What are opera companies doing to lay foundations for the next generation of singers, players and future audiences? In Glasgow, the answer has been to take a professional approach, raising the stakes, allowing promising youngsters to perform alongside singers, learning as they go from experienced vocal coaches and directors. Not only does Scottish Opera commission a brand new work, but throws in a masterclass with Nicky Spence along the way.   How amazing is that?

Mainstream Scottish Opera productions are only part of what the company gets up to. Scottish Opera was one of the first companies to set up an education department and it has been going into schools round Scotland, involving pupils in community opera productions for many years. Since 2009, Scottish Opera has been working with 14 to 21 year old singers in Scottish Opera Connect Chorus and players in the Connect Orchestra performing a show alongside professional singers every year. Three stage management trainees have joined them as Connect Company. This year, it commissioned a new opera from composer Karen MacIver and librettist Allan Dunn written specially for this group. The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari is a deeply chilling horror story set in the year of Queen Victoria’s death.  

Taking the 1920s silent horror film Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari as source material, but relocating to Glasgow Green and the Gartloch Asylum, the opera tells the story of a Dr Gallagher who tours the fairs using his somnambulist Cesare to facilitate his murderous habit. When a Dr Gallagher sets up his stall amongst the jugglers, hawkers and showmen, he reveals a hypnotised man who can tell the future, so when Ellen is told she will die (and she does), her friend Jane decides to investigate with her boyfriend Francis. A visit from the terrifying Cesare unhinges Jane, so a Dr Caligari at Gartloch Asylum is recommended as someone who might help. At the asylum Gallagher and Caligari are exposed as the same man, Cesare being a long term patient involved in a hellish experiment.

Set in the round with a barefoot orchestra of 35 in Victorian asylum whites on stage, the audience members were arranged on two sides of the action. Simple designs from Lisa Sangster and Kate Bonney’s cunning lighting transformed the hall’s main floor from a busy marketplace to an asylum full of flinching unfortunates. The 28-strong Connect Chorus sang with gusto as Calagari’s tortured souls, Glasgow Green traders and fairgoers, and a female semi-chorus round ailing Jane’s bedside. Nine small part soloists emerged from the Chorus with some promising voices appearing. In the main parts, soprano Sarah Power was a distraught Jane, unable to comprehend her situation, with tenor Glen Cunningham her anxious boyfriend. Countertenor Daniel Keating Roberts with his ethereal voice did a chilling line of otherworldly stares, and Andrew McTaggart ‘s robust baritone made a very disturbing baddie.

The singers were rehearsed by Head of Singing Laura McIntosh and the show was conducted by Chris Gray, getting the very best out of his players and performers with clear cues. Although there are shortcomings from opera in the round, particularly trying to catch the words of a character pointing away from you, it was more than made up for by the sheer energy and exuberance from everyone.

The players tackled a difficult and intricate score brilliantly, with the music ranging from repetitive tension building loops to a crazy oom-pah-gone-wrong, with more lyrical episodes for the bedside scene, and a lovely aria for Francis. It was packed with musical energy and tailor-made for the forces with plenty of chorus singing and movement, a couple of handfuls of small parts and four main characters for the professional singers. The percussion was kept very busy, with unusual eerie bowed cymbals and even a typewriter. Placing the orchestra above the players did bring the occasional problem of balance, and at times there was so much going on at once, it was a challenge to keep tabs on everything, but that was probably the point.

It is Scottish Opera’s insistence on professional resources which repays this project in spades. This was a really special performance, bringing youngsters together to put on a show delivered with a consummate professionalism and thrilling infectious commitment. At the curtain call of Scottish Opera’s Rusalka the previous evening, the man beside me was cheering with loud bravos, but this performance was every bit as deserving. Congratulations to the 60 singers and players who brought off a challenging new work with such vitality and to Scottish Opera for the Connect project. Bravo!