A ‘blessed life’ in opera

‘I am 77,” says John Copley, at a combination lunch, interview and break in yet another 18-hour working day. “I’ve been in this business since age 12, and I am very, very happy. I have had a blessed life, I did what I wanted to do.”

Copley’s business is opera. One of the world’s foremost stage directors, he has circled the globe from Seville to Dallas to Sydney to New York and Chicago — but his two real homes are Covent Garden and the San Francisco Opera.

“I was amazed to find,” he says, pulling out a handwritten list on a lined notepad sheet with a photo of a Chihuahua on top, “that I directed as many productions here as there.” By “there,” he’s referring to London, where he served as principal resident producer of the Royal Opera.

In San Francisco, he has directed 18 new productions and 12 revivals, beginning with a 1982 Handel “Giulio Cesare” and leading up to Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” opening Tuesday in the War Memorial.

Copley’s warm and fuzzy feelings about San Francisco are well reciprocated. Not only is he respected and loved by singers and everybody backstage, David Gockley’s administration is honoring him as well.

At the premiere of the Mozart (Gockley’s favorite opera), the general director will award Copley the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor. (I didn’t get the director’s reaction during the interview,  because at the time he wasn’t supposed to know about the surprise.)

Born in Birmingham, and starting out as a dancer with the Royal Ballet, Copley came up through the ranks at Covent Garden, working with stage crews, then with seminal directors such as Franco Zeffirelli; Copley was his assistant for the celebrated 1964 “Tosca” starring Maria Callas.

Long before that, Copley remembers another, almost-ill-fated “Tosca,” when the soprano — who also was singing “Madama Butterfly” in a different production the same week — was about to go onstage dressed as Cio Cio San. Copley, the assistant stage manager, intercepted her, sent her back to the dressing room, and then — stalling for time — sang her first off-stage line of “Mario! Mario!”

The tenor told Copley later that he knew who the emergency Tosca was  because, “I heard the right notes for the first time.”

How in the high-pressure business of opera production somebody can maintain such a kindly and sunny disposition as Copley is a mystery.

He has worked closely with Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and other great composers. His Covent Garden productions have been amazingly durable — 21 years for his “Marriage of Figaro,” 27 for “La Boheme,” 24 for “Cosi fan tutte.”

Copley’s War Memorial career includes Tippett’s “Midsummer Marriage,” Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Idomeneo,” and Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades” among the 30 new productions and revivals.

The Marriage of Figaro

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Saturday, Oct. 16, Oct. 22; 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sept. 30 and Oct. 5; 2 p.m. Oct. 3, Oct. 10
Tickets: $20 to $280
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com