SCOTLAND’S national opera company has heralded the start of a new era after finally appointing a new figurehead - 18 months after the dramatic departure of the previous incumbent.
Preston-born conductor Stuart Stratford has been unveiled by Scottish Opera as the successor to Frenchman Emmanuel Joel-Hornack.
Mr Stratford, who will be taking on his first role as a music director of a major opera company, was chosen after a lengthy recruitment process which triggered more than 100 expressions of interest.
His track record includes conducting for English National Opera, Opera North, Welsh National Opera, the Birmingham Opera Company, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the City of London Sinfonia.
Mr Stratford, who starts in his post at the beginning of June, is a Cambridge University graduate who went on to study in Russia, at the St Petersburg State Conservatoire.
The 40-year-old, who is half-Scottish through his Clydebank-born mother, said he was “honoured and proud” to have been appointed to the role, which is expected to see him conduct Scottish Opera productions at least twice a season.
He offered a glimpse into what his tenure may offer, saying he planned a “very balanced” mix between the staging of classics, rarely-seen operas and brand new work, with his influence likely to be felt from the 2016-17 programme onwards.
Mr Stratford said he had a “very strong connection with all things Russian and eastern Europe” which dated back to his time studying in Russia, describing it as “a rich vein which is always worth mining.” Mr Stratford said he had also developed a love for the “rarer and messy” Italian Verismo music.
He said much of his vision for Scottish Opera would be drawn from his experience of working with companies like Almeida Opera and the Birmingham Opera Company, including encouraging new music and staging opera outside traditional venues.
He said: “Some of the things I’ve been taught is that new music should always be treated as if it is a classic, as if every note is the most important thing and, similarly, classics should be treated as new music.
“They’re not in a cupboard or a museum, we have to make them live for now and not be too protective of them. They protect themselves with their greatness.
“You have to achieve a balance, but you don’t always have to give people what they want, you can give people what they need.”
Scottish Opera was dogged by difficulties last year with delays in the completion of a major overhaul of its main performance space, Glasgow’s historic Theatre Royal, including a major extension to the building.
Due to be unveiled in May 2014, then July, to coincide with Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, the £15 million overhaul was not ready to be unveiled until mid-December.
But the new music director hinted that Scottish Opera’s audiences may have to get used to seeing the company perform in new, much more intimate, venues around Glasgow and elsewhere.
Mr Stratford added: “Whenever I’ve worked with (artistic director) Graham Vick and the Birmingham Opera Company, it has felt like really challenging every idea that you’ve had about opera and what an opera should be.
“They don’t do performances in an opera house, it‘s always in very surprising circumstances. It comes down to: ‘what is it that we are trying to do, what is opera as an art form, are there other ways that we can get out of the theatre and is the Theatre Royal always the best place to do a certain type of work?’
“We should really explore as many different avenues as we can. There is a unique situation in Scotland - there are difficulties with the geography. But we should absolutely make it the case that the small-scale work is as high a quality as main-scale.
“Small-scale does not have to mean small in ambition or small in execution. It is Scotland’s opera company and everyone deserves the highest possible standards. I’ll be heavily involved in the smaller tours as well - both in the planning and execution.”
Despite boasting a budget of more than £8 million, the company has come under fire for the low number of full-scale opera productions it stages each year. It has also lost its full-time chorus and made its orchestra go part-time in recent years.
Mr Stratford, who pledged a commitment to use Scottish and British singers as much as possible in his programming, said the would attempt to “rebuild” the morale of Scottish Opera’s orchestra players through “leadership and constantly doing good work.”
Mr Reedjik added: “We had one year when we had a slightly smaller season because the Theatre Royal was closed, but we’ve done our very best to be consistently delivering between four and five titles a year, which is living within our means.”
Mr Joel-Hornack quit citing “personal reasons” in September 2013 after less than two months in the job, sparking a flurry of claims of behind-the-scenes disputes over the company’s future artistic direction.
His walk-out and the subsequent reports of a major rift with Scottish Opera’s New Zealand-born general director Alex Reedjik were a major embarrassment for the company, which had only previously had four music directors in its 50-year-history.
Mr Reedjik said: “It has taken one or two moments to get to this point. All these things take the time they take. We’re very happy that at the end of our process we’ve got exactly the right answer in the form of Stuart.
“We had over 100 expressions in the role. By the time you turn that list into a working shortlist against the kind of criteria we had in mind.
“You get to a group of people who we felt really fitted the brief, you have to go and meet them to see if you get on with them or not, see them do some work, maybe get them to come here and perform in an opera with us. With all due respect, I think a year and a half is about right.
“This appointment hasn’t come out of the blue, I’ve been aware of Stuart’s work for a good number of years, particularly with Opera North, English National Opera and very recently and spectacularly with the Birmingham Opera Company.”
ANALYSIS BY KEN WALTON
“We should absolutely make the case that the small-scale work is as high a quality as main scale”.
These words from the newly-appointed music director of Scottish Opera, Stuart Stratford, smack of self-justification for what Scottish Opera has become - a slimline national opera company currently operating on four or five main-scale operas a year, padding out its existence with low-budget morsels.
Nothing wrong with that in principle, but Scottish Opera’s balancing act is weighted heavily towards the economy end. Stratford sounds very much on message with the current administration’s strategy.
Yet he’s a conductor with a notably growing reputation, described by one major critic as “a man to watch”.
He has a sound record in mainstream repertoire, but equally in offbeat projects that take opera out of the opera house.
The question is, will he be his own man, fix the mix at Scottish Opera, and influence the delivery of a truly balanced artistic vision? Or has he been signed up to follow the current party line?
Ken Walton is The Scotsman’s opera and classical music critic.
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