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Interview: Donald Maxwell

Image courtesy of Opera Scotland.

Donald Maxwell has enjoyed a hugely successful career in opera for a number of decades. Having performed all over the world, Maxwell’s professional career began after meeting the lyric tenor, Joseph Hislop, during his time studying at the University of Edinburgh. Initially performing with the Scottish Opera, the celebrated baritone returned to the capital to reprise his role in Puccini’s La Bohème.

The Student: While critics since the opera’s initial performance have criticised La Bohème for lacking the sophistication of Puccini’s additional works, as well as that of his contemporaries, others have praised it for its clarity and comprehensible invitation to live and create. Do you think that this production acts as a good introduction to the world of opera, particularly from a student’s perspective?

Donald Maxwell: I think it’s a marvellous introduction for students because, basically, it’s about students. It’s about four students, all doing different things: an author, a painter, a musician, and a philosopher, all living in relative poverty in Paris. So even though we perhaps wouldn’t get the same mix of students living together nowadays and, perhaps they mightn’t be in such poverty, I think that the opera is something that students can easily identify with.

Why do you think that Puccini’s operas have had such a cultural legacy? As you’ve performed in countless roles over the years, what do you believe his remarkable defining quality to be?

I think the great thing with Puccini, as a composer, was that he was a man of the theatre. He chose stories that were very strong, and also there was an element of the exotic in the stories that he developed. Things like Madame Butterfly, or Turandot, these were, for Western European audiences, slightly exotic ideas. He had a masterly grasp of what would work as a drama, and, in a sense, that moved opera on from what it had been like in the early part of the nineteenth century.

Do you think that the language barrier prevalent in so many renowned operas inhibits foreign audiences from making a connection to the art, or encourages a greater rapport through use of imagination and interpretation?

I would probably go with the latter because I think that if an opera is in a language that is not the native language of the audience, it challenges the audience as well as the performers; they need to make sure that they can try to get the message across. Something that has developed over the last twenty years in opera is the use of titles in theatres. I think that this is, in some ways, a pity because it makes the audiences slightly lazy. They are more prone to thinking, ‘Oh well, if we don’t quite understand what’s going on, we’ll just have a look at the titles and those will tell us what’s happening’. I think that’s a pity, and I think that doing something in the original language is a challenge for performers, but I don’t think it makes it overly difficult for the listener. Something like La Bohème has a clear story, and Italian operas in particular, actually sound better in Italian than they would do in the English Language, no matter how good a translation is.

Do you mark a change in the target audience of opera over the years? Concerning young people, do you think that it’s essential that opera becomes a more accessible and widespread cultural experience?

This is a topic that has been ongoing for years now, and no one has really come up with an absolute solution to it. There are a couple of things: one is the perception that it may be out with the economic grasp of students. I don’t think that is necessarily the case. I think that you can go and see opera, and if you look, there will be discounted tickets; it is not that inaccessible, financially. There is the thought that opera could be perceived as being a little bit like Marmite; some people will love it, and some people will not. But, also, the thinking of a young person may be that the audience of the opera will be of a different generation, and they may feel a slight unease. I’m afraid that this element is always going to stay, but I think that for young people, if you choose your operas carefully, then there’s no reason why young people can’t get a lot out of opera.

What do you think is so unique about the arts in Scotland, and Edinburgh in particular? Having travelled and performed all over the world, how does Scottish culture compare?

I think that Scottish culture has always had its own particular brand, and, whether you go back fifty years or one hundred years, the very fact that at the end of the second world war, the Edinburgh Festival was started, especially at a time when events like that were relatively unusual anywhere in Western Europe, was a testimony to the fact that the arts have always been an important part of Scottish culture. What is interesting now is how life has expanded. I suppose that, although one talks about the Edinburgh Festival in the forties and fifties, the cultural opportunities were perhaps a little bit more limited than they are now. I think it’s great, I’m looking forward to coming back to Edinburgh, and seeing just how a vibrant a scene it is.

Finally, our university has a number of student performance societies, particularly the Savoy Opera Group. From a position of experience, are there any words of wisdom you’d like to impart to those looking to have successful careers in the performing arts?

I remember the Savoy Group when I was a student, although I was never part of it. I remember going to see their performances, and it was a very vibrant society indeed. What I would say to people who are going to be performers is, give it a go. I think that’s the most important thing. I did a geography degree; I didn’t think I was actually ever going to be a professional singer, but now, I’ve had this career for over forty years. I think that if it’s something you really want to do, then follow your dreams. It sounds like such a dreadful cliché, but have the courage to go with what you’d like to do. You’ll soon discover if it isn’t the right path for you, but I think that it’s worthwhile to have an idea that, even if you’re studying astrophysics, and you want to become an opera singer, acquire the right information and follow it as much as you can.

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