John Conklin

2011 NEA Opera Honoree
John Conklin

Photo courtesy of Boston Lyric Opera

John Conklin: And I have been very lucky both in theater and in opera to work with a lot of directors who rely on the designer, or at least rely on the power of the design to help them get this experience going. And yes, that is for the designer the crucial element. My fellow designers – I do scenery and sometimes costumes, and sometimes both. But I always work with a lighting designer, and I actually prefer working with a costume designer, too, also as a source of collaborative force and generation. And, I mean, that's one of the great things about theater is that it allows you, or it makes you do work that is better than you are because you have all of these divergent forces, some of which are in somewhat of conflict, or at least in some sort of good tension, that will generate something that is bigger than any one of us.

That was stage designer and 2011 NEA Opera Honoree, John Conklin.

Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation’s great artists to explore how art works, I’m your host, Josephine Reed.

John Conklin is a legendary stage designer. Equally at home with opera and with straight theater. His influence on set design is difficult to exaggerate; he’s considered a conceptual rather than a literal designer. He’s not interested in creating a static painting to be used as a backdrop; his designs are often abstract, sometimes whimsical, always powerful. His set and costume designs are seen in opera houses, theaters and ballet companies around the world. He was Associate Artistic Director for the Glimmerglass Opera for eighteen years. And serves as the artistic advisor for Boston Lyric Opera. John Conklin received a a Lifetime Achievement Award for Theatrical Design from the Theater Development Fund, and is on the faculty of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University.

I spoke with John Conklin  soon after he was announced as a 2011 NEA Opera Honoree. I began our conversation by asking him; what drew him to set design.

John Conklin: Well, I think maybe it was because I couldn't sing. I always wanted to be-- <laughs> if I could be anything, a Verdi baritone. But that was not in the cards. But designing, and of course very early on I was interested in designing opera, although I did theater first, because it seemed to combine everything that I was interested in, which was music, and theater, and painting, and architecture. And so it just was a way to combine all my interests into something that I could do.

Jo Reed: So you loved opera and you loved theater when you were younger, when you were a kid.

John Conklin: Yes. Yeah. I was brought up in quite a household that loved music, and appreciated music. The one-- classical music. The one form of music that they were not-- my mother and father were not so fond of was opera, it turns out. But they indulged me and my interest in opera. And so I used to go to-- they used to take me to the opera and so on, and I bought recordings, and I-- as many people have, I listed to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast faithfully every Saturday afternoon. So from quite an early age opera was a direction that I was interested in.

Jo Reed: You figured out pretty early on that this was the career that you wanted.

John Conklin: Yes. Yeah. I, even in high school I started to design scenery. And then when I went to Yale as an undergraduate they had a very strong drama club as it were, the Dramat. And so I did a lot of work for them, and then I went to a year at the drama school, then I went away, worked for a while, came back to the drama school. But really from my first early days designing scenery was what I seemed to be destined to do.

Jo Reed: Okay. Tell me about the first play that you designed scenery for.

John Conklin: When I went to Yale was when I really focused on theater. And not only the Yale Dramat, the undergraduate theater, but I worked for many years at the Williamstown Summer Theater, which at that point was run by Nikos Psacharopoulos, who was also the-- he taught in the Yale drama school, but he was also the head of the undergraduate theater department, theater club. So I did a lot of work there. And we were-- both Williamstown and the Dramat were-- did really interesting, complex plays. So I was able to start off designing things like Danton's Death, or things like that which was a rare and wonderful opportunity. And Williamstown was-- I went there for many years as an assistant designer, and I would design one show a year. And then I went there as a guest designer for many, many years. And that was the place that with Nikos and with the company that he had there, and the spirit of the place was a real introduction to the joys of theater, the joys of theater as a community, the joys of theater as a working place with a group of dedicated people who are spending quite literally almost all their time in the theater trying to bring forth these events. So it was a very good, tough but good beginning to the idea of theater as a-- well, I guess it's a dedication as a-- it takes an enormous amount of time, and focus, and intensity in order to bring off these pieces. And I was early on introduced to that set of circumstances, and accepted it, and embraced it.

Jo Reed: When you began or fell into this world, this collaborative world of theater, I would imagine that you worked very, very closely with the director.

John Conklin: Yes.

Jo Reed: The director, I imagine, would be chosen first, but I would imagine the designer would have to be chosen pretty soon after the director, because you have a lot of work to do.

John Conklin: Yes. And of course again I'd come back to Nikos, who was the head of Williamstown, and who I worked with at the Dramat, who was an extremely dynamic theatrical director who demanded, in a good way, a lot from his designers. He was very dependent on design, or embraced the power of design as something not just the kind of adjunct to a production, and not just a kind of mood-setting device or an illustration of the piece, but a real integral part of the whole situation on the stage.

Jo Reed: You added opera to your tool bag pretty early on.

John Conklin: Yes. When I was at Yale in graduate school, Wesley Balk-- no, actually I was there as an undergraduate, and Wesley Balk was in the graduate school as a director. And he got a job with the Santa Fe Opera. So I went, and I had worked with him at Yale. And so I went with him to Santa Fe, really right away at the beginning of my professional career doing opera. So from the very beginning it was sort of back and forth. And I wanted it to be back and forth. I didn't want to get stuck, as it were, as only an opera designer or as only a theater designer because I felt those fields were closer together than it perhaps was so recognized in those days. I mean, it's always been true in Europe that directors did both opera-- directors and designers did both opera and theater all the time alternately, and felt comfortable in both worlds. That has not been so true in the United States, I think, to the detriment of perhaps both fields. Theater, spoken theater, can do things that opera can't do, and opera can do things that spoken theater can't do. So you want to have as much range out in front of you as you can.

Jo Reed: When you're designing for opera, John, how is it-- how does it differ from designing from theater? And I mean, even the process of design, I would imagine that as well as working with the director and the lighting designer, you're also listening to this music.

John Conklin: Yes. I mean, that is the great advantage that opera has is that you are able to listen to it. Now of course when you're doing a play you don't often really get a chance to hear it. But with opera, in most cases unless it's a new piece, you are able to listen to it, and listen to it again and again. And since the music, although connected to text, exists in a way outside the text or beside the text, you're listening to a force beyond words which can be a very powerful motivation, or a source of inspiration because it's as though you're sort of listening to the subtext of the piece, or you're listening to the underlying mysterious consciousness of the piece that exists below and above words. And that is of an enormous value. Indeed, it becomes very difficult when you're doing a new piece where you only have the score, or you possibly have the composer at the piano playing the piece either okay or not very well, and singing all the parts. You do not get the feeling of the piece. You can't get the feeling of the color and the range of the piece. And I remember in an extraordinary way, because this is very, very unusual, when I did the "Ghost of Versailles" for the Metropolitan, they have a session where-- with a synthesizer, filling in for the orchestra, and a lot of young singers singing the parts, all the parts, they created a recording of the piece. It was partially done to help the singers learn their parts, but it was of a huge advantage because you got the sense of the quality of the piece, of the musical texture of the piece, which in almost the case of all operas but in certainly in the case of "The Ghost of Versailles" which had a lot of very atmospheric mood-setting music, which one wanted to reflect in the visual world, it was invaluable to hear it before you started to work, not just at the first orchestra rehearsal. And I've done other premiers where I've felt frustrated because I couldn't tap into the intangible kind of mood sounds, textures of an orchestral score.

Jo Reed: John, you're known for conceptual rather than narrative or literal design, do you think that's fair?

John Conklin: I think that's fair. But I think what they're saying and what I'm trying to say is, that I do not think that the function of the visual world, which also includes the blocking and movement of the actors as well as the scenery, and costumes, and lights, necessarily need to mimic or copy, or even add to the narrative surface of the opera. And since in opera you have two narratives going on, one way of looking at it is you have two narratives, you have the text narrative, which is the story and who says what to whom. And then you've got the music, which is a narrative which is overlaid, or accompanying, or even in cases contrasting, set in tension with the narrative. So I'm not sure that it isn't that the visual world is another narrative that  does not necessarily need to literally follow the surface narrative, or illustrate the surface narrative, because it might be illustrating the music, which might be quite-- might be saying something quite different than the surface narrative. And since it's very hard to say what the music is actually saying, because it is-- has neither text nor image, it seems to me that that frees everyone, including the audience, to go on a journey that perhaps might be more complex. Conceptual has come to mean, and certainly in the United States it is still used in this-- in a kind of negative way, that the concept is you are doing-- it comes back to where everybody says-- or not everybody, but people say, "Well, why don't you-- you should just do what the composer says," which sounds perfectly logical on the surface but when you come down to it you think, "What is the composer saying, actually? How do we know what he's saying?"  Because again, he can deal with the text, but then he himself has composed a score which I don't know that he knows what-- everything he's saying. I mean, it seems to me that the great composers, great artists, great painters, in a certain way they don't know what they're doing. They have a surface level in which they feel they are in control, and which they are in control. But then welling up from underneath, or above or wherever, is all of this unconscious, partially-formed inspiration. So and even composers who write a lot, like Wagner, about what they meant in a way, or what they were trying to do, I'm not sure that that's actually valid. Because that to me, even if it's coming from the composer, is limiting things. Whereas the great artists and the great composers, that's why they're great is they have no limits, not even their own limits. They don't even recognize-- they can't even recognize their limits. So I just think that

the-- to just do what the composer said is sort of untenable philosophical position anyway, and it certainly is not to me a theatrically valid position because these works, particularly of the great pieces, spread so fast in every direction that one wants to race along with them and try to capture them as best as one can.

Jo Reed: Well, you said in an interview that what you're interested in is creating an energy that flows rather than having a set design do that rather than mimic a meaning.

John Conklin: Yes, mimic a meaning or a painting. It is not-- the design is not a static picture or static state into which the singers are dumped, and which remains in the background or even in the foreground while the piece goes on. That yes, the sense that-- I mean, the main energy of the piece comes from the orchestra, and the conductor, and from the performers. That is clear. But I think they can be surrounded by what I, yes, what I sort of think of as an energy field, a space of potential energy in which when the singers and the music collide, or rev each other up, the field force around them, the visual force will become ignited, and the whole event will take on the kind of energy and splendor. Now that doesn't happen all the time or even very often, unfortunately, because it's a tricky thing to do, and it's a rare occasion when all these elements kind of do come together, and-- but I think that yes, the scenery and costumes are not passive. They are active ingredients.

Jo Reed: Well, you've also been quite vocal in audiences not being passive, either.

John Conklin: Yes, that is one of my pet concerns, actually because I feel that for whatever reason some audiences are made a bit passive by producing organizations, by opera houses, by critics that opera or theater is perceived as something that is created by these group of people who have apparent talent and apparent expertise, and apparent performance abilities. And so this thing is given to the audience for them to sit back and marvel at, or be entertained by, or whatever. To me that is not exactly how this equation should work, because the performance does not-- to me the performance does not happen onstage, the stimulus happens onstage. And the performance happens in the heart and mind and guts of an audience member. So we are in the job of providing as much stimulus at a very high level of energy and commitment to generate a performance inside each audience member, so that that gives any audience member a freedom to sort of create the performance, and to create the meaning. Now I'm not saying that the people who are creating the stimulus; the conductor, the composer, the orchestra, the singers, the designers that they need to have a meaning that is enveloping them, and forcing them to do this production in this way. But then they produce, or we produce, this thing, and then we give it up. We can't say that this means this. I mean, I don't want to hear, really, what Wagner meant by The Ring, even from him, because he will say something very interesting, I'm sure, and at great length. But I don't really care. What I care about as an audience member is what's going to happen to me, and it's going to happen in a different way to everybody, because everybody is different. Therefore any given stimulus is going to produce a different and personal meaning. The thing that I keep coming back to is an illustration is what's happening in opera programs, program notes in from the director saying what we were doing in this production was da da da da da da, and we are trying to bring out this aspect of the piece, and da da da da is just wrong. I mean, it's just not the way things work. But we the audience get used to being told by quasi experts what things are and what they mean. And when a review turns up the New York Times of course people are going to say, "Well, these people are smart. They're-- they know what they're doing. They're tell me that this is this, and therefore I guess this is this. And if I don't like it, I'm a fool, and I'm wrong."  And that, I think, is becoming more-- in a way becoming more and more prevalent, and is more and more debilitating to everyone.

Jo Reed: This I'm very curious about. When you have an opera, let's say "Carmen," for example, because I know you've designed sets for "Carmen" in different venues; in Houston, and Seattle, in Stockholm, most recently in Boston. Yet these designs are all quite different. Can you just talk about how you re-approach opera?

John Conklin: Well, of course great pieces, and I apologize for the word great, because it is another thing that I think possibly confuses the issue, have a multiplicity of meanings. I think that is one of the best definitions of greatness, that they mean many things, and not as we come back to, not just what the composer said he meant, so that these pieces will demonstrate different meanings in you. Because again, they are not the bearer of an exact meaning, they are a stimulus. When I'm approaching "Carmen" and I approach it with a different director and a different set of collaborators I'm sort of-- we're sort of like an audience in front of "Carmen."  And "Carmen" is being performed, and it is detonating in us a whole series of different emotions and different reactions so that the same stimulus ten years or even three years later with a-- listening to it with a different director, or even just listening to it by myself, will sound like a different piece, because I am a totally different person, and therefore the piece has changed. I mean, this doesn't work with all pieces. But again, because I tend to want to do, and that's one of the reasons I tend to want to do that, to work with "classical" theater or "classical" opera, I mean, or the standard repertory as it were, or the more not-new pieces. Because I find them, for the most part, able to supply an infinite number of events in one's self, to say nothing of a group of other people. I had the rare chance, certainly for an American designer, to design two Ring Cycles, one in San Francisco and one in Chicago. And one of the first things that being faced with a Ring for the first time, you're sort of facing this thing. And I think one of the first realizations that I have was you're never going to be able to do everything. You can't worry about that. You need to do what stimulates you. I think that people get very wrought up about productions of pieces that seem to be violating the composer's intentions, say. I mean, this whole business, which I find quite fascinating and is this "Porgy and Bess" in Boston that Diane Paulus is doing, in which they have gone into the piece and into the book, and into the music and moved things around and changed things. And there's been a cry of outrage. But you think, now wait a minute. If at the end of this production of Porgy and Bess, all scores of Porgy and Bess were going to be destroyed, and all recording that the only record that was left in anyone's mind was this A.R.T. production of Porgy and Bess. Well, of course, that's not  going to happen. let people play around more. I'd defy anybody to tell me that there is a definitive production of anything. I wish everybody would just kind of relax a little bit about doing Tosca set in 1930s. Clearly Puccini didn't mean that, yes, but maybe he meant it in a different or a deeper way.

Jo Reed: Well, let me ask you. You're in the faculty of the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, New York University, where you teach courses in design. Do you encourage a sense of play in your students?

John Conklin: Yes. I mean, I think the theater just is a place of playfulness in the bigger sense. I mean, "Tristan" is a very playful opera in many ways. Just the fact that it's onstage makes it-- and that it's singers, and people don't really die, makes it loose again. I mean, again it's that sort of feeling of-- because I think playfulness can lead you sometimes deeper into yourself, because you as a designer and you as an audience member, because the kind of-- what you think you should feel, or what you have been taught to feel, or what you have been-- what you think is appropriate for you to feel gets erased a little bit and you get closer to what you do really feel. Again, I think it's a way of expressing it to the sense of playfulness. It's not being unserious, it simply is a way of loosening up these kind of rigidities which we have in us without really knowing that they're there, that's one of the difficulties and bad things about that aspect is that there are kind of prejudices, unexamined prejudices and they can often get in the way of either working on a piece, or absorbing a piece as an audience member.

Jo Reed: I want you to tell me the story of how you found out that you were going to be a 2011 NEA Opera Honoree?

John Conklin: Well, the call came, and I just thought, "What does this mean? I am extremely appreciative of awards, but I, somewhere deep in me, or perhaps not so deep, I mistrust them a little bit. Again, because it's a collaborative world. It's not like painting. It's not like, even like architecture, or it's not even really like composing. It is a collaborative world, so why me and not somebody else? Or why me and not all the people who make me? The one thing that I was pleased, particularly pleased about was that as far as I know this is the first time a designer has been given this award. And I thought that that was a significant acknowledgement of the performative power of design, that design is not a passive mood-setting illustration that just sits there onstage, but is an active ingredient, along with the active ingredient of somebody like Speight, who as a producer is an active ingredient. The other awards, to Rise Stevens, a performer, and to Robert Ward, a composer that maybe the sort of quartet of us makes up an interesting picture of the whole world of opera.

That was stage designer and 2011 NEA Opera Honoree, John Conklin.

You can see john Conklin on October 27 when The 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Opera Honors award ceremony takes place at 7:30 p.m. at the Sidney Harman Hall, in downtown Washington, DC. In addition to, the NEA is honoring general director Speight Jenkins, mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, and composer Robert Ward. If you can’t make it to Washington for the event, don’t despair! We are webcasting it live. Go to and click on Opera Honors  for more information about this free event and the live webcast.

You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.  

Excerpt from Mozart’s "Overture to the Marriage of Figaro," performed  by the University of Kentucky  Opera Theatre,  Phillip Miller conductor  Special Thanks to the director of the program,  Everett McCorvey.

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Next week, the president and CEO of Opera America, Marc Scorca.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Stage Designer John Conklin discusses opera as a collaborative event. [29:48]