Opera Scotland

Sue Baxendale, McOPERA and Simoon

Posted 8 Sep

Sue Baxendale is Section Principal Horn with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, and in addition both Producer and Education and Outreach Officer for Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland (McOpera) for which she has both devised and led numerous projects. Throughout her creative life, she has been a strong advocate for the unique power of opera to express and articulate our modern lives.

Her recent work with McOpera has included the Scottish premiere of Fleishmann/Shostakovich's opera Rothschild's Violin (2014), the world premiere of the original version of Erik Chisholm's haunting Simoon with dance film, as part of the Cottier Chamber Project 2015, and a new opera project for early years (0-5 years), Squirrel with director Martin O'Connor and composer Oliver Searle.

Stephen Fraser of Opera Scotland interviewed Sue during Glasgow's West End Festival.

What favourite memories do you have of opera in Scotland?

My favourite memories are of playing in Scottish Opera's Ring cycle and Der Rosenkavalier. As a horn player, these are beautifully written and glorious to play, as is so much of the operatic repertoire. The lines we play so perfectly reflect the movement on the stage and the emotion expressed by the singers. The sound world of the horn is that of the tenor, the mezzo soprano, the cello. Oddly, my daughter is now twelve, has a beautiful singing voice, and she also plays the cello. These are the voices I was surrounded by when I was carrying her – its not a surprise that she loves them too.

Does the phrasing of playing a string instrument help with her singing?

I think it does. I use that analogy a lot with my teaching, and we look at comparisons with bow strokes and the breath, with phrasing, with sound quality. These three instruments, the voice, the cello, the horn are so intrinsically linked, share the same tonal realms - and opera is where they link up the most.

You think opera does have a future?

Yes, absolutely. It's the consummate art form, the perfect blend of text, drama, the visual aspect, and the sound world. It's every single art form you could possibly put together. The greatest thing about it is that the music is always the subtext, the extra character in every drama, emotionally leading both the listener and the protagonists into hidden places without the need for the writer to tell us in words. Opera provides the emotional space and distance to look at the most highly charged conditions of human life, to articulate them and give them expression through the human voice and the music which surrounds it.

We do a lot of education projects with the Co-OPERAtive, and one of my favourite exercises to demonstrate the power of music to children is to play them extracts of film (something like Jaws for example). We roll the opening sequence on the beach, and underneath that we play three different sound worlds. So we might start with the theme tune from the Archers, and then a bit of Lehar, and then finally we play the music from Jaws. Instantly, that's it in a nutshell, that's what opera can provide - the emotion, the subtext, the context of drama and music. Without the music, that shark is wearing a floppy, rubber fin! With the music, it is terrifying. Put the voice on top of that general concept, and you have the most powerful art form, opera. And there are so many ways to stage opera, both in theatre spaces and in concert. We are only just scratching the surface of this now.

What would surprise a non-musician about the life of a musician?

I think it's the variety, the diversity of what we do. I believe more and more that in the 21st-century all musicians need to become more akin to the troubadours of the Renaissance period, of Renaissance man. A musician should never be solely defined by the tools they hold at any one given moment, and a challenge for us as teachers is how to make this true without compromising the achievement of excellence.

All musicians should be open to every experience, to reach out to others, and be able and willing to bring to fruition those projects in which they believe. And we need business skills for that. Through working with my colleagues at Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland, my portfolio now is huge, going from producer of an opera such as Simoon, to our education and outreach work, to playing the horn, to working with administration.

Do you find it frustrating playing in an orchestra and not being able to see the rest of the performance is about?

No, not at all. I ensure that I know full well what each of the operas are about, what the staging is, how my lines reflect or anticipate the action or the emotional content on stage. When working with opera I know what I'm doing, I know what my line is delineating and I think that's the vital part of playing opera.

What made you pick Simoon rather than another of Chisholm's operas?

Simoon was never typeset, but it's one of a triptych of operatic pieces called Murder in Three Keys. The other were typeset set and performed out in Cape Town, but Simoon had only been seen in New York in 1954 in a two handed piano version. Chisholm's biographer, John Purser (The Chisholm Trust) had always believed that Simoon was the undiscovered masterpiece of Chisholm's operatic output, and beyond all the other pieces it deserved a showing, even 50 years after Chisholm's death. With the financial backing of both The Chisholm Trust and The Cottier Chamber Project, and an amazing cast of singers (Jane Irwin, Damian Thantrey, Phillip Sheffield and Charlie Drummond), an incredible conductor in Ian Ryan, and our players' experienced approach to opera, I think we produced something really quite incredible. The addition of Roddy Simpson's film lifted this into an entirely new dimension.... And led us to explore a really interesting way of presenting opera as a "concert" performance.

During rehearsals were you aware of the sound worlds being different.

Yes, it's been a complicated process. I worked very closely with Roddy. He's been filming to a piano score with an actor (Mike Daviot) and two dancers (Salma Faraji and Erick Mauritia). When the orchestra started rehearsing, it was quite something for him to turn up and listen to a full orchestral score that up until the week before, had only been heard by a very, very small group of people who were reading it, or listening to a piano reduction recorded quickly by our repetiteur, Lliam Patterson. There is a huge difference between reading and hearing a huge 27 piece player ensemble, with some peculiar orchestrations (harmonium, wind machines, lots of piano). It is an incredible experience and very interesting as far as producing is concerned - a very interesting journey. Even things like the harmonium. For instance, it turned out there was only one harmonium in the UK capable of playing this piece. I was very lucky, and found Rosie, a beautiful Mustel harmonium from 1900 supplied by Philip Fluke.

Ian Ryan has done a lot of editing. Certainly there are some anomalies. For example, a celeste is written into the percussion parts. We can only assume that in Cape Town the percussionist also played celeste, which is highly unusual. We have a whole piano section (a four hand piano, plus a celeste, plus a harmonium) which is bigger than the section of cellos- the pianists are delighted!

Outside music you have hobbies, you mentioned family.

I don't have time for any between playing and organising opera. I have two children, who are really into music, music in all its forms and variety, particularly how it interacts with the other performing arts.

I love English literature, language, theatre, art exhibitions, it all blends together. Each nation's culture defines that society, and defines humanity, and this should be celebrated.

It's been an exciting journey having seen all these disciplines start to merge into each other, particularly on projects such as Simoon. In ancient Greece times it was all the same thing. It's something that's largely been lost now, and everything has become very compartmentalised. Two hundred years ago there wasn't such a thing as a company that only did opera, or only did symphony concerts - musicians moved around, took control of their own destinies, and I suspect that's where in general we're heading again...

And if we are, then Music Co-OPERAtive Scotland will be important.

Thank you, Sue. 

Listen to Sue talking about her work on Simoon. 

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