Tag Archives: Opera Bohemia

Toi, Toi, Tay!

A new opera festival launches this weekend in Dundee. KEN WALTON reveals the plot

Is there really room for another classical music festival in Scotland? The people of Dundee certainly think so. From Thursday to Sunday this weekend (22-25 Sept) the first ever Opera Festival Scotland gets underway in the feisty Tayside city with performances of Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a visit by Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour, and a supporting programme of lectures, masterclasses and singing competitions.  

Nobody is keener for it to work than locally-born events guru and festival organiser Michael Jamieson, whose brainchild it is, and who has fought against the odds to make this inaugural event happen. “It’s not been without its challenges,” he freely admits. “Firstly we had to be taken seriously, decide on exactly what would happen, then Covid came and we had to move the Festival back a year.”

Even now, he and his organising colleagues have had to deal with the hiatus around national mourning for the late Queen, and the general nervousness of the paying public at a time of economic hardship. “The cost of living crisis is probably our biggest immediate challenge. People are not confident in parting with their money right now,” he says. Nonetheless, optimism is not in short supply.

That’s as much to do with the inclusive nature of a programme designed to involve local opera enthusiasts as it is with the organisers’ prudence and realism in engaging affordable artists, focusing limited funds on where they will make the most impact, and in establishing creative collaborations with key professional bodies. “Those collaborations came remarkably easily,” says Jamieson, who has secured support from Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Perth Festival and the RSNO. 

The centrepiece, Friday’s concert performance of Aida at the Caird Hall, is all about involvement. Yes, the Festival has imported experienced singers to fill the key roles, but to make this the extravaganza Jamieson wants it to be, the hordes of soldiers, priests, prisoners and slaves will be eager and enthusiastic Dundonians. 

“We wanted to involve as many amateur singers as possible from local communities,” Jamieson explains. “Dundee and the surrounding areas are full of small groups who want to do big operas but just don’t have the resources. Different events are forever competing with each other, so we though, let’s do it differently, do something big where they can all join in on neutral ground.” Friday’s performance will be directed by local music teacher and conductor Ralph Jamieson. “Yes, we’re related,” admits Michael.

As for the fully-professional performance activity, Scottish Opera has chosen to open its latest country-wide Opera Highlights Tour in the city’s Marryat Hall. The same venue hosts Opera Bohemia in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday. 

Another highlight has to be the presence of internationally-renowned, Glasgow-born soprano Janis Kelly, once a regular star with Scottish Opera, now chair of vocal performance at the Royal College of Music. 

A number of the Opera Festival Scotland events revolve around her presence. On Sunday morning she conducts a masterclass at Dundee High School, sharing her musical knowledge and experience to two upcoming sopranos, Scots-born Rosha Fitzhowle and London-based Jila Mariko. 

Kelly will also chair the judging panel that afternoon in another key Festival event at the Caird Hall, the Young Artists Singing Competition. She’ll be joined by fellow judges Julia Lagahuzere (founder and general director of Opera for Peace), veteran mezzo-soprano Linda Ormiston, and the heads of casting for Scottish Opera and ENO. “We had over 100 applications from around the UK,” says Jamieson. The winner, chosen from four finalists who will perform with the RSNO, will receive the Opera Festival Scotland Trophy, £1500 career grant, a lunchtime recital promoted by ENO, and a masterclass with Bollywood playback singer Kamal Khan, courtesy of Opera for Peace.

Other Festival events include a Non-professional Singing Competition, and two keynote lectures: one on the History of Opera Performance in Scotland by Fife-based Iain Fraser, co-creator of the website Opera Scotland; and Julia Lagahuzere, focusing on the artist as a world ambassador and their place in society. One further event at Dundee’s V&A, presented by experts Megan Baker and Raymond Uphill-Wood, offers a workshop on Costume and Make-Up Design. The Festival has also been active in local schools in the run up to the inaugural event, introducing opera to children at both primary and secondary level. Pupils have also been offered free admission to Festival events.

Jamieson’s future ambition for Opera Festival Scotland is that it should operate on a two-year cycle. “That depends on what happens this weekend,” he says guardedly. “If it’s something Dundee wants we’ll do everything we can to make it a regular fixture in the Scottish cultural calendar. The first indication it is will be the audience figures and feedback from this event. We’ll see how it goes.”

Opera Festival Scotland runs 22-25 September in Dundee. Full details at www.operafestivalscotland.co.uk

Madama Butterfly

Perth Theatre

Opera Bohemia’s compact, punchy Madama Butterfly may never have looked and sounded as good as it does on the stage of Perth Theatre for the company’s debut at the 50th Perth Festival of the Arts.

Working with the earliest version of Puccini’s score and with a small chamber orchestra in the pit for the first time, John Wilkie’s production may be nearly a decade old, but the clean symmetry of Magnus Popplewell’s set, the simple use of shadow-work on its screens, and the clarity of the story-telling, recognising the prescience of the work’s political message, are unimprovable.

Under the baton of Bohemia’s music director Alistair Digges, this revival’s great asset is that 11-piece ensemble, led by Feargus Hetherington, whose own solo contributions are a particular highlight.

On stage, the men in the cast supply some especially careful characterisation. Whitaker Mills is a troubled Sharpless, who sees disaster looming from early on but is not bold or interested enough to avert it. Seumas Begg gives much more subtle shape to Goro, the estate agent/pimp who makes the fatal introduction, than is often seen. There is a moral equivalence in the way both back off rather than become involved which casts the US Consul in an especially bad light here.

This is a modern dress production, with the nice touch of having Butterfly adopt contemporary American teen clothes in the “American home” she is keeping for her absent naval officer husband at the start of Act Two. Such detail does a lot of work in showing how little colonial geo-politics have altered since Puccini’s librettists were writing at the start of the last century.

Thomas Kinch gives a bluff, macho Pinkerton of slow emotional intelligence, so his tendency to over-sing the role early on could be said to match that interpretation, although his big tenor voice really comes into its own later. Like Louise Collett’s Suzuki, Catriona Clark’s Cio-Cio San is a link with earlier stagings, assured and at home in the coloratura of the role.

There is strong vocal casting in the smaller roles too, with Stephanie Stanway as Kate Pinkerton and Fiona Mackenzie taking the role of The Registrar, while special mention must be made of the (very) young Robert Nairne-Clark, who absolutely nails his extended presence on stage as Sorrow, the fought-over issue of the relationship. There is a further performance this evening.

Keith Bruce

Picture: Catriona Clark