Scottish Opera musicians look ahead with McOpera

HOT on the heels of its recent success in presenting the long-overdue posthumous premiere of Erik Chisholm’s one-act opera Simoon at last month’s Cottier Chamber Project series in Glasgow, Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland (or McOpera, as it has become more familiarly known) has just finalised plans for a new opera initiative that will kick off its new season of projects in September.

Based around a woodland context, and as yet unnamed, it is an interactive early years opera project aimed at nursery to primary children, which is being developed in partnership with Platform at The Bridge in Easterhouse. The music will be by Oliver Searle, notable most recently for his groundbreaking work with the special needs children of Drake Music Scotland, and the storyline and stage direction will be by writer and director Martin O’Connor.

Horn player Sue Baxendale, in charge of education and outreach for McOpera, offers a taste of what to expect. “Families will go through different landscapes and different soundscapes. They’ll be encouraged to participate by influencing aspects of design, music, dance and movement. We will provide a basic framework, but within that, each time the opera is performed it will head off in slightly different directions resulting from the input of the participants.”

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Initial development of the project has involved collaboration with child specialist and trained opera singer Daniela Hathaway, and a Glasgow-based research process involving a local nursery, primary school and outreach group. McOpera’s ambition is to tour it beyond the Central Belt.

“The great thing with this project is it taps into early years provision,” says Baxendale. “There’s money available in that area if the product is strong enough, and we’ve just succeeded in getting £9,000 from Creative Scotland to allow us to explore it.

“Our ultimate ambition is that it turns into a two-pronged project: first as this very small group of musicians and facilitators, which Daniela will lead; then our intention is to have it orchestrated and scaled up so we can use the full co-op and do it in larger venues.”

For those unfamiliar with McOpera, it is a collective of musicians from the Scottish Opera Orchestra who, when forced several years ago into part-time existence by Scottish Opera, decided to take matters into their own hands and seek out opportunities that would fill the serious earnings gap they now found themselves in. It was a simple case of necessity being the mother of invention.

What is more interesting, though, is the extent to which that necessity has unleashed a creative spark among the co-op members, forcing them to think out of the box and not only dream up opportunities for themselves, but find ways of making them happen.

Clarinettist Lawrence Gill is the chair of McOpera, and like his colleagues has realised the need, for those who previously just turned up for work and got on with it, to take matters into their own hands.

“Orchestral players have effectively been institutionalised,” he believes. “We would get a schedule, turn up and do our job.” But since Scottish Opera only does that for its orchestra for a portion of the year now, the need to engineer their own destiny has become essential, and those in the co-operative are learning quickly.

“We now need to know all that is involved in putting on a concert, so we’ve got a hit list of things we have to cover, everything from funding and negotiations to marketing and logistics. We operate by committee structure, with a secretary, a treasurer, lay members, people on advertising, Sue on education, and I oversee what’s happening.”

The first few years have been slow but sure, made possible financially by the initial £100 joining fee paid by every participating Scottish Opera player, £10,000 start-up and training funding from Co-operative Development Scotland, part of Scottish Enterprise, and support in kind from Scottish Opera.

And besides their highly-successful precursor to Simoon – the Scottish premiere at last year’s Cottiers of Veniamin Fleishman’s opera Rothschild’s Violin – McOpera has mounted successful orchestral concerts in Glasgow at St Andrews in the Square, and income-generating work within the weddings and corporate sector.

Next season is critical, however, as the start-up fund is “pretty much at an end”.

“We’re running on a financial shoestring, but we’ve kept in the black,” says Gill. So it’s great news that the co-operative has now secured a residency at Aberdeen University, where it will present four concerts a year and undertake side-by-side projects with student instrumentalists as well as initiating a wider collaboration with students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and school pupils in Aberdeenshire which will culminate in a Brass and Percussion Fest at Aberdeen University.

“We’re also delighted to be premiering a new work by Paul Mealor in celebration of his 40th birthday,” Gill reveals, along with longer term news that McOpera is “in discussion with a composer and writer about a brand new opera planned for 2017.”

Meanwhile, the bread and butter work goes on, with players hired out for corporate functions and launches over the summer. “I’m more and more convinced that musicians these days have to be more like the old troubadours,” says Baxendale. “We have to have a whole raft of skills besides playing, but the bottom line is we are folk who ultimately communicate through our music.”

And there has to be a business vision driving it all, agrees Gill. “It’s a long game for McOpera, but the two most important ethos parts of the company are that we perform, and that we find some way to give money back to the players. We have to succeed, otherwise the machine stops working”.

At least now they hold the power to do that in their own hands.

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