n evening in early summer, 1962: a
Thomson Smillie solicits the support of a group of friends to set up an all-night vigil outside the box office ofthe King’s Theatre in Glasgow. They are there ostensibly to head the queue for tickets for Madame Butterfly, the first production from the newly-formed Scottish Opera. The press are not slow to pick up on this dedicated patronage garnered by the new company prior to a performance, and a photo story adorns the papers the next day. As Sir Alexander Gibson, founder and conductor laureate of Scottish Opera, and its Artistic Director until 1987, chuckles: ‘Our sense ofpublicity was there from the beginning’. Thomson Smillie was rewarded for his nocturnal efforts with the office of Scottish Opera’s ﬁrst PR man.
Thirty years later Sir Alexander is on the line from Louisville where the Kentucky State Opera Company have engaged his conducting services. The opera is Madame Butterﬂy. The Artistic Director is a young whelp by the name of Thomson Smillie. The corollary is that teamwork and a consistency in approach remain stock elements in the Scottish Opera creed. Or perhaps it’s just one ofthose coincidences. Whatever. the initial precepts of the company run deep. Their first ‘season’, a mere week long and £6000 expensive. comprised of Madame Butterﬂy, an operatic standard and surefire hit, and the more esoteric Pelleas Et Melisande, Debussy’s only opera. mounted to mark his centenary celebrations since the London opera companies seemed to be neglecting it. To this day. Scottish Opera strive to educate with the unfamiliar but challenging as well as entertain with the well-loved.
Over its thirty years, Scottish Opera has gradually increased the size. permanence and ambition of its operation. securing along the way a full-time chorus and later its own orchestra, and seeing the illustrious likes of Dame Janet Baker tread the boards in landmark productions of Cosifan tutte and The Trojans.
Most important in its development was the acquisition of a permanent home in 1974, when the Theatre Royal was purchased from one ofthe company’s earliest patrons, Scottish Television. No longer would Scottish Opera find the preparation of, say, 12 The List 23 October — 5 November 1992
young Glasgow University student ;
This month SCOTTISH OPERA is celebrating its 30th birthday. Fiona Shepherd talks to the founder, Sir Alexander Gibson, about how it all started and Carol Main looks back over some of the company’s most outstanding achievements.
I its Ring cycle in competition for rehearsal
time with the King’s Theatre panto. The l proprietorship of their own opera house was a luxury which even today established companies like Welsh National Opera and Opera North do not have, and allowed Scottish Opera to step up its commitment to, as Sir Alexander states, ‘try to put on the best opera to the highest standard, engaging always the best singers for the roles, that is possible with the money that we have available and never sacrificing quality to put on quantity.’
Current managing director Richard Jarman echoes the sentiment. ‘I would like to get the feeling that the words “Scottish
Dame Janet Baker in The Trojans (1969) — In the early years, the magical team of Alexander Gibson and Peter
Wagner’s Ring Cycle (1971 ) — a major landmark
I Opera” on our leaﬂet meant high quality, so that whatever people were coming to they felt they were going to get something
Hemmings achieved one at their
outstanding successes with The i Trojans, to mark the Berlioz centenary. ‘ Dame Janet Baker’s Dido— her tirst- is ' now legendary. 1
interesting. We want to make sure that I Scottish Opera is known for a consistently
' high quality of work on stage both musically
and in terms of production and singing standards.’
The pursuit of excellence in the opera field, genre aficionados will tell you, is the ultimate artistic challenge, but equally when a level of excellence is attained opera is the consummate artistic statement, or gesamtkunstwerk. Yet if opera provides something for everyone, why doesn’t everyone get something from it? Jarman’s predecessor Richard Mantle vigorously addressed this dilemma when he wrote succinctly in the company’s 1989/90 Annual Review that “Scottish Opera continues to take as its remit the breakdown of commonly held misconceptions about opera and the “elitist entertainment” label that it has acquired, by believing that at its best opera is the most complete art form.’
In real terms, Scottish Opera has implemented three initiatives to surmount prejudices. Opera Go Round, resurrected in the late 70$, tours pared-down versions of popular operas round the Highlands and Islands with a cast of six performers, while the schools programme, Opera For All, strives not to net an inordinately youthful audience but to give schoolchildren the hands-on experience of performing an opera, with a series of workshops culminating in an actual performance. Most recently, the company has found its series of Open Days a great success, where interested parties are practically given the run of the theatre.
‘We wouldn’t want to take away all the mystique about the stage,’ says Jarman, ‘but I certainly would like to get away from the feeling that opera is somehow not for some people.’
lnthe company’s developement.‘