photo JESSE HELLMAN
I cannot think of a better way of remembering John than through these two shows. The photographs of his Candide at Peabody show a swirl of color and energy that characterized all his best productions, together with the flair for inventive detail he brought to his work as a costume designer. His production of the Agatha Christie play Death on the Nile for Theatre Hopkins a few weeks later was superbly cast with character actors young and old, all of whom were prepared to take this material to the limit, while once again dressed in costumes that could have come straight out of a Merchant Ivory movie. The life and sparkle of these two productions were a tribute to his unceasing creative energy, even when his physical reserves were almost at their end.
The photo galleries on this site offer a kaleidoscopic testimony to John’s work as a costume designer, although his Manon of 2000 is the only other production illustrated here which he also directed. Even before he joined the Peabody faculty in 1994, John had begun designing costumes for us through his work with A. T. Jones and Sons, and I could not imagine a more supportive colleague to have by one’s side in dress rehearsals. He not only provided clothes which brought an entire production to life, but would work with the singers to get them to become the roles which his clothes made possible. His generosity in giving support to his colleagues was matched only by his shyness in accepting compliments in return.
As a director, John could and did work all over the country, and had no need to continue teaching at Peabody. But he loved students, and would do almost anything to develop the talent of the people he most believed in. Jesse Hellman’s wonderful photograph at the top of this page captures perfectly the spirit of commitment and fun he could inspire in the performers closest to him. For John's productions were often provocative, occasionally off the wall, but always entertaining. As he would say, “I want the audience to have a good time!” The performers had a good time also.
He could also work on any scale. One of the memories that I will carry with me in my mental anthology of the best work I have seen from directors in fifty years of opera-going is the death of Valentin from his Faust with the Baltimore Opera: a panorama of drab suits and black umbrellas against the gray walls of a small Flemish town in the first World War — an evocative update framing a real emotion. But I will also remember the pervasive eroticism of his bare-bones chamber productions for Peabody, such as The Turn of the Screw and La tragédie de Carmen. And what he called his “orange chair scenes”: opera excerpts staged only with plastic stacking chairs, but used with such style as to suggest whole worlds of elegance and escape.
In an age when most faculty and students are on a first-name basis, John was a professional of the old school, with meticulous use of “Mr” and “Miss” even with old friends. But then he could say something so direct and uncompromising, yet so insightful, that it would hit like a bucket of cold water. A gentle man and a gentleman, he also had the power to shock when he thought it would do some good — and he always had the good of the student at heart. Mentors like John are few and far between. Peabody will miss him, as I shall myself.