Reinstate John Copley at the Metropolitan Opera

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Last week on 1st February, longtime British opera director John Copley - an eighty-four-year-old veteran who has worked with Maria Callas, Franco Zeffirelli, Plácido Domingo, Carlos Kleiber, José Carreras, Luciano Pavarotti, Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, Janet Baker, Montserrat Caballé and many, many more - was unexpectedly and unceremoniously dismissed from the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. 

The abrupt termination came about after a linguistic misunderstanding occurred during a rehearsal for Copley's latest directorial venture, Rossini's "Semiramide". In a colloquial exchange that has been variously reported, it seems that Copley made a joke about imagining a character in the opera 'naked' in order to elicit a particular reaction from his cast members. Feeling "extremely ill at ease", a chorus member immediately reported the incident to Peter Gelb - General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera. Although the production of "Semiramide" was at the time just over two weeks away, Copley was immediately fired. 

While Copley's name is still listed among the production’s creatives on the site of the Metropolitan Opera, inevitable trouble has been stirred as a result. Allegedly certain chorus members have quarrelled with the member who made the complaint about Copley to Gelb in the first place. The American Guild of Musical Artists - a union representing classical music professionals across the United States - has raised questions over the ethical and professional grounds for the sudden dismissal.

Copley's reputation among opera circles has for over fifty years been a pristine one. He is a friend to many and to some even known fondly as their "Uncle John". It’s therefore difficult to think that this unprecedented firing is anything more than a reckless decision made in reaction to fear. In this instance that decision fell to Peter Gelb. It appears that, afraid of legal action or bad press in the event that the offended chorus member posted scolding messages about the Met over the internet, Gelb responded immediately not only by removing Copley from the current production, but by squelching any possibility for the director to work again at the Metropolitan Opera.

We are lucky enough to live in a time when opinions can be shared worldwide in a matter of seconds. Evidently the by-product of this culture is one similar to yellow press: the overexaggeration of events, the scandalisation of incidents, inflatable outrage over single remarks or else private exchanges to which few were privy. When any leader of an organisation immediately dismisses an employee because of these possible repercussions, this action only serves to foster fear and mistrust among colleagues. 

While there is no doubt that the offended chorus member felt troubled by Copley’s remark, this kind of problem is no symbol of a worldwide epidemic or a widespread crime - but an example of misinterpreted language; an exchange that went awry.

In the context of a theatrical production, it is fundamental that all members - choristers, instrumentalists, the conductor, the soloists, the director and all of the crew working backstage - join forces to collaborate in harmony in order to create the greatest quality they can. It's undeniable that when so many people work together with a deadline, things go wrong. Colleagues argue, they misunderstand each other. They may snap for nerves or irritation; they may understand a phrase to have a meaning that it doesn't. The immediate ousting of Copley only serves to provoke an atmosphere where every employee must fear for his or her position; where the option of resolving a problem between colleagues is no longer possible. 

No theatre - or collaborative project, for that matter - can exist without teamwork. The elimination of a person who appears during a single moment to be 'problematic' for one other colleague is suggestive of a leadership’s abuse of power. The action speaks to a lack of resolve in our society to want to work together, to work peacefully and to appear understanding. Such circumstances make the workplace toxic by encouraging subordinates to fear their leader and each other.

While the production of "Semiramide" is scheduled to begin on 19th February, this petition demands an apology from Peter Gelb and a reinstatement of Copley at the Metropolitan Opera for future events. It serves to avoid this unnecessary precedent being set. For, if Copley, a veteran in opera circles who has more than earned a fair share of respect and served his art, can be so easily dismissed, this means that anybody's work is now at peril.

Let's avoid mass panic in the theatre workplace.

Stop the precedent.



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