When I meet Catriona Hewitson, one of Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists, she’s just been rehearsing with some young artists herself. ‘I’ve been working with the kids this morning, so it’s been a bit frantic,’ she says cheerily. ‘There’s a bit where they all play instruments, including the recorder, and it is genuinely challenging music. They’re doing a great job,’ she adds.
Hewitson is currently in rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Scottish Opera’s production originally slated for March 2020 (but you can guess what happened next.) After a two year postponement, it opens in Glasgow in February before playing in Edinburgh at the beginning of March.
Ahead of its opening, Hewitson, who’s playing Tytania, sits down to chat about the rehearsal process, the experience of going to the opera, and, most importantly, pyjamas.
Let’s start off with a little bit of background about how you ended up as an opera singer. What’s the story?
I have an older sister, and she did music before I did. She went to this school with a state-run specialist music department, which just so happened to be our local primary school. I auditioned, got in, and was in the music school from age five until nineteen. I’d decided that I wanted to be an orchestral violinist. Eventually, I think it was actually my violin teacher who said, ‘I think you’ll end up being a singer. I think that’s actually where your passion is.’
Opera has ended up ticking more boxes than I thought it would because I have a real love of musical theatre and classical music. So it means I get to dance around, be silly on stage and wear fantastic costumes, and I get to make incredible music and marry the two together.
So you’re one of the Emerging Artists. Imagine I’ve never heard of a young artist scheme – give me a bit of insight into what that’s like.
Scottish Opera’s Emerging Artists programme is for people at the start of their career. It’s a step into the professional world under the helpful guidance of Scottish Opera. It’s a stepping stone but it’s very much under their protection. They’re looking after you and we get extra coaching and things like that. Although it slightly changed in lockdown.
It’s actually been incredible to do this kind of work during lockdown. It’s meant that I’ve got bigger roles than I originally had set out for me, which has been great. And I’ve got online content that I can send to casting people and show them all the roles I’ve done, which is brilliant.
It sounds like it’s been a very positive experience, which is a great thing as an artist during the pandemic.
I genuinely progressed. I can see that I’ve made quite big steps forward which is purely down to the staff that are here. And my own work – but I wouldn’t have got there without their help.
How are rehearsals for Midsummer going?
They’re going really well. It’s a bit of a funny one because, as with the play, you get people in their separate groups. I don’t ever interact with the lovers. I don’t interact with the mechanicals other than Bottom. We’re all in our little pockets. So I don’t know how anybody else is getting on!
I wasn’t in the original production, but we just have to get to next week and then we’ll officially be farther than we were when they had to pull the plug last time. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that nothing goes awry in between.
What’s the process been like? Is it like re-staging, or more like reviving the original?
It’s been a mix and match of ‘This is what we did originally’ and ‘But we don’t necessarily have to do that.’ I know that the direction has changed within scenes because different people have different energies. So it has been starting off from a place of revival, but we can write our own version of it because nobody saw the original.
Here’s a big one. Why should people go and see it?
I think it’s a great show to come and see, especially if you are new to opera, because it’s in English but there are still subtitles. It’s a marriage of two geniuses, Britten and Shakespeare.
And it’s magical. It’s got fairies in it. The orchestration is amazing. I just think it’s going to look beautiful. It’s got a bit of everything: it’s a comedy, but it’s also bleak and it’s got all of these different human stories in it. And there are lots of pyjamas.
The reason I ask is that, as somebody that enjoys opera, I sometimes find it difficult to convince people that it’s for them. Where do you think that comes from?
I think it’s twofold. Within the UK, opera is not an everyday activity. It’s not like going to the cinema. It’s just not part of people’s everyday activities. Whereas, for example, they have over a hundred opera houses across Germany; people go to the opera even in tiny little towns, because it’s like going to the theatre or the cinema.
But I do also think that there is this elitism that is thought of, particularly with opera. Sometimes it’s lovely to dress up and make it like an occasion, but it doesn’t need to be.
During lockdown, my friends and I watched a lot of operas online, and we made it a Friday night event. The first time we dressed up as if we were going to the ‘opera dahling’, and by the end of it we were just doing it in our pyjamas.
The point is, were you entertained? It’s not about, ‘Oh, well, I heard that E flat and what that means is…’ We’re in the entertainment industry – it is an art form, but it’s entertainment, at the end of the day. It’s not about whether you have a degree in it or whether you’ve seen La bohème a thousand times – if we’ve done our job, you’re entertained, you have an experience, and you take something away from it.
Scottish Opera’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream will play Theatre Royal, Glasgow on 22nd, 24th, and 26th February and then the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh on 1st, 3rd, and 5th March