Opera Scotland

John Calder, Ledlanet Nights and opera

Posted 29 Mar

Iain, Peter and Stephen Fraser of OperaScotland first met John Calder in the 1960s, when their father was chairman of Ledlanet Nights, the arts festival John started.  John had inherited Ledlanet, a mansion in Kinross-shire, from his great-uncle. Over the years Iain, Peter and Stephen saw many performances and events there, not just opera. They were therefore well placed to ask John about this remarkable festival of the arts, and its contribution to Scotland.

John, people think of you in connection with Samuel Beckett and the other avant-garde authors you published, your association with the Traverse Theatre which you helped found, the Writers' Conference at the Edinburgh Festival which paved the way for the Book Festival and so on - but your passion for opera nowadays is not so well known. What was your first experience of opera?

Well, I was sent to school in Canada during the war. I came from a totally non-musical family.  I was taken to my first concert about 1940 in Montreal.  I later heard Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel there and a teacher and an older pupil encouraged me to read about music in the school library. I particularly remember reading Ernest Newman's book on Beethoven. Then I saw Fidelio and was somewhat taken aback - I'd never heard any of the music and had no way of judging how good the performance was. 

Then I was very lucky.  In June 1946 I went to Zurich to improve my languages before starting at the University there. It was a wonderful time to be in Zurich, there was no serious rationing as there was elsewhere and so the greatest singers of the day were there.  I had just got my student card and was passing the opera house and saw that Götterdämmerung was advertised for that very day. I bought a ticket and fell in love with the music, which I'd never heard though I'd read about it. You could not have found a better cast anywhere - Kirsten Flagstad was singing. I went every week to hear performances, often twice and to Paris too.

And then you went to London?

Yes, the Royal Opera House had just reopened. People associate Nye Bevan with the start of the National Health Service now, but they forget he promoted subsidy for the arts. He insisted a percentage of the seats had to be really cheap, and so the amphitheatre then was always packed with young people - unlike now.

You've published a lot of books on opera?

In my early days of publishing I thought it would be a good idea to publish an opera annual. It was edited by Harold Rosenthal, who had become archivist at Covent Garden and worked on Opera magazine. The Earl of Harewood wrote the foreword, his name appeared on the cover and it sold well. In fact it was successful for I think nine years. The books I've brought out have always reflected my interests and I became known for opera. 

Nicholas John, then the dramaturg at Sadler's Wells Opera, approached me and suggested I start a series of opera guides. They each contained a libretto and some original essays and so on and retailed for £2.  They were reprinted and new guides have now been written by others. I published some memoirs and other books about music too.

How did Ledlanet Nights come about?

Well, my great uncle left me the house. I was a busy publisher doing some work as well for Harewood at the Edinburgh Festival in 1962 and 1963. I had to use the house for something and so Ledlanet Nights was launched. Despite ups and downs, we built an audience and some of the performers became regulars. We had a large membership and mailing list.

As you know, we have put together a list of performances from programmes and advertisements and the mix of events is quite a striking one. For example, you promoted Handel's operas a number of times?

Handel's operas were quite unfashionable. I had seen a few of them and I knew they were delightfully tuneful. 

Some people called Ledlanet a Scottish mini-Glyndebourne but I was not interested in it being Glyndebourne.  I didn't want it to be exclusive but open to all.  Basically I wanted to educate people in musical appreciation, but we had plays and readings and even folk evenings. Over the years we tried different things.

Every year, we put on at least one opera, usually an eighteenth century one, with a small orchestra.  Hence we called them the Scottish Baroque Ensemble, dropping the word 'baroque' later.  Some of the casts were quite big but there were a lot of young singers coming along, and over time we built up a lot of contacts.

Read about "A Celebration for John Calder" at the Traverse Theatre in April 2014 here.

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