March or April 1969 found me in Glasgow as assistant prop maker with Scottish Opera. It was a temporary job for the Summer season, but just what the doctor ordered. The company was at a stage in its development when it was doing very fine work but was still small enough for everyone to know each other and I quickly felt part of a community. From the basement workshop where I worked I could hear the rehearsals going on above me and it was a wonderful . My brief was very simple: there was a months preparation for the season and my task was to make all the vegetables in the village shop for a revival of Britten’s ‘Albert Herring’. Why? Previously real veg had been used, but this year it was touring to Germany and it was felt better not rely on local produce. I also helped where necessary on making sure the props for the other productions were ready and touching up the sets as they came out of storage. I then went on tour with the company and looked after the props in the OP wings during the performances. I found it an excellent way to see first rate artists at work and terrific way to be introduced to opera of which I new very little about and being paid, (£18pw) for the privilege. There is nothing like doing a scene change when the orchestra is playing an entracte on the other side of the curtain and you have to complete before they do.
From a design point of view the productions were elegant and practical, ‘Cosi fan Tutte’, designed by John Stoddart had very traditional scenic devices, painted white and meticulously cross hatched in an illustrative style. ‘Albert Herring’, by contrast was very cosy and the production as a whole a joy. Anthony Besch was the original director of both productions and had been bought back to rehearse the revivals and it really paid off. His attention to detail was extraordinary and nothing passed him by: and I saw him checking measurements from the plan to see that the set was exactly as in the original, and he personally double checked against production photographs that the set dressings were in order. And the performances themselves were equally detailed.
After the restrictions of two weekly rep it was most refreshing to work on a more generous scale. Still, by today’s standards the technology was still firmly in the 19th century. But although I went there primarily with an eye on the design side what real bowled me over was the sound of the orchestra and the fantastic singing.
The one new production was the first complete performance of Berlioz’ epic ‘The Trojans’ with Janet Baker singing Dido. And what an experience. It was a co-production with Augsburg opera who were responsible for the design. The sets were on a grand scale as one would expect and beautifully sculptured. I just wish I had been part of there creation, but they had been pre-prepared. The costume were not so good. It played from 5pm until 11pm with an hours break for the audience to have a meal and for the stage crew to entirely change the set from Troy to Carthage. It was an epic in every way and five performances were given and it never seemed a minute too long.
Everything about it was a new and thrilling and on a scale I have never worked on, either before or since. It was hard work but it all helped me believe that theatre at its best is truly worthwhile.
After Scottish Opera I did a stint in the paintshop at the RSC, again a very valuable step towards going back to designing in my own right. While at Stratford I applied and was offered the job as assistant designer at the Liverpool Playhouse, but that is the next installment.