Opera Highlights – View From The Keyboard

Jonathon Swinard

Jonathon Swinard is the Music Director and Pianist of Scottish Opera’s Opera Highlights team

A former Touring Stage Manager was a firm believer that Scotland is beautiful in all weathers. I’m inclined to agree – and we really have seen all weathers.

We’ve been blown off our feet in Wick, and sun-scorched (well, almost) on a Harris beach. We’ve been moistened by drizzle in Ullapool, and royally soaked on the way back from Portree.

The most recent leg of the Opera Highlights tour took in such breathtaking scenery that we had to pinch ourselves to check it was real! Nine times out of ten it was – for the other 10%  it was too cold to register the pinch.


New Challenges


Each venue on tour brings a different set of musical challenges for myself and the cast.

We’re all familiar with the cliché of a musician coming on stage to “check the acoustic”. This usually involves clapping mindlessly and emitting strange sudden noises followed by appreciative nodding (or dismayed shaking) of the head. But as pointless as this seems, the natural resonance of a hall has a profound impact on how we perform.

In general the singers like it boomy – or “lively”. This gives them the impression that they all possess voices of Wagnerian magnitude. Or, in the case of Wagnerian singers, voices that carry well enough for the world to do away with satellite communication. Who would need a mobile phone if we could all stand on the nearest hilltop and communicate in fortissimo top Cs…?

At the piano, a lively acoustic means less sustain pedal and less volume, as the hall is doing half of the work for you.

The lovely town of Forres in Moray gifted us with a stunning natural acoustic, as well as a wonderfully receptive audience. However, the level of “boom” meant we had to slow the dialogue down for the text to become understandable. The result? We all got home later!


Drier than a good Sauvignon Blanc!


On the other hand, a dry acoustic may project well from the audience perspective but makes a singer feel like they are singing with their hands clasped over their face. In these situations, singers have to be careful not to overcompensate by pushing. Conversely, at the piano I have to “push” harder to achieve a supportive level of sound.

The Aros Centre in Portree was designed as a nod to Shakespeare’s Globe, however its double-function as a cinema makes for a space drier than a good bottle of Sauvignon Blanc. Curiously that’s what we all needed after that particular show at the end of two weeks on the road! The Portree audience, on the flip side, couldn’t have been sweeter – so these things all balance themselves out in the wash.

It’s for the above reasons that an hour of our time before each show is set aside for adjusting to the new space and acoustic. Part of my job as Music Director for Opera Highlights is to oversee a dialogue run and dance/balance call to keep our nifty evening both “on point” (see what I did there?) and “on form”.



Soaking Up Local Culture


Away from the theatre, the cast and team continue to make the most of the local scenery and cuisine. We’ve curried in Thurso, and fish’n’chipped in Ullapool. One cast member has even eaten their body weight in langoustines in the Hebrides. Given the seafood, it seems a tragedy that our wonderful Touring Manager is allergic to fish. Having thought about it, however, perhaps this is a carefully crafted excuse to get away from us all…

The best bit of all this, of course, remains the people. My colleague waxed lyrical in our last blog post about the exceptional company on this tour , which you can read here. As much as I would like to contradict her, I’m afraid to say that, despite living in close proximity for the last two weeks, we still all like each other and laugh as much when we set off! Touring Scotland with Scottish Opera is a privilege and a pleasure – and the Opera Highlights cast couldn’t be a happier one!

Oh, and I’ve made a new friend. Stugeron 15mg. We got up close and personal on the ferry to and from Lewis. I feel nauseous looking at a toy boat in a paddling pool, so my new mate “Stuge” was a complete lifesaver. If only we’d got to know each other years ago on our family holidays across the English Channel! Oh dear. Now I’m feeling a bit queasy… must be all that Cullen Skink.

Over and out.

Discover more tour blogs from the list above.

There are a few tickets left for the Opera Highlights tour – click here to see the venue list.