I was appointed General Director of Scottish Opera, Scotland’s national opera company and largest performing arts organisation, in 2006. The Company was founded in 1962 by Sir Alexander Gibson, who wanted ‘to lay the treasures of opera at the feet of the people of Scotland’, and inaugurated with a production of Madama Butterfly at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow.
Our mission at Scottish Opera is to present world-class opera, and make it as accessible as possible to everyone in Scotland. The Company bought Theatre Royal Glasgow in 1974 and opened it as an opera house a year later, and although this is our main base, we also perform in Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness, as well as over other 50 communities around Scotland each year in smaller theatres, village halls and community centres.
We are core-funded by the Scottish Government, so it is crucial that everyone in Scotland feels able to easily access our productions wherever they live, not just in the central belt. During our 50th Anniversary year, we calculated that 90% of the population of Scotland was within 30 minutes’ drive of one of our performances!
The Company is often in demand out of Scotland too, and in recent years we have presented opera in London, at Brooklyn Academy of Music and The Metropolitan Opera in New York, in Paris, and at the Royal Opera House in Oman, as well as the Edinburgh International Festival and Festival Fringe.
I am originally from Wellington New Zealand, and my first professional theatre job was as a stagehand with New Zealand Opera. At my Secondary School I was lucky enough to have a drama teacher who would take us to watch many live performances, and I soon realised I was keenly interested in being part of a fascinating business! I worked as a freelancer in the UK for a number of years for organisations including London International Festival of Theatre, Wexford Festival Opera and Assembly Rooms at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before going back to New Zealand and after a number of roles becoming Chief Executive of New Zealand Festival of the Arts. In 2000 I was also the Producer of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo in Wellington in its first outing outside of Scotland. I followed that with four very happy years at NBR New Zealand Opera. When the Scottish Opera job was offered to me in 2006, I was very pleased to be returning to Scotland and excited at the opportunity to lead such an important UK opera company.
I adore opera on the large stages but I am also always looking for the most creative and interesting ways to bring opera to audiences. For example, we took Pop-up Opera — where two singers, a couple of instrumentalists and a narrator do two or three 30-minute performances a day of condensed versions of our mainstage shows — to 10 ports on the River Clyde on a converted Pilot Cutter. We also have a converted scenery trailer decorated to look like the inside of Theatre Royal which tours around the country.
Attracting new audiences is crucial to the Company, and over a decade ago Scottish Opera started offering £10 tickets to those aged 26 and under. It has been hugely popular and it’s such a delight to see younger generations engage with this great art form.
There are so many moments I am proud of in Scottish Opera’s history: the commissioning of Five:15 Operas Made in Scotland between 2008-10, which showcased 15-minute works from composer/librettist teams who had never worked in opera before; making our US debut with BambinO, our opera for babies, at the Metropolitan Opera New York in 2018; and the establishment of our Emerging Artists programme in 2009. This is offers young artists a period of full-time work with the Company to help them launch their careers. Initially set up to nurture outstanding young singers, the programme now also includes positions for a repetiteur,costume trainee and a composer in residence.
In 2019, we presented the world premiere of Anthropocene by Scottish composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh. This fruitful partnership was initially born of Five:15 and their 15-minute opera Remembrance Day in 2009. Anthropocene was recently broadcast on the streaming platform OperaVision, and it’s brilliant for us to reach new audiences all over the world in this way.
We were particularly thrilled to win the Achievement in Opera Award at the 2017 UK Theatre Awards for Glasgow-born Sir David McVicar’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande. Our talented Music Director, Stuart Stratford, was nominated in 2018 for his programming at Scottish Opera, which includes staging a promenade production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in a huge tent. This involved a company of almost 200, including more than 100 volunteer choristers, dancers and children alongside professional singers, accompanied by The Orchestra of Scottish Opera.
It is important to mention the work Scottish Opera’s Outreach & Education Department (the first of its kind of any opera company in Europe) does each year. It operates an extensive programme including operas for babies and toddlers, an annual primary schools tour, Dementia Friendly performances and groups for people with dementia and their carers, a Community Choir and Scottish Opera Young Company, for 16 to 23-year-olds who have a passion for performing. The Department turns 50 in 2020, and its scope continues to increase impressively.
For me, there is no such thing as a typical day but many days involve meetings with HR, Finance, Music, Technical and Marketing teams, seeing supporters, and attending rehearsals and performances. I am now a master of the eccentric heating system in the Theatre Royal in an attempt to keep our orchestra warm!
I am also Vice Chair of the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, and Chair of The Beacon Arts Centre in Greenock so every day has a multiple and nuanced set of demands. But I love it all because it’s all about helping shows find their way to the stage and venues showing off their very best.
In what is my 14th year at Scottish Opera, I am looking forward to continuing to collaborate with our wonderful Music Director, Stuart Stratford, to bring the most exciting opera possible to audiences in the most imaginative ways, from well-known classics to new work. As well as the Outreach & Education Department’s 50th anniversary in 2020, Scottish Opera as a whole celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2022. Marking this important milestone will be very rewarding, and a true reflection of a company that’s still as relevant today as it was in 1962.