Giving opera back to the people;Arts;Interview;Ruth Mackenzie;Jane Davidson

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Ruth Mackenzie, the head of Scottish Opera, and Jane Davidson, the head of its education department, talk to Brian Hayward about the imminent merger with Scottish Ballet

Last year Scottish Ballet seemed doomed when the Scottish Arts Council threatened to withdraw its grant. This year, in response to instructions to put its house in order, the national dance company's administrative arm - which includes education - is to merge with Scottish Opera's.

At Elmbank Crescent in Glasgow, where Scottish Opera occupies the imposing former Engineers Institute, education has climbed up the marble staircase to take its seat alongside music, design and finance. In the words of Ruth Mackenzie, the general director of Scottish Opera who started her career in arts education, the purpose of the company is "education and service".

This is a bold outlook for Scotland's major arts organisation, but one that has given it the youngest audience of any UK opera company, with the fastest-growing section the under-19s.

Ruth Mackenzie refuses to take any personal credit for the statistics. Instead she points at Jane Davidson's well established education programme, which last year contacted 25,000 people. It is comfortably the largest in the UK and, from the evidence of the education arms of continental companies, in Europe as well.

With the runaway success of this programme, and the brilliance of productions such as Der Rosenkavalier, Scottish Opera is on a roll, and can afford to take a positive yet respectful attitude to the coming merger.

Here again, education is the buzzword. Jane Davidson has been appointed director of education for the merged companies, with a place in senior management, and is meeting with the opera and ballet education staff. The outcome of these discussions could be crucial.

"I expect the education department to lead us all in the new shared experience," says Ruth Mackenzie. "Jane has always used all the arts in her programmes, and having a single department for opera, ballet and the Theatre Royal in Glasgow is a fantastic opportunity. Education will grow and grow."

One thing that will not change is the ethos of participation. Not for Ruth Mackenzie "the schools' matinee" at the opera house, which, she says, is hard on the artists and demeaning for the audience. Instead, the young people will do it themselves, know it is theirs, feel that opera belongs to them.

That's how she "got into" the arts. Brought up in London, she was packed off to choir on Sunday afternoons, and found herself at eight years old being conducted by Peter Maxwell Davies. The first time she went to the Royal Festival Hall was through the stage door.

She wants the same opportunity for every child in Scotland. Which is why the first summer school ended with a performance at the Theatre Royal, and why she welcomes the attitude of North Lanarkshire education department, which says every child under 10 should take part in an arts performance.

She is working towards a sea-change in our society, when the plots of operas will be as familiar as those of pantomime, and opera as much the fabric of life as football. If soccer is a game played by 22 men, watched by 20,001 referees, she wants opera to be 100 performers watched by 1,000 critics: everyone should have an opinion.

Last week saw the first performance at Tobermory of Jane Davidson's latest project for Secondary 1 and 2. Partnership is the name of the game - the council music advisers asked her to target the upper end of the five-to-14s; the Bank of Scotland, just starting a three-year funding programme, asked for out-of-town locations, hence the engagements in Argyll and Morayshire. The music director takes the score for the school orchestra, and on the day the rest of the team (three singers, an actor and two technicians) bring the sound and lighting rig. S1 and S2 are the chorus boys and girls.

The Mull parents and relations came to see their offspring, but they also came to see Scottish Opera. Davidson wants the Tobermory community of parents and teachers to feel responsible, almost possessive, about the performance. The music teachers worked hard with the instrumentalists; the parents held fetes, jumble sales and sponsored duck races to pay for it. If the project is a success, she knows the credit is due to the school community as well as the company.

There is intense competition for these school funds, often from performers whose claim to be "educational" needs generous interpretation. Davidson's answer is to build her work into the fabric of Scottish education.

"Teachers are finding it harder and harder to give up a half-day," she says. "I hate to go into schools knowing I'm going to make teacher problems, however nice they are about it. I've gone to two respected teachers, in Crookston and Penilee, and asked them to choose themes for Standard grade work. Now we are piloting art, English and drama modules in two schools, based on James MacMillan's Ines de Castro. Next year, I hope to have a Higher based on the life of Thomas Muir. This is the way to -" and she leans on the words "genuinely support arts education''.

At the same time she is forming partnerships with a meritocracy of arts groups and local authorities, such as the enthusiastic North Ayrshire. Choral animateur Ann Murphy is creating four new youth choirs in Glasgow. Davidson has brought the two already formed to Elmbank Crescent, and supplied them with a singer, a musician and a producer to try chorus, rather than choir, work. Jane Davidson already runs arts classes and a youth dance company in Glasgow, and a community project at Cumbernauld Theatre will use the Scottish Opera Orchestra and soloists. There will be work with the Lyceum in Edinburgh, and companies playing at the Theatre Royal.

Behind every project is a vision of a society where opera is in the primary school, and in the secondary curriculum, in the community hall and the nearest theatre, where children write about opera in their "critical analysis" and grown men argue about it in the street. Scottish Opera has got "this vision thing", and in the right place.

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