Opera Scotland

Alice Dennis on Haddo House past, present and future

Posted 23 Dec

OperaScotland has begun to identify and list the operatic performances at Haddo House, Aberdeenshire. These formed part of musical seasons started in 1947 by the late June Gordon, Lady Aberdeen and run by her for many years. We interviewed Alice Dennis, music director.

OperaScotland How did you first become involved at Haddo?

My husband Jerry came up to work for an oil company in Aberdeen. We agreed to buy our house in the dark one night in 1990, so it was a surprise when in daylight we looked down in the valley and we could see beautiful green parkland and the roof of a big house! We were told "that's Haddo House - you might like what they do there."

People knew I was setting up to teach music. Soon someone was are knocking on my door asking if I could help with the children's theatre, so I thought I'd get in on the act! Five months later I was running the youth section of the choir.

A lot of members of the choral society are ex-members of the youth choir. We never have enough boys or young men, like most choirs. We do get them to join but it's harder to get them to stay as they tend to leave the area. I think about ten years ago, Lady Aberdeen became too frail to take the classes and conduct the shows. The chorus master who had been helping left the area and she asked me to take the choral society. Since then, we've evolved and we've changed quite a lot. Numbers have gone up from twenty-eight and the chorus is up to over eighty. I train voices, rehearse and then I conduct the choir.

OperaScotland It's community-based?

Yes, there are no auditions. Anyone can come along at any time. I adapt to what I get and they're very good. Carol concerts have been going for 70 years and are very popular. Lady Aberdeen told me that when she had the first carol concert up here the Scots had barely heard of carols and Christmas was hardly celebrated. Now of course we get both Christmas and New Year

OperaScotland Why is it hard to raise money for opera?

Perhaps it doesn't have a high enough profile and people want to support performances with wider market appeal? We have been tremendously supported by companies in the past but the recession has not really been conducive to fund-raising. Many of our major sponsors and trusts have been unable to give over the last five years. I haven't really come across negative attitudes to opera myself. There are people who don't know much about it, so they don't know what they're getting into. As for our programme, it's a debate we are always having - do we do the things that are well-known or the works that are more obscure so audiences don't know about the work? We do Carmen and we do Bohème for example because it's educating people in this area into operas that are accessible.

We started up an arts festival in October. It attracted sponsorship and we're hoping that any surplus will allow us to feed it back into opera. We have a tradition of performing opera that we want to maintain, but it is so expensive.

OperaScotland You get support from oil companies?

Yes, for example, Britoil bought our piano for us, and an extension. Total too have been very keen to help us. We get sponsorship in cash and in kind. They were hoping to pay Opera Bohemia to come up and do Madam Butterfly, but they did it in Banchory. We were hoping to slot in some of our chorus and help them out. They did not want much by way of funding but we just didn't have it. We will be continuing to appeal for funds. I see looking through past programmes that Lady Aberdeen didn't do an opera every year, she often did Gilbert and Sullivan, which we still do. It takes the financial pressure off us as they are generally successful, but we are some distance from putting on an opera again. I think G&S are always popular and I think Scottish audiences are still unfamiliar with them relative to England. I cut my teeth on them. However, there is a limit to how often you can do them.

Opera Scotland Alice, you've mentioned Opera Bohemia and you've mentioned Scottish Opera. What others do you network with?

We can get students from the RCS and in the past we always had boys from them and of course they stayed in the house and had a jolly jape for three weeks. At present, we can't see when we will have the money to go back to that now that the house is closed to us, I can't see any way forward to raise the money for an opera performance in the near future.

We have precious little scope in the whole year as far as the calendar is concerned because the National Trust uses the building for weddings and events. They allow us use of the hall, but we have to work round their dates. The new hall holds 250 for events, but an orchestra takes away a lot of the capacity.

OperaScotland Who does the marketing?

I do the press releases, my son's partner runs the website and does the publicity with my son. Our mailing list is mostly online now.

OperaScotland Looking back over the years, what's the best thing you've seen here?

We did a Carmen, which I think was the best one with Mark Tinkler as director, absolutely super. We did a wonderful Macbeth but once again the production was expensive. The staging was the most elaborate we've ever had, it's made on site. For Fledermaus, we used scenery from Carl Rosa, as it was a joint production with Carl Rosa for the 60th anniversary with the help of Peter Molloy.

OperaScotland What about other sources of income?

Ways of making money are limited. In the old days, everything was done by volunteers, and Lady Aberdeen was able to rope in all sorts of help. Everybody would do things for her, the chorus members and the production team. Times have changed. You don't get people to give that sort of commitment now and you can't use people to prepare food, for example, without having certificates. They were marvellous times. We are determined to keep the tradition going. The National Trust are as helpful as they can be, but it is unquestionably more difficult nowadays. We are going to look at where we can join up with other companies, and we have to accept that semi-staged opera is becoming more common. You don't need scenery so much if you have costumes.

OperaScotland What about oratorios - quite a number have been performed here over the years.

We've performed Messiah repeatedly over the years, it was Lady Aberdeen's favourite work. This year we are going to do Verdi's Requiem which I know is done a lot. I think we've done every oratorio. Gary Walker's come and conducted the chorus and we're doing Gounod's St Cecilia Mass with David Jones.

When Jerry and I first came in 1990 we would walk round the park and we saw lots of people that were members of the cast. It would be a dream to try and get opera here in the summer when people are staying nearby. There truly is something special about Haddo House.

The Arts Festival has been selling well and we plan to expand it. Along with for example the RSNO schools workshop we hope we have a springboard for the future.

OperaScotland Thank you!

(Haddo House Choral and Operatic Society or HHCOS have an informative website here.) 

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