Opera Scotland

Sir James Galway

Posted 22 Jun

Opera buffs - young ones in particular - would not necessarily think of Sir James Galway "The Man with the Golden Flute" as being much involved with opera. But his early career was as an orchestral musician and in the early 1960s he spent four years in the pit with Sadler's Wells Opera.

In the course of this he often played in Scotland. In those days Sadler's Wells (more recently known as English National Opera) toured opera across Britain paying visits to venues in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.  Sir James lives in Switzerland now and still has a busy career, giving concerts and master classes. Opera Scotland caught up with him following his recent appearance at the Perth Festival of the Arts.

As an orchestral musician, his first experience of opera was with Wimbledon Opera (he mentioned playing in Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor) and taking part in a few sessions with Sadler's Wells Opera, before he was auditioned by their then Music Director Alex Gibson for the post of first flute.  He was put through his paces, then Alex asked him "What would you play to this?", playing a bagpipe drone on the piano - to which Jimmy played an Irish jig!  It was about that time that Gibson was just about to move back to Scotland to start Scottish Opera and so many of Galway's performances in the pit were under the baton of Gibson's successor, Colin Davis.

Each year they toured. Everyone preferred to play in London; although there were extra payments on tour, they never seemed to cover costs and it was hard work.

Theatres were not in good condition then. He particularly recalled Glasgow's King's Theatre. "I remember the rats in there. While we were playing, there were rats rolling about the place. What I do remember is playing Carmen there with Colin Davis conducting. The place was packed." Opera, commented Sir James, seemed more popular in those days.

"I liked playing Puccini and Verdi, because there is a lot to do and the orchestra features quite well in those pieces."  

There were a lot of characters in the band; he's still in touch with a couple of the friends he made then. They travelled by car, sharing petrol costs and fixing up digs together.  The theatrical landladies were famous in each town. He remembers staying in Glasgow with a Mrs Smith, wife of a Glaswegian. "She was French and her cooking was great!"  It wasn't always like that though and he remembers in one house they marked the dates on the bottom of the cakes to check how often they'd be served up.

One day in Dundee he decided he'd try golf for the first time, provoked by one of the musicians in the band who would always give a stroke-by-stroke account of every round. Off they went to Carnoustie, where they got a good 'package deal' for the round.  "Everyone knew how poor musicians were."  But Sir James was not tempted to take the game up.  "How would I have found time for the flute?"

Many thanks for your memories, Sir James - we plan to unearth more about Sadler's Wells Opera in Scotland.

Our link below is to his performance of "Flight of the Bumblebee" from Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Tsar Sultan. Try to work out where he takes breath!

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