Spotlight on: Philip White, Head of Opera
Welcome to the first Spotlight On ”¦ a new weekly insight into the people of RCS.
Philip White has spent the greater part of his working life in the field of opera, working as repetiteur and chorus master both in the UK and abroad.
Before joining the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in 2017, he was Chorus Master at the Opera de Lyon in France and, prior to that, Chorus Master at the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, the Opera de Nancy et de Lorraine and Associate Chorus Master for the Chorus of Radio France.
Philip (pictured above, second from right, with students) studied music and German at the Universities of Leeds and Vienna before winning the Walter Susskind scholarship, which enabled him to work as a repetiteur in the opera school of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (formerly the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) between 1988 and 1990.
Where are you right now?
Current work wear of choice?
Loose fitting shirt and jeans
How are you connecting with students for teaching?
Students are all just about to go on Easter break and were having online vocal lessons last week. We had just started rehearsing forDialogues des Carmélites, our spring opera production. We will start online language teaching in term three as all first years will know by then what productions they are in next year, so they can get a head start.
What’s on your reading list?
I’ve just finished readingWords without Music,which is Philip Glass’s memoir. I’ve worked on two of his operas, both quite different, and I enjoyed both of them a lot more than I thought I would. I’ll also be readingA Gentleman in Moscowby Amor Towles andThe Overstoryby Richard Powers. And for some lighter stuff, I’ve just ordered the first in a trilogy of crime thrillers set in Mississippi, which we visited last summer.
What are you watching/listening to online?
I’ve been going through the Martinu symphonies, there are six of them. When I used to work in Bayreuth, we often used to visit the Czech Republic, which is only an hour’s drive, and I’ve always been amazed at how such a relatively small country has such a rich cultural history, particularly in music. We’ve just finished season two ofHappy Valley, which is set within a half hour of where we live.
How long have you been at RCS and what drew you here?
Two and a half years. I loved the place as a student in addition to the whole vibe of Glasgow, particularly when the sun is shining
What do you love most about your role?
Introducing students to new music and setting them up with experts in their field who I have met and worked with. I love giving them opportunities and seeing them grow as performing artists as well as seeing their enthusiasm and self-confidence grow.
Describe a typical day?
Well, a typical day at the moment is getting up about 7am we have children but they are 23 and 20 and can fend for themselves so I’m relieved of the duty of getting them organised, at least (most of the time).
Me and my wife head off for a short walk (pictured above), our daily government-authorised piece of exercise. Although I live in North Manchester, we have quick access on foot to a clough (steep valley) which heads out to a couple of wild parks which are full of wild garlic at this time of the year, which I use to make homemade garlic mayonnaise.
We mainly join dog walkers and get childishly excited, like we did yesterday, when we spotted a woodpecker in one of the trees hammering away or a yellow wagtail hopping around in the stream. Following my Chris Packham/Jamie Oliver-inspired-hour, we have breakfast and set down to work. We have a work space that looks out on to the garden, which is full of birds gathering food and nesting materials at this time of the year. I try not to get too distracted by that.
Lots of preparation going on for the next academic year, which is exciting, and there might be online meetings to join too. Early afternoon I might head off quickly to get a bit of shopping we’re trying to be more organised about it and limit the shop trips. Then finish off work before resuming my Jamie Oliver mode and doing some cooking! Typical days at the RCS itself don’t exist. They’re all so different.
What sparked your love of the arts?
I’ve no idea to be honest. I was always in school plays, loved drama classes, was at a secondary school where there were loads of extracurricular music school orchestra, jazz band and where you were encouraged to put on ”˜events’. We also had two marvellous drama teachers whose way of teaching simply wouldn’t be allowed these days going round to their houses to write plays, often accompanied by alcoholic beverages.
I was also taken by a family friend on frequent visits to English National Opera at the London Coliseum and was distressed to find myself moved to tears on first seeingLa Boheme. I think I was about 15. I was relieved to the same degree that our seats were up in the balcony so I had sufficient time to pull myself together before reaching street level. The combination of stage and music on a good day is simply unique.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Don’t think there’s one way of doing something.
Who influenced you?
My university tutor was a huge influence in terms of broadening my musical tastes and with the relationship that he fostered with his students. He only recently officially retired but his lectures were always bubbling with enthusiasm in a way nobody else’s were, and you were unable to resist being as enthusiastic as he was. His ability to communicate meant that whether he was talking about Schoenberg or a trip to his local corner shop, you were hooked and wanted to go to the corner shop as well as listen to Schoenberg’s collected works. We’re still in contact and he’s just the same.
That’s a tough one. Very early on I was chorus master for a production of Stravinsky’sLe Rossignol, which was conducted by Pierre Boulez. I had to go and meet him in his studio at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music) in Paris to discuss the choral preparation. I got to work with two of my conducting idols from my teenage years whilst I was Associate Chorus Master at Radio France Kurt Masur and Riccardo Muti. Watching them rehearse and seeing how little they said in rehearsal but which nonetheless elicited the most amazing concerts still fascinates me (same could be said for Boulez).
In my first season at Grange Park Opera we performedFiddler on the Roofwith Bryn Terfel. That in itself was enough but that year we also took it to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall my violin teacher had always joked about seeing me there one day not something I took at all seriously. It was amazing to have got there, even if only once.
And all the work and things I heard whilst at the Bayreuth Festival. It was a very relaxed atmosphere at the time with a canteen, indoors and outdoors, where everyone mixed as equals. That year Daniel Barenboim was conductingTristan, Giuseppe SinopoliParsifaland James Levine theRing. Again three musical idols, just there.
Also at that time, Wolfgang Wagner Wagner’s grandson who hadn’t met Wagner himself but who had met his wife, Cosima was still running the whole institution and would invite all music staff, singers and creative teams over the season to his house for get-togethers.
Your most memorable RCS moment?
Each time the curtain goes up on a premiere it is deeply moving to see what the students have achieved and how they have invested themselves.
Your advice for students during this time?
Don’t worry. It sometimes takes events like this to show how people can actually come together. It will pass.
Describe RCS in three words?
Really good fun.
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