The new voice in training

9th January 1998 at 00:00
A sea of mud and concrete will soon be transformed into a new Scottish opera school, reports Svend Brown.

From the window of his Glasgow office, Timothy Dean, head of opera at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, used to have a bit of a view - not exactly a rural idyll, but a view.

Now he looks on to a building site, and will do so for another couple of months. But he is far from downcast, because by March the mud and concrete will have become the Alexander Gibson Opera School, a magnificent home to his department.

The school will add a new performing space to the RSAMD, a highly flexible studio theatre (150-seat capacity) with an acoustic that can be altered to suit music ofdifferent kinds or even straighttheatre. There will be rehearsal facilities and practice rooms to replace the highly unsatisfactory facilities currently borne by staff and students alike.

Given that the postgraduate opera course is acquiring an international reputation and attracting students from all over the world (a recent recital featured Korean and American singers as well as Scots), this could not happen too soon. The opera school will benefit these older students to a high degree: voices simply are not ready for operatic roles until they have matured. Singers trying to run before they can walk risk permanent damage.

The building itself is exciting, but the broader potential benefits arise from the attitudes of those who run it. A feasibility study is currently examining just how the new building should be used, by whom and to what ends.

Much of Dean's talk is of welcoming people in to the new school. His are obviously not the only significant opinions to be considered, but his personal vision of the school is inspiring and must carry weight. He is after a fulcrum, a real opera studio where students of all aspects of opera - singing, directing, designing, even composing - can come together to develop skills and spread their wings before having to make high-profile debuts with professional opera companies.

One model at the back of his mind is the Garden Venture, Cov-ent Garden's workshop scheme and platform for small operas which gave composers the chance to write an opera and then work on the piece with the cast, a director and so on.

"And that absolutely does not mean just trying things out for the sake of them on a captive company," says Dean, "but a real opportunity to work with young talent and develop skills.

"It is incredibly hard for people in any of these fields to get the kind of experience they need, if they're not to fall flat on their faces first time out on the professional stage. Think about composers. Just say they're working away and then the call from the opera company comes with a commission and they have never written an opera before but they have to come up with this big composition, and then of course it bombs out."

Younger students and performers are very much part of this vision. There is talk of special projects to involve the junior academy, and maybe even operas being written specially for children. Students from the academy have long been involved in education and outreach work, and the building may enhance those activities too, though exactly how is not yet clear.

The second feasibility study of the moment focuses on the more controversial idea of creating a touring company made up of singers from the school. The RSAMD stages numerous operas each year in Glasgow, and enriches the operatic diet in Scotland with well-received stagings of rare works as well as mainstream pops. There has already been talk of taking some of these productions east to Edinburgh, and the benefit for the students of playing to a wider audience is undeniable: after all, opera is one of those things you can only learn by doing it.

But the new company would travel further afield, all around Scotland and some fear a clash with Scottish Opera's Opera Go Round, which already takes major works in tailored-down productions to every corner of the land.

Dean is determined to find a complementary role for the RSAMD - maybe offer slightly larger, mid-scale productions beyond the scope of Opera Go Round, or different kinds of opera, or shift the emphasis of the work to outreach and development.

If it is sustainable and enriches the diet of opera available throughout Scotland, it can only be a good thing.

Dean's all-welcoming attitude promises well for the new school. The building itself is due to be completed in time for a grand opening in September.

His hope is that the new theatre will also inspire audiences and draw in either aficionados to try something a little different or - even better - people who have not tried opera before.

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