Posted 20 Jun
Brian Bannatyne-Scott recently visited St Andrews to sing Judas in Elgar's The Apostles. Just before the concert he met Iain of OperaScotland to talk over his career.
What was your first experience of opera?
My first memory - all my first memories - were of Scottish Opera, of course. Being a teenager or a youngster in the 60s and 70s I heard quite a lot of operas because my music teacher at school - Watson's in Edinburgh - was Richard Telfer, who was one of the original directors of Scottish Opera. Richard was quite a keen advocate of opera so for those of us who were that way inclined it was enormously helpful. So my first memories were probably of Pelléas et Mélisande, which was a most beautiful production, and then the Ring cycle, which was put together through the 60s. Then in 1970 they did the whole cycle and we at the age of 15 were bussed through to Glasgow to see it. One of my classmates was Donald Runnicles, now a very famous conductor, so we had quite a keen group of musicians going to see the opera.
The Pelleas I remember as in those days a lot of opera productions were done behind a gauze which can produce lots of shimmering effects. It meant you didn't actually need very many actual bits of sets, but they could not afford many sets then! The whole effect with the lighting was utterly magical. They used the same technique with the Ring which they put together with some fantastic singers. George Shirley and Anne Howells were Pelleas and Melisande. David Ward, the great Scottish bass, was Arkel, a part I now sing quite often. He was the Wotan in the Ring and really got me interested in some of the roles I sing now.
After school you came to study in St Andrews?
I studied French and mediaeval history at St Andrews! Every fortnight I took my little car to Leuchars, took the train to Edinburgh changed to Glasgow and a half hour later a whole hour of singing lesson with Lilian Liddle, who was one of the great old teachers from the RSAMD.as it was then. I had singing lessons all the way through. I was very lucky. Tom Duncan, the organist and conductor at Holy Trinity recognised I was quite keen and quite good, so I started at St Andrews singing the Messiah. My first ever paid gig was the Corn Exchange in Cupar where I sang Fantasia on Christmas Carols for £15!
When did you first decide you wanted to be a professional singer?
I suppose towards the end of my time in school. At first, I didn't know how good I was. The head music teacher was only interested in people who studied music and since I wasn't studying music I was off his radar. In my final year at school a chap called Patrick Criswell took over as music director and realised that there was an embryonic voice there. He sent me through to the Academy in Glasgow just to see what they thought and they immediately offered me a place which was very gratifying. I came back to Edinburgh and told my mother and father and my mother said 'don't be ridiculous, Brian, go to University first' so I went to University, got my degree, did a teaching training year because my then girlfriend now wife was the year behind me in St Andrews. We both went to London, I went to the Guildhall and she became a Chartered Accountant. All the way through this I kept knocking on the door and as the door opens you go through it. I just kept knocking on doors and fortunately on the whole the doors opened for me.
You live in Edinburgh?
Yes, we moved from London. I was down there for quite a long time, but when the kids were five and three I was doing more and more work abroad so there was no particular need to work in London.
Your career has had a few turning points, but opera has figured very largely in it.
Yes, it has. I've done concerts and recitals all the way through, but the main bulk of my career has been opera and that's gone in different phases at different places.I started with Scottish Opera when they had company principals. Way back from 1982 to 1985 I was one of the company principals when I was 25 and then when I went down to London I started to work with English National Opera and did quite a lot [with them] until '93 when Elder and Jonas and Pountney left and the new regime brought in their new singers. So [then] I started singing in Europe - I sang a lot at the Monnaie in Brussels and then all over the world after that.
What are your thoughts about the future of Opera in Scotland?
Well, I would love to see more of it. My main bugbear is not enough of us Scots get a chance to sing much opera in Scotland. I think Opera Bohemia do a good job using local talent. I feel that Scottish Opera don't seem to know what is available to them here. 1985 was the last time I sang with Scottish Opera. I've sung all over the world, but haven't had much of a chance to sing with them. I know many of my colleagues feel the same. The problem with opera is it's becoming an old persons' art form - certainly in this country - not so much in Europe. There they have much more of a system whereby schools learn it is not weird and elitist. Sadly we still have this elitist view I think here.
What are your plans for the future?
When I finish today I've got a few weeks to learn Snug in Midsummer Night's Dream. I've done it before, but it was about 20 years ago ... I'm doing that at Aix-en-Provence Festival. I've got various irons in the fire for the autumn. I'm not sure what the agent's working on, but I know next spring I'm going back to Victoria in British Colombia to do Bottom [a role] I have been wanting to play for years and am looking forward to that.
What advice would you give a young singer?
Learn your trade. It's not like The Voice. You cannot get anywhere in opera without learning your trade, acting, learning languages and doing it. I'm Visiting Professor of Singing at St Andrews and we're getting some lovely youngsters coming through and some real quality ones. And hopefully the advice I'm giving them is much the same as I give here that if you work hard - and you need luck - we all need a bit of luck, if you work hard, and get some luck, it's a fantastic career, a wonderful life.
Do you have a hobby?
I suppose my main hobby is a rather esoteric one, which is fine wines. I'm a bit of a wine buff and I like going to the vineyards to collect wine if I can.
For me the most important thing is to get more opera inside Scotland and that means more opera singers and more concert singers from Scotland singing here. We don't have a base of our own people. Otherwise what's the point in having an Opera company and a big orchestra. It wasn't like that when I started - when... Alex Gibson was in charge of the SNO and Scottish Opera and we were the young ones who were coming through and encouraged to go on and have international careers and that is something I feel strongly about. I would love to see that improving a lot.
Have you got any particular memories from when you performed in Scotland?
I did three years at Scottish Opera, back in the day. I remember a fantastic Meistersinger with Alex conducting with Norman Bailey as Sachs - that was a great performance with Alberto Remedios. I was the night watchman. I later sang with Alberto when he was just about past his best. I sang it with ENO, I was Pogner and someone said what a shame that Walther von Stolzing's father-in-law seemed younger than Walther himself! Despite the Spanish name, Alberto Remedios had been a Liverpudlian docker and he said 'if you find yourself singing with me again, get that makeup right!' I think he was quite serious about it.
For Brian's memories of two great singers, listen to the video!
Brian will be singing in the Creation with Dundee Choral Union in the Caird Hall on 20 March - don't miss it!
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