Addicted to Opera


for the Globe & Mail   August 2003


The path to opera addiction is gnarled and varied. Even so, management consultant Iain Scott’s cautionary tale bears repeating. It is a disease, he confesses, sitting at the kitchen table in his North Toronto house, that afflicts five per cent of the population. He contracted the contagion one night in the late sixties, and he’s been doing his utmost ever since to infect the rest of the population. He, and others of his ilk, are spreading the virus through the mostly affluent post-retirement crowd, as evidenced by the burgeoning range of opera-appreciation courses and tours to European and North American opera meccas for those with the money, time and inclination to feed their habit. For the culturati, opera is the new golf.

After graduating from St. Andrew’s University in Scotland with a master’s degree in medieval history, Scott began working for Royal Dutch Shell. The company posted him to an oil refinery on the Essex mud flats in southern England. “I was extraordinarily lonely, and the only person I could relate to was my boss, who had read Anglo Saxon with Tolkien at Oxford,” he says over a cup of black coffee.

On the night in question, Scott had gone to his boss’s house to rehearse a sales presentation for the next day, and found his supervisor not at home. The older man finally turned up, looking dishevelled and distraught, having been on a suicide watch in his capacity as a Samaritan. He went inside, poured himself three fingers of scotch — “and didn’t pour me any,” recalls Scott. He then put a 45 disc of Kirsten Flagstad, “the greatest Wagnerian soprano ever,” singing the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, on the gramophone. After playing the record three times, he began talking about Wagner and what this particular piece of music was all about.

“I got hooked,” says Scott. “It was like going into the stacks of the library at university and finding huge aisles of books on something I didn’t know existed. It was exhilarating.”

More than 30 years later, the affable Scott is one of an elite group of mainly self-taught opera experts across the country who offer non-credit adult-education courses in the subject. Last year he took an early-retirement package from his executive position with a human-relations firm to devote more time to his vocation.

Scott’s counterparts include Alan Aberbach in Vancouver, David Stanley Porter in London, Ont., and Richard Turp of Montreal. What these men have in common, besides an encyclopedic knowledge of opera, is a seemingly insatiable urge to communicate their passion to others. They all talk as persuasively as the proverbial refrigerator salesman in the High Arctic.

It hardly seems necessary, since there appears to be no shortage of applicants for their courses and guided tours.

Anne Craik, a former social worker with a scholarly interest in theatre, says Scott is an inspired and passionate teacher. That is what has kept her going back to his classes, including a week-long intensive session this past summer with him on Wagner’s Valkyrie at Classical Pursuits, a “learning vacation” organized by Torontonian Ann Kirkland.

“Having a background in drama makes you very aware of what a heady brew performance is,” Craik explained earlier this week. But opera added another and somewhat frightening level of complexity. Her drama training had taught her about structure and context and how to analyze performance. She thought it must be possible to demystify opera in the same way.

Somebody told her about Scott, saying he was “not only terribly knowledgeable, but also entertaining, which is always a big plus” and she signed up for his survey course about three years ago. “I learned about how opera developed,” she says, “but more important, I learned in a formal way what I had known intuitively” — that Italian opera is all about “voce, voce, voce,” for example.

She also discovered that she had “a late-flowering passion” for Wagner’s complexity and depth. “There are no arias in Wagner, no set pieces; you don’t listen to somebody singing the same thing three times and three other people joining it. You have to study [his operas] note by note and word for word, but when push comes to shove, Wagner is the one who gets to me in a profound way.”