60 & 50 – Scottish Opera’s Jane Davidson, Karen MacIver & Allan Dunn on the Company’s Anniversary, Education & Outreach

By Gordon Williams

Scottish Opera turns 60 next year, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of its Outreach and Education program, arguably the longest-standing formal company outreach of its kind in the opera world. The department’s activities range from Paisley’s 2018 “Pagliacci”—performed in a tent with a community choir, and for which designer Tim Meacock won the Best Designer Award at the Scotland Herald’s Scottish Culture Awards—to “Memory Spinners”—for people living with dementia—to interactive performances integrated with Scotland’s early years’ education curriculum—such as “Auntie Janet Saves the Planet,” in which schoolchildren help the opera’s characters solve life problems. OperaWire spoke to Jane Davidson, Scottish Opera’s Director of Outreach and Education, composer Karen MacIver, and librettist/director/choreographer Allan Dunn, about their associations with the organization.

Jane Davidson has commissioned over 30 works for Scottish Opera, including a trilogy of works for under-fives: “BabyO”, “SensoryO” and “KidO”, which toured the UK, Middle East, Hong Kong and New Zealand and played to over 20,000 people between 2010 and 2015. Karen MacIver has composed six primary school shows, including “Auntie Janet Saves the Planet”, a jazz opera “Bet Your Life”, and several community operas, often with Allan Dunn. Dunn began working with the company in 1986 and is now the presenter for the “Opera Unwrapped” series, “Memory Spinners” and “Pop Up Opera.” The following interview occurred over Zoom in May, at the beginning of a Glasgow day.

Outreach Innovators

“I wasn’t there from the beginning of Scottish Opera nor the Education department,” says Jane Davidson, “but I think there was always a sense that Scotland needed its own opera company. It had to be for as many people as possible and you had to get out to communities because of the demographics of Scotland.

Scotland has a population of  5.46 million people. “The bulk of those people live between Glasgow and Edinburgh,” says Davidson, “And everyone else lives in all of the rest of it; so there’s islands–the Shetlands and the Orkneys and the Western Isles–and huge rural areas and these people have got to have access as well, so I think that was a really powerful driver.”

Karen MacIver adds: “I started straight out of music college and John Cox was the general administrator and artistic director of the main company at the time. I remember him really clearly saying that the cultural landscape, not only of your city but of your country, is as important as every other service that comes to the people. I remember being blown away with that, that he was wanting something bigger than just selling tickets to a theater.”

Davidson, Dunn, and MacIver share a strong belief in the power of opera as a transformative experience and recently Davidson wrote in an online article for TES–formerly the Times Educational Supplement–that opera’s “sweeping and emotive ‘heart on your sleeve’ plots serve as an ideal catalyst for developing self-reflection, tolerance, and empathy in the classroom.”

It is notable that Scottish Opera’s outreach ranges from opera for six-month-olds, through specially-adapted versions of “The Barber of Seville” for people living with dementia, to al fresco shows staged in the Highlands open to all comers during a lull between last year’s COVID-19 lockdowns.

But what does one of Scottish Opera’s educational projects look like? Young parents have praised the way the infants’ opera “BambinO” deploys a soft set that 6-12-month-olds can play around in. Who comes up with these ideas? Does Scottish Opera have an early childhood expert? When faced with these questions, Dunn and MacIver both point to Davidson.

“Jane’s never short of an idea,” says MacIver.

“She’s an ideas factory,” reiterates Dunn. “She works these things out and then hands them onto other people.”

Davidson is happy to elaborate; “We’d actually started looking at work for very early years about 10 or 12 years ago and we did quite a bit of research at that point. And the productions were really sweet. They were called “BabyO”, “SensoryO” and “KidO”. We chose “O” because that’s the first vowel sound that most babies learn to speak. But they were still what I would call tiny musicals. And what we wanted to do with “BambinO” was actually make a real opera, with two acts and an intermezzo and all of this language around it and some lovely stuff for the two singers to do, but a story that would attract somebody who hadn’t started teething yet.”

On Scottish Opera’s promotional video for “BambinO,” opera and theater director Phelim McDermott says: “It’s got an operatic story. There’s a bird and an egg and the egg hatches, and there’s a baby bird and then eventually the baby bird flies away. It’s epic!”

It is both an operatic epic and truly made, with its young audience in mind, as Davidson explains: “The fact that it’s all soft: the babies are in there, crawling around. It’s an amazing experience, it really is. What I find stunning is the way that the babies respond to the sounds. The soprano–the mummy bird–at one point does a little miniature Donizetti aria because she’s getting really annoyed with the baby bird–a baritone–because he’s messing with the cushions, as a wee baby would. So there are all these lovely musical structures that are reminiscent of genres: “BambinO” is like Italian opera, and “Fox-tot”, another similar project for 12-24 months, is quite French baroque.”

It may be wondered to what extent the department concerns itself with creating an audience for the more conventional repertoire. In the above-mentioned video, McDermott says; “I want someone who’s 25 to be asked, in quite a few years’ time, ‘When was the first time they went to the opera?’ and they would say, ‘Oh, I went when I was 10 months old!’”

“We do ‘unwraps,’” says Dunn. “People come and they get excerpts from the opera and they’re talked through it. Singers and stage management would be interviewed. They get to see the scene changes and costumes and all of that ‘behind the scenes’ stuff. And that’s a great way of attracting people. And we also do ‘children’s unwraps’ as well. That’s a modified version of the same show. They get all the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff with the opera’s best moments.’

The children-centric content is redeveloped as well. “Opera Factory” concerns how an opera is put together. It was a show written especially for primary school children and depicts all the characters who are required to make an opera, from the set-designers to the costume-makers.

Dunn wrote and directed “Opera Factory,” and used famous operatic tunes while writing new words to them, so the children were watching an opera unfold even as they learned about the making of opera. MacIver elaborates on this, saying: “I think the mantra a few years back was that ‘working in schools produced the audience of the future.’ Regardless of whether that actually happened or not, it definitely gave access to the name ‘Scottish Opera.’ That was the proverbial ‘golden ticket’; not forcing anyone into anything that was not for them, but ensuring that opera never felt beyond anyone’s reach nor elitist.” There have are those who have said that despite not being fans of opera themselves, they believe it is a good thing for Scotland to have a national company.

Davidson is quick to reiterate, however, that for all talk about audiences of the future, they have a very real audience right now, and shows to match.

Like so much opera, the material of the Outreach and Education department can plumb our deepest consciousness. MacIvers’ “The Tale of the Tide” was a 2000 co-production with Finnish National Opera, the Helsinki Department of Education and North Ayrshire Council, and was written with lyricists Ross Stenhouse and Ilpo Tiihonen. It combined the Finnish national epic, the ‘Kalevala,’ with Scottish historical events such as the Viking Battle of Largs in 1263 and the cannibal clan of Sawney Bean, who terrorized the Ayrshire coast in the 16th century. There were two versions: a 30-minute piano-accompanied version that could tour schools in both countries, and a full-length two act piece for a cast of 1,000 with a full orchestra that premiered at both the Irvine Maritime Museum and at London’s Millennium Dome.

Pandemic Possibilities

An unavoidable question in any modern interview with someone from the opera world is how have they coped with Covid-19? Happily, Scottish Opera has taken the global upset in stride and the Outreach and Education program has innovated new ways for their vision of accessible opera to reach greater audiences during this time of worldwide uncertainty.

Last year the company produced its first-ever online interactive opera for children, “Fever!”, reaching children both in the UK and internationally, and last month launched a series of digital primary school initiatives: the first time they have offered schools a package of projects for all primary-aged pupils at the same time.

One of those projects is an online opera for children, “The Last Aliens,” about aliens who have destroyed their own planet and come to Earth to warn humankind not to make the same mistakes. It was originally commissioned for the 26th UN Climate Change conference, which is to take place in Glasgow this year. The singers who present “The Last Aliens” are now beaming in online from a space station orbiting Earth, however, where Covid has forced them to retrain as ‘astronauts.’ This notion of ‘retraining’ could itself be a gentle dig at the notion, popularized by UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak, that artists in a Covid-impacted world need to retrain in ‘real jobs.’

Meanwhile, the “Pop Up Opera” that used to be performed inside a container truck decked out to look like Glasgow’s Theatre Royal is now performed open-air. The department was unable to use the original container trailer because of social distancing, as it had a pre-Covid audience capacity of just 22.

“I don’t know, sadly, when we’ll get to use that again.” says Davidson, “So, what we did last summer, in the gap between the two lockdowns, was hire a soft-sided trailer, so we can open on one side, forming the stage. I think over 2,000 people saw our performances. We found enough places that said, ‘Yeah, you can come and use our car park.’ For example, Inverness said, ‘Come up’ and we had people driving from quite a long way to sit in a car park for half an hour.” Some drove for two hours to attend, and for most Scots that’s a really long way, “but in the Highlands”, says Davidson, “people will happily travel a long way on poor roads just to see something live.”

“And people were in tears because they hadn’t had music in so long,” adds Dunn. This was a clear sign for the team. Scottish Opera has decided to expand their outreach this year. Dunn has begun rehearsals and between the 10th of June and the end of September, they are going to have a tour with two trucks.

“We’re doing a Gilbert and Sullivan festival because we’ve got five different miniature Gilbert and Sullivans.” says Davidson, “I just feel like people want a laugh at the moment. So we have illustrations, and they sit on an easel and Allan tells the story, and then we’ve got two instrumentalists and two singers, and they play the entire score in snippets and the two singers sing any parts that happen to be needed. And we reckon we’re going to do about 220 performances.”

International Acclaim

One can only laud the vision and national pride of founding music director Sir Alexander Gibson and the various businesspeople such as Ainslie Millar and Richard Telfer whom he gathered around him for the purpose of giving this art form a home in Scotland. It is quite a commitment on the behalf of the Scottish taxpayer. In the 2019-20 financial year, Scottish Opera received 60.5 percent of its funding from the Scottish Government, with Outreach and Education bringing in an extra 2.5 percent from an expenditure of 7.3 percent. That is roughly proportionate with the pre-Covid year of 2018-19, when government funding for the company overall was 66.4 percent. The five national companies in Scotland–Scottish Ballet, the National Theatre of Scotland, Scottish Opera, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra–are all funded directly by the Scottish government.

That makes for a lot of government funding and not a lot of patronage on the scale of, say, Los Angeles’ Broads, but Scottish Opera’s Outreach and Education department also works with the Walt Disney Company through the “Disney Musicals in Schools” program: the first Scottish organization to do so.

Such an achievement is no small thing, made all-the-more impressive when one considers that it was Disney who approached them. The program is an interesting one that has been running in the United States for about 12 years, targeting areas with serious economic/social issues. The premise is that opera companies are teaching teachers how to put on a 30-minute students’ edition of a Disney show. It’s quite expensive but, as Davidson remembers; “they said ‘we’ll pay for it’ if you find five schools.” They also provide the license to the show for free, as well as materials showing teachers how to rehearse, including director’s notes, rehearsals CDs, and a choreography DVD.

Davidson is optimistic about the positive impact “Disney Musicals in Schools” is having on students’ lives. “With our primary schools’ program we visit lots of schools, but we only go in for one day. I was interested to find out how to develop a more ongoing relationship with schools where you’re leaving a legacy. This is a program where you’re going in once a week for 17 weeks. For us, this was about discovering what was the best way forward and how we could leave a lasting legacy because many teachers don’t have a lot of confidence in teaching the expressive arts. The amount of time currently allocated, in a four-year undergraduate teacher training course, to teaching the arts is horrifically low.”


Fifty Years of Boundary Breaking

Given the range of activities that the Outreach and Education department has engaged in over its 50-year history, it is hard for Davidson, MacIver, or Dunn to pick a single highlight. None of them were there from the beginning of either the company or the department, but Davidson mentions a project they undertook with Ireland some years back called “Crossing Borders,” .

In 1994, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland invited the department to create a children’s opera that would bring together schools on either side of the Northern Ireland/Éire border, and from both sides of the religious divide. It resulted in sell-out performances at Newry Town Hall, the first event of its kind for generations. At the same time, the department produced a new model for working in remote rural communities. That led to funding from the Peter Moores Foundation and the EU that supported a creative team from Scottish Opera working with communities in Donegal (1996) and Fermanagh (1998) in the creation of original music-theater productions that celebrated the removing of physical roadblocks as well as the emotional barriers that had separated border towns and villages for decades.

Davidson mentions that the UK Government has recently been advocating using the arts to start creating more empathy, but notes that: “Opera has always been that to me. People just think of it like fluff now, but it was so relevant at one point. Think of the way it was used in Italy with the Risorgimento: it was the mechanism by which people actually expressed opinion. There’s no reason why we can’t look at it like that again. The kind of work that we did in Ireland with “Cross Borders” was so important because we gave people a mechanism to explore their own stories and explore their communities and explore what they had in common: the best communal things about what they knew and what they shared. I always remember that it was an incredible privilege to be able to do that work and actually have people saying; ‘In order to take part in this I was driving along roads that haven’t been driven along since 1922, since they blocked the roads off between this side of the border and that.’”

Jane Davidson’s concluding thoughts perfectly sum up the perspective that she, Karen MacIver and Allan Dunn, and the Outreach and Education department of Scottish Opera, have steadfastly maintained for years; that opera contains multitudes, that it has the great potential to be an educator, a unifier and a life-changer, and even a life-saver. “Looking at things that are happening in other parts of the world just now–and I know there are some amazing initiatives–I still think there’s work that can be done, because opera is such a flexible art form. It can–what’s the beer ad?–‘reach the parts the others can’t reach.’ It’s got that capacity.”


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