Tag Archives: Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera’s Summer Programme

Scottish Opera has announced a summer programme of Covid-friendly opera that includes: a new outdoor production by Sir David McVicar of Verdi’s Falstaff; a Pop-up Opera Tour amounting to over 200 Scotland-wide performances, a new On Screen production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore; and a one-off film of Operatic Highlights encouraging local communities to support live opera once the lifting of pandemic restrictions permit.

“We plan to be back in theatres presenting live opera as soon as restrictions allow,” says Scottish Opera general manager Alex Reedijk. “I am delighted that we are preparing to bring live music back to audiences following almost a year without live opera.”

Scots-born McVicar, whose career has included hit productions for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and who last directed Scottish Opera in its 2017 production of Debussy’s Pelléas and Melisande, applies his creative energy to one of Verdi’s most popular comic Shakespeare operas. This co-production with Santa Fe Opera will be staged – as was last year’s outdoor La boheme – in the company’s Edington Street car park. Exact dates are yet to be confirmed, and a further announcement of additional Edinburgh dates is anticipated over the coming weeks.

Sung in English, the cast includes Roland Wood, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Louise Winter and Jamie MacDougall. Scottish Opera music director Stuart Stratford conducts.

The summer months (provisionally June to September, dependent on the Scottish Government’s timeline on lifting restrictions) also see a repeat of last year’s Pop-up Opera Tour to outside locations around Scotland, this time with a show that fuses together five Gilbert and Sullivan favourites: The Gondoliers, The Mikado, the Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and Iolanthe. 

During the final stages of the tour around September, Scottish Opera will also revive its children’s entertainment A Little Bit of Bubble McBea, aimed at lower primary school years, and containing an environmental message that coincides conveniently with the run up to Glasgow’s hosting of the UN Climate Change Conference, COP26.

One of the company’s best initiatives over the past year has been its enforced foray into filmed opera, with staff director Roxana Haines at its forefront. After her December success with Cosi fan tutte, she now turns her directorial talents to Donizetti’s playful opera buffa, L’elisir d’amore, which she sets in another “socially distanced” time, the Jane Austen era. 

Scottish Opera emerging artists Catriona Hewistson, Shengzhi Ten and Arthur Bruce star alongside guest principals Roland Wood and Elena Garrido Madrona and an 18-strong chorus in this collaboration with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Filming takes place on 22 May with a release date of 18 June. A special edition of BBC Radio Scotland’s Classics Unwrapped, presented by Jamie MacDougall on 13 June, will feature audio excerpts.

Prior to that, on 23 April, Scottish Opera releases Live in South Lanarkshire, a programme of operatic favourites recorded in Rutherglen Town Hall, designed to fulfil the role of the annual Opera Highlights tour that normally takes place in small venues around Scotland. This filmed version will be released via the Scottish Opera website.
Full information at www.scottishopera.org.uk

Scottish Opera: Hansel and Gretel

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

The range of filmed performance, from fully-realised cinematography, through outdoor spectacle, to “as live” theatre shows, that Scottish Opera has managed to produce under the restrictions of the pandemic is mightily impressive. Within that breadth of work, the company has also managed to create a very specific Covid-era aesthetic in its home venue, with a socially-distanced, masked orchestra performing on the stage, and a performance area for the singers built out over the pit.

It works well, with the grandeur of Theatre Royal safely accommodating the style of the mid-scale productions the company has toured to Scotland’s smaller theatres. That sort of show was the origin of the reduced orchestration that Derek Clark had previously made of Humperdinck’s dark family fable, and which has been retrieved from the library for this compact version of an opera that was scheduled for a full production before fate intervened.

The first thing to say is that the music hardly suffers at all. Clark’s arrangement makes the most of the score and conductor David Parry and the orchestra perform it superbly, with some lovely solo turns, particularly principal cello Martin Storey. The singing is top class too, with company debuts for Phillip Rhodes, who brings vocal power and real charm to The Father, and Nadine Benjamin as both The Mother and The Witch, and Kitty Whately and Rhian Lois tackling the title roles for the first time.

They combine beautifully, playing somewhat against the gender stereotyping maintained in David Pountney’s slightly laboured English translation of the libretto. Director Daisy Evans has some fun with the restrictions of social distancing, the children allowed to stretch yearningly for each other but never touch, and measuring their steps on the diamond tessellation of the floor-cloth. Her principals match every reference with vivacious performances. From their lining up of soft toys along the footlights as an “audience” in the empty auditorium, this is a show where small gesture means a lot.

Lois has the pick of the tunes of course, or at least the top line in all the familiar ones, and she also brings some of the sassiness of her Musetta in Scottish Opera’s summer outdoor La boheme to counter the cloying moments. Female role-models also get a work-over in Benjamin’s doubling, with her somewhat dowdy pregnant Mother, all threats and curses, contrasting with a very glam, corseted Witch, full of promises and enticements.

Evans consistently translates the limitations on her staging into strengths, although the Christmas Grotto elements, even if seen as post-Twelfth Night cleaning and clearing up, look a little dated mid-February. Charlie Drummond is clad in Mrs Mopp head-square-and-rollers as The Sandman and The Dew Fairy, and the liberated gingerbread children are an Anime quartet of young women in onesies. With two shopping trolleys serving as all the necessary set and props in the children’s temptation, incarceration and victory over the witch, the third act becomes a madcap cross between Tiswas and Supermarket Sweep.

Available to watch free via the Scottish Opera website, on its Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Keith Bruce

Image: Kitty Whatley (Hansel) and Nadine Benjamin (The Witch) in Hansel and Gretel. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit James Glossop.

Scottish Opera / Così fan tutte

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

How best to avoid the pitfalls of Mozart’s Così fan tutte? It’s an opera that can appear absurdly glib at face value – two women tricked by their betrothed into an unlikely switch of allegiance when the latter fake their absence and reappear as tempters in disguise, all just to teach the girls a lesson. Farce by any other name.

Or there’s the concept approach, not least those attempts by many 19th century productions to corrupt the storyline and neuter the misogyny by making the girls secretly aware of the ruse, stringing their fellas along just to teach them a lesson. 

Either way, and somewhere in between, the trick is to be guided by Mozart’s music. Look no further than the wistful charm of the Act 1 trio, “Soave sia il vento”, one of opera’s most transformative, humanising moments. Miscalculate moments like that and the magic is gone. 

It’s to director Roxana Haines’ credit that her new staging of Così for Scottish Opera, film directed by Jonathan Haswell, avoids usurping the music’s charm. Her modernising concept is to depict these unlikely shenanigans as the filming of a reality TV game show. Don Alfonso is the conceited host whose concerns for the “contestants’” wellbeing are way secondary to his precious screen image.

A minimally adorned Theatre Royal stage is the perfect setting, multiple shooting angles facilitating the juxtaposition between general action and to-camera moments. If there’s an inkling that this could so easily lead to over-trivialisation, the concept’s one weakness – its ultimate insignificance – perversely becomes its strength. You can take it or leave it.

So it’s left to the cast to inject the all-consuming lifeblood, and this young sextet – mostly current or former Scottish Opera Emerging Artists – set about their task with invigorating elan. The two toyed-with couples are as well-matched in ensemble as they are distinctive in character. 

Shengzhi Ren’s searingly passionate Ferrando, tiring momentarily but quickly recovering in Act 2, finds willing partnership in baritone Arthur Bruce’s more laddish, vocally composed Guglielmo. Where Margo Arsane’s Dorabella is deliciously sweet and flighty, Charlie Drummond brings composed femininity to her glowing portrayal of Fiordiligi. 

As chief manipulator, Michael Mofidian’s Don Alfonso is colourful and frenetic. Together with Catriona Hewitson’s bubbling versatility as Despina, they are the most obvious manifestations of the game show idea. The chorus, spread around the circle balcony for obvious Covid reasons, offers hints of an audience presence, but various visual cameos arising from that are a little too contrived to work convincingly.

No lack of conviction from Stuart Stratford and his Scottish Opera Orchestra, caged in at the rear of the  stage – similarities, perhaps, to the penned band in that other TV favourite, Strictly – and offering a spirited Mozart performance that encompasses the extremes of frivolity, passion and tenderness implicit in this all-embracing score.
Ken Walton

Available to view on www.scottishopera.org.uk

Online Cosi from Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera continues to set the pace with filmed productions online, announcing a new Cosi fan tutte, built around its current posse of Emerging Artists, available to view online from December 13.

Filmed on the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow with music director Stuart Stratford conducting the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and chorus, Roxana Haines’ new production references reality TV. Soprano Catriona Hewitson, mezzo Margo Arsane, tenor Shengzhi Ren and baritone Arthur Bruce are joined by 2019/20 Emerging Artist Charlie Drummond and Royal Opera House Jette Parker Young Artist Michael Mofidian.

In the first month of the new year, the company follows that with a concert performance of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, also filmed at the Theatre Royal, directed by Daisy Evans, who was responsible for this year’s Edinburgh International Festival production of Menotti’s The Telephone.

Using David Pountney’s translation and a reduced orchestration by Derek Clark, David Parry conducts and the cast includes Kitty Whately as Hansel, Rhian Lois as Gretel, Nadine Benjamin as Gertrude and The Witch, Phillip Rhodes as Peter and Charlie Drummond as Sandman and Dew Fairy.

2021 is the 50th anniversary of Scottish Opera’s education and outreach department, in its various guises, and that will be marked by what the company intends as live performances by Scottish Opera Young Company next summer. Already meeting for rehearsals via Zoom, they are preparing for the world premiere of Rubble, composed by Gareth Williams with a libretto by Johnny McKnight. Soprano Shuna Scott Sendall will join the young singers for the show, which will be conducted by Chris Gray and directed by Roxana Haines.

Image: Shengzhi Ren, Arthur Bruce and Margo Arsane in Opera Highlights. Scottish Opera 2020. Credit Colin Hattersley.

Learning to live digitally

With little or no access to live audiences COVID-19 has forced classical music into the digital age. And there’s no going back, says KEITH BRUCE  

In the way of familiar journalistic overuse, the phrase “the new normal” was very swiftly denuded of any meaning, but it has been clear for a while, even to those most blinkered about the effects of the Coronavirus pandemic, that long-term change is upon us.

For those who earn their livings in the arts there was an immediate huge short-term worry, with venues closed and performances cancelled because of the safety restrictions necessitated by the health emergency, and earnings abruptly curtailed.

At the same time, it was impossible not to be heartened by the outpouring of creativity that the situation precipitated. An online performance will never produce the same visceral thrill as the joy of hearing music played in a shared space, but the technology available at relatively little cost enabled talented musicians to produce work that could not be replicated in the recital room, multi-tracking themselves into large one-person groups or becoming a close-harmony ensemble without the help of even other family members.

Working in enforced isolation on opposite sides of the globe, new partnerships were forged as existing ones were maintained and expanded, digitally.

Scots and Scottish organisations have been inspiringly dynamic in much of this. As Nicola Benedetti told VoxCarnyx of her own education foundation: “We were always wanting to move things online, and it was almost as if we were gifted an opportunity to push forward with that.”

At the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, recently-arrived chief executive Alastair Mackie had been equally clear that the RSNO needed to embrace the possibilities of the digital future, before anyone had heard of COVID-19. Beginning with fun and games for young people and home-shot party-pieces by players, the RSNO plundered the cache of filmed recordings in its own recent archive to keep the orchestra’s output in the public eye.

Alongside the Benedetti Foundation’s video diet, the National Youth Choir of Scotland was also swiftly out of the blocks with a huge range of music tuition films for all ages and abilities, at the same time as it found ways of allowing its young choirs to meet online rather than cancel their school holiday sessions.

That education work became an early indicator of one of the other upsides of the enforced move to digital – its global reach. The Benedetti Foundation had not had ambitions outside of the UK, and the work of NYCOS, even with its network of area choirs across Scotland, stopped at the border. Now both found they were teaching, and receiving feedback from, young people around the world.

This, of course, raises funding questions as well as opportunities. Scottish Government money, business sponsorship and parental support sustains organisations like NYCOS for the particular benefit of the resident population – is it fair and desirable that parents from elsewhere are able to tap in to that resource?

These are the sort of questions that will have to be asked as the months of living like this stretch on, another acceleration of a process of digital adaptation that sits oddly with the sensation that life has slowed down.

With its current digital subscription season, the RSNO is in the forefront of testing the market. Salvaging some elements of the season it had already announced, as much in the commitment of star soloists as in repertoire, its series of ten concerts, pay per view at £10 each, with a pound-a-gig discount for booking the season, will be easy to do the maths with at the end of the run. Having its own new technology-ready venue to use, where the required space for playing under the current restrictions was available, has been crucial, as will be the loyalty of the orchestra’s live-music-starved fanbase.

Another thing we have learned from the pandemic is that jokes about silver-surfers and inter-generational adaptability to online platforms are so much patronising nonsense.  “Usually our web audience skews much younger, but this time the older audience were equally engaged,” Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan told Vox Carnyx in a recent interview.

For the time being the Scottish Chamber Orchestra is still broadcasting its concerts free, with an appeal for donations, which is the model many other organisations have adopted. Scottish Opera, which has also been a pace-setting organisation, has also made its high-quality offerings available for nothing so far.

The opera company was way ahead of the game. By sheer good fortune, it had a brand-new opera film, The Narcissistic Fish, already shot, edited and scheduled to show when that became the only game in town. Swiftly following it with a superb version of Menotti’s The Telephone for the online Edinburgh Festival, it then brought the Lammermuir Festival to a close with a filmed production of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared, from the stage of the Theatre Royal in Glasgow.

Filming of The Telephone, a co-production between Scottish Opera and EIF © James Glossop

When it was briefly possible, the opera company also leapt into the breach with live offerings – three compact Pop-Up touring shows (also free) and a fine La boheme in the car-park of its technical centre, for which the paid-for tickets were probably under-priced, given the demand.

Although the Janacek was free to view – and is still available – Lammermuir was another important Scottish experiment in pay-to-view. Through its partnership with BBC Radio3 about half of its concerts, all from a church in Haddington with no audience, could be heard free, but watching the recitals online required the purchase of a £5 ticket, with a £33 season ticket available for all 12 of them.

A lot of supporters bought the passes, and the box office attracted around half the number of individual bookers the festival would expect, for fewer than half the number of concerts.

What astonished James Waters, who co-directs the festival with Hugh Macdonald, was the spread of the audience, from Switzerland, Bulgaria, Japan, Canada and the USA as well as across the UK. “How did they know about us?” he asks. “We had a vanishingly small marketing budget.”

Echoing Nicola Benedetti’s observation that recent experience has shown the long lead-times in classical scheduling to be non-essential, the Lammermuir online festival was given the go-ahead on August 3 and launched on August 20. Ticketing for the broadcasts proved straight-forward and communication with the online audience went more smoothly than Waters had expected.

The final sums have not been done, but the lessons of the digital experience are clear to him, even if it is possible to return to the previous model of live performance next year. “It would be unacceptable for us not to do something online next year. We’ve learned so much, and it might even pay for itself.”

It will surprise no-one who has experienced this increased digital life in Scotland that Waters reports some issues with establishing a solid, fast broadband connection for the concerts, which effectively dictated that the recitals were filmed and then broadcast “as live”.

That has become the usual model for the orchestras and smaller ensembles too, but there is a huge variation in the amount of lighting and post-production work that comes with digital broadcasting, and for some the nearer the experience remains to the raw live show the better. “If we’d had more time to think about it, we’d have had the chance to cock it up,” notes Waters sagely.

That distinction between “live” and “as live” also explains why the BBC SSO has not been shown to best advantage recently, with genuinely live broadcasting – at which it has so much experience – twice coming embarrassingly unstuck. And the BBC, as if it didn’t have enough problems at present, is the body that faces the biggest, and most pressing questions. Having had a virtual monopoly on live classical music and opera broadcasting in the UK for so long, it now has an obligation to share that playing field with a whole new league of competition.

When organisations need to gain revenue from their music through online broadcasting, can they continue to give the same product away free? Are streamed Wigmore Hall recitals, subsidised by the associated Radio3 broadcast, taking market share from ticketed chamber music? Should the BBC Scottish have delayed its season-opener, when it was clear it was going to hit the ether at the same time as the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s Quilter Cheviot-sponsored gala with Nicola Benedetti started their programme of concerts?Such questions, or ones very like them, will require answers in the months to come. Whenever the health emergency ends, and even though the return of shared experience in the same space cannot come too soon, there will be no going back to the musical diet as it was before.

Opera Highlights

Scottish Opera

Ah, the “C” word. Is there no escaping it? Surely opera, the most fantastical of all stage forms, could be the magic carpet whisking us to a much-needed alternative fiction; where Covid is perhaps a mythical Roman God rather than this pesky contemporary pestilence. 

Or has Scottish Opera hit the right note by gluing together the pan-century musical potpourri that is its cheery annual Opera Highlights production with pandemic-strewn dialogue, in the same way traditional pantomime might throw in modish one-liners? 

Billed as “a wry look at our socially-distanced times”, you do have to hand it to Scottish Opera. The company has been out in front over the summer with performances, both live and filmed, that say boo to the big “C”. This filmed version of the Highlights Tour, shot in Greenock’s Beacon Arts Centre and unveiled on Scottish Opera’s website on Sunday, might not physically be heading for the 30-plus outlying communities it traditionally serves, but ironically and somewhat positively, it could conceivably reach every household in the nation and beyond. 

So yes, for all that its weakest aspect is the aforementioned script, which to its credit is functionally minimalist, the stylistic array of arias and ensemble pieces it links, and the fresh aptitude of the buoyant quartet that deliver them – zestful young talent from Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artist scheme – are what score the real success of this hour-long production stage directed by Rosie Purdie, film directed by Antonia Bain.

From cultured Mozart to sentimental Lehar, Ponchielli to doleful Massenet, upbeat Verdi and soulful Korngold to double servings of Donizetti and Bizet, the playlist is like a box of Milk Tray without the dreaded marzipan sandwich. All infinitely palatable, sweetly sung, and portrayed with credible collegiate interaction despite the onstage adherence to individually squared-off confines.

Singly, there is much to savour from soprano Catriona Hewitson’s coquettish Moi, je m’appelle Ciboulette (Reynaldo Hahn) and the sultriness of Korngold’s Marietta’s Lied from Die tote Stadt; and from mezzo soprano Margo Arsane, whose velvety richness hits the spot in a tearful aria from Massenet’s Werther. 
Baritone Arthur Bruce slips with ease between the artful nonchalance of Mozart’s Guglielmo (Cosi fan tutte) and the quicksilver wit of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Roulette Song from their final collaboration, The Grand Duke. It’s left to tenor Shengzhi Ren to reach spine chilling heights in Donizetti and Lehar.

A mixed cocktail of ensemble pieces bring depth and variety to this piano accompanied show (the dextrous Susannah Wapshott), ending officially with Bizet’s famous Pearl Fishers duet, but in response to the telling handful of stage-managed applause, offering one more all-cast delight from the pen of Rossini, complete with – you guessed it – yet another social-distancing message.
Ken Walton

Opera Highlights is available to view at scottishopera.org.uk

Image: Margo Arsane © Colin Hattersley  

Messiah/Ayr Choral Union

When awards are made for the contributions to the beleaguered worlds of music and the arts during the health crisis, the name of baritone Andrew McTaggart should be one of the first on the list.

As a singer he was one of the first musicians back out on the road as part of the small team that took Scottish Opera’s Pop-Up versions of three very different shows to outdoor venues across the country when the weather still made such an exercise an optimistic possibility. And as a choir director he has kept the enthusiastic amateur voices of Ayr Choral Union exercised at a time when meeting together in a room has been impossible.

That project and purpose continues, but on Sunday the choir, four young soloists and a fine compact chamber ensemble came together online to perform Handel’s best-known oratorio in a manner that set its own template.

There are many ways to make a Messiah, from the small professional group giving a meticulous historically-informed performance through to Come & Sing versions for massed untrained voices. McTaggart conducted one that used the technology everyone is learning to embrace, YouTube and the Zoom platform, to combine elements of both in a communal experience.

His soloists – soprano Catriona Hewitson, contralto Penelope Cousland, tenor Ted Black and bass Colin Murray – had been leading sectional training online to supplement McTaggart’s own coaching of the choir in a time of social distancing, and for Sunday’s culminating performance they were also the onscreen, one-voice-to-a-part chorus, self-shot from where ever they happened to have been living at the time. The solo recitatives and arias, however, had been filmed in one session, in the same space as the socially-distanced twelve-piece ensemble, with McTaggart conducting.

The elements had been assembled for a full performance in which the sound quality was quite remarkable, and the pictures were more than just the icing on the cake because McTaggart was directing not only the people visible on screen, but also his 100 or more choristers singing along at home.

It was a compact version of the score, clocking in at well under two hours, but all the essential elements were there and the playing of the instrumentalists (with some well-known faces from Scottish music) and the performances of the young soloists were top class. Black and Cousland added some fine ornamentation, while Hewitson and Murray tended more towards playing with a pure-toned straight bat, while all four combined on Part Two’s sequence of choruses and then the Hallelujah in a way that suggested some very skilful sound engineering.

In some parts of Ayrshire it was perhaps possible to wander down the street and hear their voices leading members of the Choral Union who were joining in lustily in front of their own laptops and televisions. In the charitable tradition of the work, as the choir’s current President Kate Wilson pointed out, all donations supporting the performance are going to Help Musicians UK, which has plenty need to meet at the present time. McTaggart and Ayr Choral Union did Handel proud.
Keith Bruce

Image: Andrew McTaggart ©Julie Howden