Opera Scotland

Donald Maxwell on starting his career - and Joseph Hislop

Posted 27 Dec

Donald Maxwell recently talked to us about his introduction to opera, and reminisced about the start of his career. Our clip contains his memories of that great Scottish tenor, Joseph Hislop.

OperaScotland: What was your first experience of opera?

My first experience of Grand Opera was at Perth Theatre. I was a student and I remember going back home and my mother said "do you fancy going to the opera tonight?" It hadn't really crossed my mind, I'd been interested in Gilbert and Sullivan and had been to D'Oyly Carte touring performances and things like that, but grand opera - no. 'We'll go tonight', she said. 'It's Cosi fan tutte'. Of course at that stage Perth theatre had the gods which are long gone. We went there and I didn't really twig at that time that if you went to a performance of Cosi fan tutti in the 1960s, Janet Baker as Dorabella, Elizabeth Harwood as Fiordiligi, Ryland Davies as Ferrando and Peter Van der Bilt as Guglielmo and so on. It was an absolutely all-star cast. You could go anywhere in the world, but you wouldn't see a cast of this quality. Anthony Besch's production was of course an absolute landmark for Scottish Opera, so that was a very fortuitous introduction to the world of grand opera.

OperaScotland: You realised around then you had a talent for singing?

Not particularly - I was a geographer (my father was a geographer) I did a geography degree in Edinburgh and then I went to Dundee to the Training College there. We are sitting here in St Andrews and of course, the environment was quite a formative part of education. When I was at the training college we did an opera each year and the director of music at that stage was Willie McCluskey. He was a very, very good pianist and word had obviously reached Mr McCluskey that I was coming to college and that I was something of a singer and so I was let into the opera, which was very much the preserve of the music students.

We did Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, which was great fun to do - this was when the College was based in Park Place in Dundee. The other things that were locally based were after being on the show with Dundee College, I then joined Tayside Opera and they are still going forty years on, still doing performances of grand opera. It hasn't got any easier as years go on but I did four or five shows with them in Dundee and other things I did in this area were with the Scottish Amateur Music Association. 

I think it's long gone now, but they used to do a summer school in St Salvator's in St Andrews. I did about three or four years with that, led initially by Ian Wallace. It was an amazing boost for me to meet somebody like Ian and to pick up things with him. I did the Barber of Seville, I did Marriage of Figaro and that was an amazing learning experience to work with them on opera. 

Soon I was introduced to Joseph Hislop.

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