Take a look at the programme for this year’s St Magnus Festival and if you’re of a mature enough age, you might just experience an unexpected blast from the past. For there, among the crammed seven-day schedule of music, theatre, poetry and wider arts events, is a name that was once legendary in the international opera circuit during the 1970s and 1980s.
Isobel Buchanan is a former doyen of the international opera stage, but for the past 20 years or so has been completely absent from the world of opera, and almost totally absent from any other form of frontline concert work.
Yet here she is on Saturday, with actor husband Jonathan Hyde and pianist Joseph Middleton, appearing in an intimate presentation called In Flanders Fields, an evening of words and music on the theme of war. It’s a programme she and Hyde jointly conceived last year for the Bath Festival to commemorate the centenary of the Great War, and which they have slightly modified for this St Magnus performance in Stromness Town Hall.
Born in 1954, Buchanan studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland). In 1975, at the age of 21, and having just graduated, a surprise audition with one of the world’s leading opera conductors led to a contract with Australian Opera which catapulted her into the international limelight.
The conductor was Richard Bonynge, husband of Dame Joan Sutherland, and before she knew it Buchanan was singing the leading coloratura roles in Sydney, and as the 1980s progressed, found herself starring at the Royal Opera House, Glyndebourne, the Vienna State Opera, the New York Met, and many more prestigious venues to great critical acclaim.
She recalls making that decisive move Down Under. “It smacked everyone around the face at the Academy. They all came out and said ‘what, all that talent and you’re going to Australia?’ To me, once I’d looked Australia up on the map, it was the most exciting thing.”
Bonynge clearly felt he had spotted a winner. “I knew I wasn’t simply going there to be in the chorus, but Richard floored me by saying my first role would be Pamina in The Magic Flute. I was 21. Next came Fiordiligi in Cosi fan tutte, then Micaela in Carmen, even Gilda in Rigoletta, which I wasn’t probably fully ready for at the time, but I thought, ‘why not?’”
From there, Buchanan’s fame grew at an exponential rate. She duetted with Placido Domingo in Carmen in Vienna, but also found time to return to Scotland for Scottish Opera, firstly at the invitation of Sir Alexander Gibson to sing Mimi in La bohème, then in several of John Cox’s memorable productions of the 1980s.
She was up there with the best of the Scots internationalists, among them her contemporaries Margaret Marshall and Linda Finnie. But by the early 1990s, still in her late 30s, what was it that caused one of opera’s most celebrated young talents to fall silent?
“What happened to me was twofold,” Buchanan explains, though it took almost ten years for her to really get to the bottom of the causes. “Firstly, I had just had my lovely children and I was in a total dilemma about what to do professionally, because I felt my main role was towards the children.
“I think if my husband hadn’t been a performer as well, it might have been different, but the fact we were both concentrating on our work, and being away from home a lot, I was thinking ‘why have children and do this to them?’”
But it was after giving birth to her second daughter that something strange happened to Buchanan’s voice. “I didn’t know if it was psychological, but there was something physical going on which made it feel like a ton weight. When I sang, it was like pushing a boulder up a hill.”
Her voice even began to get lower, a scary prospect for a coloratura singer used to scaling the highest reaches of the soprano repertoire. She learned to live with it, turning more to teaching and giving masterclasses than performing, until a GP friend eventually suggested she get her thyroid checked.
“It took until 12 years ago for that to be spotted, but once diagnosed, the little pills you take had an immediate effect. I couldn’t believe it”, she says. “My whole range came back.”
But so did a momentary sense a resentment. “It wasn’t just a question of having missed out on years of performing, it was the loss of all that self-esteem. Everything goes, your identity, your sense of self. Thank God I had a wonderful husband, family and children who saw me through it.”
The great news is, Buchanan is back on the performing circuit: not on the opera stage, but at a scale and pace that suits her. “I’ve done some recordings and some recital work and kind of limited it to that.”
Which is the role we’ll see her in this weekend, singing music that is not exclusively about war, but reflects more what was going on in the artistic world before, during and after. “Some of the pre-war songs express a state of denial that it was ever going to happen, like the carefree decadence of Berlin cabaret songs; others, by the likes of Holst, Butterworth and Britten, sit pertinently with the poetry and prose of Sassoon, Kipling and Owen.”
It may just be one programme in a festival packed with newly commissioned music and theatre, and performers ranging from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to Eddie Reader. But to see Isobel Buchanan back on the concert trail is something worth celebating.
• The St Magnus Festival, various venues, Orkney, 18-25 June, www.stmagnusfestival.com