Under the spotlight: Mary Miller

Under the spotlight: Mary Miller

Published: 16/09/2019

From music student to orchestral performer, newspaper critic and internationally-renowned cultural leader, graduate Mary Miller has enjoyed a stellar career in the performing arts.

Mary, who grew up in Dundee and East Lothian, is now General and Artistic Director of Bergen National Opera. She speaks to Mark Good about her fascinating musical life.


Tell me about your role at Bergen National Opera.

MM: I am General and Artistic Director, which means that the buck stops with me. I have a wonderful small team, full of fierce personalities, and while I decide repertoire, choose creative teams and lead casting, we work together very closely and spend a lot of time matching aspirations to budgets.

I´m also very involved with our communications team how BNO presents itself is critical and we work a great deal with Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and Edvard Grieg Kor, so those relationships always need attention. Main stage apart, we work a lot in the community and with children and youths, so in planning a season we need to achieve a balance of surprise and familiarity. It has been a whirlwind ride we´ve built the company pretty much from anonymity to European acclaim; I´m so proud of our artists.


How do you look back on your days as a music student at what was then the RSAMD?

MM: I think that I must have been an infuriating student, either practising like crazy or leaving my violin on a train and not realising for a week. Mostly I spent time (and shared flats) with drama students, who always seemed much more animated.


Who did you study with?

MM: I studied with Louis Carus and with Jack Wight Henderson for chamber music. Louis was very good musically. JWH was terrifying and wonderfully funny. Both of them had excellent collections of the Scottish Colourists at home. I was very impressed.


What are the highlights from your student days?

MM: Playing chamber music was always a joy. I also played the Brahms double concerto with cellist Rosemary Curran in City Halls.

My most vivid memory was from my first year when the Drama School seniors presented The Boyfriend. It was an extraordinary cast with some of today´s best stage names. I remember rushing out to buy the recording with the Maxwell Davies arrangements of the music.


Tell me about your career following your studies.

MM: I went on to join the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, mainly to avoid a plan for me to study overseas. I was still very young, had a boyfriend I didn´t want to leave and was distinctly immature. I didn´t stay long and went to London for further study, and by chance playing quartets with a very fancy cellist found myself in the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Pierre Boulez. My future husband was his principal oboe I fell in love with his playing before we even spoke.

After some years we moved to Scotland, not wanting to raise children in London. We both played in the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and latterly I became very involved in the education programme which Kathryn McDowell (now CEO of the London Symphony Orchestra) was building. I started writing and programme-making, did a bit of TV I wrote and researched all the late Harry Secombe´s Highway programmes in Scotland then stopped playing to become chief music critic on The Scotsman.


How did the transition into journalism come about?

MM: I always used to write diaries for my children when we were on tour. The night we before we left for a US trip I met Scotsman critic Conrad Wilson in the street and as he wasn´t joining us, he asked if I would send my diaries. With some misgivings, I send him a couple of pages from Kansas City. At the next stop in Chicago, a fax was waiting, asking for more. That was the start.

I then began to review and write features and soon, it became incompatible with being an orchestral member.

In the mid-1990s there was an extraordinary arts desk with a great editor so I was a very lucky rookie.


How did you career continue to progress?

MM: I took on the directorship of Northlands Festival, where we developed a unique programme of collaboration with Nordic and Scottish artists. We had no venues so we did operas in bus depots, shows in nightclubs, a massive spectacular in the old aircraft hangar at Wick airport, lots of events with ”˜stars’ working with community and a provocative ideas programme. We commissioned a great deal of work for both Scottish and Nordic artists.

I left The Scotsman and went to English National Opera to head up its new work development for three years, an exciting but frustrating time. Then to the USA, to direct the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, home to Yale University. New Haven is extraordinary one of the US’ poorest cities, in Connecticut, the richest state, with Yale at its centre rather like the Vatican. It was tough the founders wanted international acclaim and Edinburgh Festival status but also for the festival to heal the city.

The ideas programme tackled all kinds of issues and we were always in trouble for questioning American values. In my first year we presented the great Palestinian theatre company Al-Kasaba. The outrage in the wealthy pro-Israeli community was terrifying. We had to have the FBI at performances and I had chunks of my hair pulled out in the street.

Thanks to my great Nordic colleagues I was asked to direct Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture what a fantastic four-year opportunity. We built a huge programme around four long-term comprehensive residencies, companies which embraced opera/music theatre, dance, theatre and puppetry (the great Handpring company which went on to create War Horse). We had more than 1,000 projects throughout the region, many in landscape, and in venues from lighthouses to concert halls. Ten years on, the impact is thrilling.

After six months of consulting in Spain on another ECOC, I came to Bergen and new challenges.


You have and continue to enjoy an extremely successful, varied career. How important has it been to take yourself out of your comfort zone and try new roles?

MM: I´m incredibly lucky to have been able to move into new areas. It would be quite wrong to imagine that I had a career plan; instead, I´ve had fantastic chances to follow my dreams. Some things have always been constant a passion for identifying and developing new talent, championing new work and building participation across the widest community.

It has always been exciting if at times it has led me to be roundly criticised to nudge audiences and artists to explore far boundaries. Here in Bergen, while making new work is critical, we’ve also been able to bring to Norway operas and artists well known in Europe or the US, but little known in Scandinavia. And I am proud we have given RCS alumni Iain Paterson and Catriona Morison, to name two, their Nordic debuts.


To what extent did your training in the performing arts equip you with the approach to succeed in your other roles?

MM: It´s been absolutely critical. To understand basics like nerves, cold venues, sore throats and bones, rude conductors, bad lighting, ill-fitting costumes mundane things as well as the subtle and significant, is surprisingly rare in this business. Knowing how it feels to sit in a chilly dressing room with a faulty call system and a huge aria or concerto ahead and a conductor who you know will take the introduction too fast (you hope that the orchestra leader will be onside) is a terrifying thing. And there´s always a critic waiting to pounce. Having that in my background helps too.


How are the next few weeks and months shaping up for you?

MM: A lot of travel, two singing competitions to judge something that is always a revelation and a privilege workshops for our Future Opera project with two composers and a wonderful set of mentors, two new major productions in development with directors new to us and formidable budgets, a brochure to get to print, time at festivals in Rotterdam and Aix and then holiday with family. Exciting!


Let us know about your time as a student at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland! Get in touch: communications@rcs.ac.uk

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