For almost fifty years Scottish Opera has been the national opera company of Scotland, always providing performances of international quality. It has always been the intention of the company to allow Scottish audiences to see a wide range of styles of opera, performed by the best of Scottish and imported talent.
When Alexander Gibson moved home to Scotland in 1959 to take up the post of Musical Director of the Scottish National Orchestra, he had several years accumulated experience of conducting opera, of running an opera company in London, and bringing that company on tour to the four Scottish cities. He soon discovered that he had periods in the performing schedule of his new orchestra where there were gaps without work. He set about planning for the production of some opera performances to fill this gap.
In June 1962 he was ready to begin. The Arts Council made available a small amount of funding, and a week of performances was put on at the King’s Theatre in Glasgow. The repertoire consisted of one popular piece, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and one comparative rarity, Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande.
The 1963 season showed the ambitions of the young company well. There was a second week, this time at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh. The programming was as imaginative as before, the choice of their first Mozart opera falling on the less popular Seraglio. The first Verdi production was Otello, launching the Scottish Opera Chorus in fine style, and giving Charles Craig his first chance to sing the title role. An unusual double-bill was added, with the British premiere of the modern drama Night Flight, by Dallapiccola, and Ravel’s comic masterpiece L’Heure Espagnole.
1964 saw a year of consolidation, with a repeat of Otello and new productions of two popular favourites, Faust and Don Giovanni. Any sense of predictability was eliminated by the startlingly dramatic modernity of both productions. The next two years saw further expansion, with some extra performances in Glasgow and a week at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen. The 1966 repertoire of four operas ranged from Verdi’s Falstaff with Geraint Evans to a chamber opera, Albert Herring, by Benjamin Britten. It also featured a first Wagner production, Die Walkure. For this, Gibson used colleagues from his London days, David Ward, Charles Craig, and Elizabeth Fretwell. However for Brunnhilde, he cast the Finnish soprano Anita Valkki, already singing the part at Bayreuth.
The expansion continued gradually. In 1967 the company gave its first week at Perth (Dundee having lost the theatre that Sadler’s Wells and Carl Rosa had used previously). The smaller theatre in Perth was ideal for Anthony Besch’s famous production of Cosi fan tutte, with Elizabeth Harwood and Janet Baker as the sisters. That year also saw the company’s first appearance at the Edinburgh Festival. The main theme of the Festival was the work of Igor Stravinsky and Gibson conducted performances of The Rake’s Progress and The Soldier’s Tale. In 1968 Scottish Opera made its first visit abroad, with Albert Herring receiving two performances at the Florence May Festival. The company also gave its first world premiere, Robin Orr’s Full Circle.
The success continued during the next few years. More Wagner productions were added, with the intention of completing the Ring cycle; the Berlioz centenary was celebrated in 1969 with a massive production of The Trojans, and the Beethoven bicentenary in 1970 was marked by a staging of Fidelio. The first decade of the company’s operations ended with a glorious production of Der Rosenkavalier and the completion of the Wagner sequence, culminating in a triumphant performance of the Ring cycle in December 1971. It must be noted that even at this climax of the company’s success, financial worries were noticeable. At the Ring performances, appeals were made to the audience for donations of cash, no matter how small. Also, the Ring production, which could have continued in use for years, survived into spring 1972, with more performances of Die Walkure, and was then burnt, mainly because the sets were too bulky and expensive to store.
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