In 13 years, New Zealander Alex Reedijk has pulled Scottish Opera back from the brink, turning it into a thriving company that takes risks on stage and serves the community, from the youngest to the oldest. George Hall meets him
The day before I meet Alex Reedijk marked the 13th anniversary of his appointment as Scottish Opera’s general director. He took over a company that had been pulverised by financial problems, which led to more than 100 company members, including its chorus, being made redundant. And for the 2005-06 season, Scottish Opera gave no performances at all while its accrued debt was paid off. Back in February 2006, few would have jumped at the task of turning things around.
Though he regularly pays tribute to his board and company colleagues during our conversation, it is clear that during the intervening years Reedijk’s leadership has been a significant factor in getting Scottish Opera’s show back on the road. Now in its healthiest shape for years, the company is an artistic success story north of the border, held in high regard not only within the UK but also internationally.
Reedijk comes from a suburb of Wellington in New Zealand. Without a significant artistic background to draw on, he remembers his school being visited by a small touring ballet company when he was 11 and wondering how it was organised. Then a drama teacher regularly taking Reedijk and other children to live performances in Wellington gave him “a sense of where I wanted to end up”, though even then his interest was “more to do with how you pull all this together – the mechanics, the engineering”.
At university he began a degree in English literature, geography and anthropology before switching to drama studies, supporting himself by working at the local opera house as a stagehand. Because of his experience, at the age of 22 he was offered the job of technical director at New Zealand Opera.
Unfortunately, the company soon went bust: Reedijk diagnosed that this was “because it hadn’t listened to its audience in terms of repertoire – so you hold that in your head”.
He spent the next 15 years freelancing, much of it in the UK, where initially he had to go back to working as a stagehand at the Richmond Theatre. Then he fell in with production manager Jonathan Bartlett, and became his assistant at the London International Festival of Theatre. From there he stage-managed a show for Dublin Opera. “I said to them: ‘I think this could be better organised’, so I ended up looking after five seasons as their production manager.”
Five things you need to know about Scottish Opera
1. Founded in 1962 by Alexander Gibson, and inaugurated with productions of Madama Butterfly and Pelleas and Melisande at the King’s Theatre Glasgow.
2. Has the longest-standing education and outreach department of any opera company in Europe, since 1971.
3. Purchased the Theatre Royal Glasgow from Scottish Television in 1974. Following extensive refurbishment, the home of both Scottish Opera and Scottish Ballet since 1975.
4. Scottish Opera and Festival Theatre Edinburgh staged the UK’s first dementia-friendly opera performance with The Marriage of Figaro in 2016.
5. Made American debut in 2018 at the Metropolitan Opera House’s List Hall in New York with BambinO, an ‘opera for babies’, and returned, later the same year, to the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek.
After that, Elaine Padmore invited him to do the same job at the Wexford Festival. By then he also worked as a technical director for the Edinburgh Assembly Rooms during the Edinburgh Festivals, and for Glasgow’s Mayfest, subsequently combining the roles with biennial returns to his homeland for the New Zealand Festival, where he worked between 1996 and 2002, eventually moving from technical director to executive director.
When the festival’s chair, David Gascoigne, was offered the equivalent role at New Zealand Opera – it had re-emerged in 1999 following a fallow period – he persuaded Reedijk to take on the post of general director. Arriving in 2002, he inherited, and subsequently cleared, substantial debts, something that has run throughout his career like a musical theme. The subsequent invitation from Scottish Opera came after the institution’s worldwide search.
Reedijk is not one to apportion blame for Scottish Opera’s fall from grace, but the fact that the company has not only survived but thrived under his leadership is testament to his commitment as well his abilities.
Currently, the company programmes five main-stage productions each season, with recent successes including David McVicar’s production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande , which won the 2017 UK Theatre award for achievement in opera, and two highly successful new works – The Devil Inside , in 2016, and Anthropocene  three years later by the team of composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh. Two of these three shows have been conducted by the company’s music director Stuart Stratford, whom Reedijk brought on board in 2015. “He’s a real gem and we’re very lucky to have him.”
Scottish Opera’s main-stage productions are performed in Glasgow and Edinburgh; they also regularly go to theatres in Inverness and Aberdeen. At Stratford’s suggestion, concert performances of unusual works have been added to broaden the company’s repertoire: recent successes include Puccini’s Le Villi and Edgar and earlier this month Mascagni’s Silvano.
As well as the large productions in metropolitan centres, the company has long toured the length and breadth of Scotland as part of its national remit.
“It’s really important for us to reach out to all communities. There are some 100 to 110 halls and spaces that suit our work, and we try to get around to as many of these as possible, typically with Opera Highlights – four singers and a piano in a package with a dramatic or narrative thread but minimal technical resource designed to fit into the smallest venue as well as the largest. Last season we performed in 48 communities and this season 53.”
Q&A Alex Reedijk
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Stagehand for New Zealand Opera.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Money follows good ideas.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My drama teacher at secondary school.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Try to reveal who you really are as an artist via the best choices of audition pieces.
If you hadn’t been an opera administrator, what would you have been?
I was invited to run a boat yard in the south of France in 1990.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I never sit in on the premiere performance but always walk around the Theatre Royal’s four levels to gauge how the audience are responding. The stiller they are, the better we have done our work.
On a much larger scale, the company staged Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci  in a vast tent in Paisley with professionals plus a huge community choir – 200 performers in all – that was a great success.
Scottish Opera’s commitment to education and outreach predates Reedijk’s arrival but has increased its scope during his reign. “We’ve been doing it for over 30 years – our team is the longest-standing in any European opera company. We were one of the first opera companies in the UK to work with people living with dementia, and we presented the first dementia-friendly opera performance three years ago.”
Then there’s the Opera Unwrapped series, each lasting about an hour, that introduces the opera for the audience with a narrator, a cast of covering singers and the orchestra in the pit. “They allow audiences to get used to being in a theatre, to become familiar with opera, and also give our covers a chance to sing a big chunk of their roles with orchestra,” he says.
“Another strand we’ve had a lot of success with is opera for very young people – toddlers. We were the first company to do that.” Reedijk pays tribute to his education team led by Jane Davidson for this development. Their productions BabyO in 2013 and BambinO four years later have proved long-term successes nationally and internationally.
The £10 ticket scheme for under-26s was not Reedijk’s idea, but started at the same time he did. “It’s not just a student standby. As older people book their tickets, they can also book tickets for younger people to sit beside them. Some nights we have a coach-load of people coming from outside Edinburgh or Glasgow to the opera, all on these tickets. It’s apparently an amazing dating mechanism. Typically across a year, nearly 10% of our audience has come through the scheme.”
What are his ongoing ambitions for Scottish Opera? “If you put it all together, I want our overall identity to feel like an opera festival, not in a concentrated sense, but presenting opera throughout the year in all sorts of ways that will surprise and delight and thrill our audiences all across Scotland.”
Scottish Opera Profile
General director: Alex Reedijk
Number of performances: 246 for public (2017-18)
Audience figures: More than 106,000 attendees and participants (2017-18)
Number of members: 1,553 Scottish Opera Friends
Turnover: Circa £11 million
Funding levels: For 2017-18: Scottish government 69%; theatre tax credit 6%; fundraising 11%; box office and other income 14%
Key contacts: Alex Reedijk, general director; Andrew Storer, technical director; Catriona Downie, head of marketing