City Opera - 1996), sets for Of Mice and Men (co-produced with New York City Opera - 1997), set design for Abduction from the Seraglio (1999), set design for Agrippina (2001), set design for Bluebeard (2003), set and costumes for The Good Soldier Schweik (2003), costumes for The Mines of Sulphur (2004), and set design for La Fanciulla del West (2004).

His designs are seen in opera houses, ballet companies, and theatres all over the world, with designs for Lyric Opera of Chicago, Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, The Dallas Opera, Bastille Opera in Paris, the Boston Ballet, Louisville Ballet, the Guthrie Theater, Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center and the Goodman Theatre among many others. Conklin has designed many world premieres in his career, including the 1988 world premiere of Argento's The Aspern Papers with The Dallas Opera and the world premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles at the Metropolitan Opera (1991). In 1989, he was the USITT Award Recipient in Scenic Design and after the 2008 season, Conklin will retire from Glimmerglass Opera where he served as associate artistic director for 18 years.







© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago on January 6, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two weeks later and again the following year to promote performances of his productions at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  The transcription was made and posted on this website early in 2009. 

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.