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John Conklin: A man of drama, by design

(Michael G. Stewart)

WHO: John Conklin

WHAT: Acclaimed internationally as a stage, set, and costume designer whose work has been featured in opera houses and theaters across the globe, Conklin was recently honored by the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C. In 2008, he retired from Glimmerglass Opera, where he worked for 18 years as the associate artistic director. Retirement didn’t last, though. Conklin followed his former Glimmerglass colleague, Esther Nelson, and has been working closely with her and the Boston Lyric Opera as a dramaturg and artistic adviser ever since. Conklin spoke with us about his work, why retirement wasn’t for him, and his most recent production, Verdi’s ‘‘Macbeth,’’ opening tomorrow at the Citi Performing Arts Center Shubert Theatre.

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Q. How did you come to love the opera, and how did you end up working in Boston?

A. I had some early Boston roots in that my grandparents lived in Boston. Some of the first opera I went to was here in Boston with my grandmother, at age 10. We would go to the Boston Symphony, and that was an interesting introduction to opera and to Boston. I’ve always been interested in theater and opera and design. I used to go with my mother to the [Metropolitan Opera] for my birthday.

Q. How did you go from set design to being a dramaturg at the BLO?

A. At some point a couple of years ago, I thought I would retire. And I did, but it turned out, as everybody said, “Oh, you’re not going to retire.’’ So, I came back as a dramaturg, which deals with techs, and reading, and the whole world of the opera other than the world on the stage. I also went back [to New York University] to teach. [Boston] is easy to get to, almost like a commute from New York. I think it is all working out to a good balance. I’m also back to designing shows [in Boston], which I like doing.

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Q. What do you hope audiences take away from the “Macbeth’’ production?

A. The basic scenery for the set was from a production I designed for NYC Opera 10 or 12 years ago. When BLO started talking about doing “Macbeth,’’ we began talking about renting that set. But, the original director [Leon Major] was not available, so we got another director [David Schweizer] and took the set and reworked our story around it. We have added . . . props and more colorful carnival-like figures. So, the production is completely different than the one in New York, but based in the same original set design.

Q. How did you transition from set design in your earlier career to teaching college students?

A. I like doing it and I like the connection with younger designers. It’s useful for me to examine my own philosophies about opera and design through conversation with them, and that design can involve more aspects. It’s not just about the design and architecture, but also about history and philosophy and poetry. It’s a wide-ranging world, which is fascinating to explore for myself and fascinating to let them into that world. There are a lot of different levels that one can study and use to bring these things to life on the stage. That’s one of the things that I think draws people into the theater to be designers . . . you get the chance to explore all these different aspects of history, and history of art, and other theater and movies - anything that can be part of the sources for your vocabulary that you use to put the story on the stage. In this case it’s a visual story and a visual vocabulary. So the bigger your vocabulary is, metaphorically speaking, the more able you will be to create something eloquent and meaningful.

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Q. How do you see your career trajectory in the years to come?

A. I think it will continue, because it has worked out very well. It seems the right amount of work and the right amount of time off. I’m very pleased with how it has worked out between New York and Boston. I feel that . . . Esther [Nelson] is leading the BLO in a very different direction and stimulated by the idea of working with a company to develop it in different directions.

Q. And how does it feel to have your entire body of work honored by the NEA?

A. I was very surprised - pleased, but surprised. This is the first time they’ve given it to a designer. There are four awards a year, and they have given them to singers, and directors, but never to a designer. I think it is partially [for] my connection at Glimmerglass as a dramaturg and helping to run the company, and how that has happened again in Boston.

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Anthony Savvides can be reached at asavvides@globe.com.