“Oh, but I was only the wife,” she insists in the beguiling Home Counties accent she retains even after a lifetime of living in Glasgow. “I didn’t have any direct involvement. I was very happy to live my life through his.”
Her deference is not affected. V – as she’s known to her innumerable friends – is the first to admit she doesn’t like ostentation or confrontation. She sees this as a character fault but to others her girlish demeanour is one of her most endearing qualities.
Dig a little deeper and it becomes apparent her own life story is more interesting than many an opera libretto. In a rehearsal room at Scottish Opera’s Glasgow HQ, she reluctantly divulges the details.
Veronica Waggett’s mother was from Kirriemuir and her Manchester-born father was employed by the Associated British Machine Tool Makers based in its selling office in Grosvenor Square, London.
During the Second World War he was sent to India when Veronica was three years old. An only child, she was schooled there – and taught ballet by a Russian emigree – until the age of 12 when she was sent to a boarding dance school in London run by Lady Eden, sister-in-law of the former Prime Minister Anthony Eden when he was Foreign Secretary.
“My parents stayed in India until a year after I married,” she says. “So Lady Eden was my guardian throughout my teenage years, and made all my decisions for me. She even chose my clothes.”
Lady Eden sent the young Veronica to Paris for a year to learn French and continue her ballet classes. On returning to London she was accepted into the Royal Ballet, but grew too tall to join the corps and was advised to do another form of dance. “Vanessa Redgrave was in my class, though when she became too tall she went into acting.”
Veronica chose another path, one that was to take her on an unexpected journey. “I got into panto at the London Palladium and got my Equity card through that. I joined the corps of Aladdin, doing two shows a day. I also did the stage show of The Bells Go Down with Tommy Trinder but I didn’t like him because he made fun of my name,” she recalls.
“The ballet master was going to Sadler’s Wells Opera [now ENO], and he took 10 dancers from his troupe with him. I was lucky enough to be one of them. We danced in La Traviata, La Boheme, Bluebeard’s Castle and toured to Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee. It was wonderful to get to know all those operas through dance.”
It was while dancing in The Merry Widow in 1958 that she met the brilliant young conductor Alexander Gibson, the man from Motherwell who was to co-found Scottish Opera and transform the classical music scene in Scotland. At that time he was music director of Sadler’s Wells.
How did they meet? “We did Merry Widow every night for a month. Dancers were regarded as inferior and people didn’t speak to us, but we saw each other across the Green Room. One evening he was standing at the stage door talking to someone I knew from Glyndebourne. She called me over and introduced us. He said, ‘I saw you at Gloucester Road tube station.’ I had seen him looking at me as he swept past me in a big black car. And really that was it.”
An operatic coup de foudre? “Yes, you could call it that. It was very instant.” They married in 1959, moved to Glasgow and had three sons, Philip, James and Johnny, one daughter, Claire, and remained together until her husband’s death in 1995.
Is it true, I ask her, that theirs was an extraordinarily happy marriage? “Yes. We had a fantastic life. We were both only children and found each other. I was very lucky.”
For a maestro to have two full-time jobs in one city, as Sir Alex did in Glasgow as principal conductor of the SNO and music director of Scottish Opera over a span of 28 years, would be unheard-of now, but it meant he was able to have a family life in the city.
Her memory of the launch of Scottish Opera with Puccini’s Madame Butterfly at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, on June 5, 1962, remains crystal clear. “There was tremendous excitement, but also trepidation at the thought that people were actually paying to come and see us,” she recalls.
“Although the Glasgow Grand Opera was active, Alex was bringing in professional singers from international opera companies and putting on opera at a professional scale. The interest from all over the world was phenomenal and quite terrifying.”
At that time, the SNO season finished about March and players would disperse to London and elsewhere to fill the gap until the new season. Playing for Scottish Opera meant these experienced players stayed in Scotland.
For the non-performers, such as Veronica and the other opera wives, it meant pitching in wherever they were needed. “There was so little money that everyone stayed at everyone’s houses and we all fed the artists and directors. I was one of the volunteer helpers who sewed the costumes and sourced the stage props. It was very much ad-hoc compared to now,” she recalls.
“Bill McCue got paid £25 for singing the Bonze.” Principals were paid £100, and the first week of the inaugural season cost £4500.
She wore a long Laura Ashley dress for the first night as she was heavily pregnant with her first son and gave birth the following day – missing the first night of Pelleas et Melisande, the second production. Philip, who turns 50 on June 6, got married on Saturday.
Given her husband’s burgeoning international reputation – he was knighted in 1977 – did they ever contemplate leaving Glasgow?
“I suppose we should have done and Alex never had a contract with Scottish Opera but it drifted on and the years just went. There was always something to be done. There were arguments where he was accused of caring more for the opera than for the orchestra. Then when Peter Hemmings (the first chief executive) left and Peter Ebert (the first director of productions), it was very difficult to find people who were prepared to come to Scotland. So Alex felt very responsible.”
Her role as she saw it was to be supportive. “There had to be someone at home looking after the family, and I was very happy to do it. It’s only a sacrifice if you really want to do something of your own. That said, Jane Hemmings and I went to every premiere, and we used to put our children to bed at 6.30pm so we could get out.”
Everything revolved around the home; Sir Alex’s secretary worked there full-time and the gregarious couple would regularly put up world-class singers, directors and artists, hosting opera soirees at their home in Cleveden Gardens in Glasgow’s west end. Lady Gibson did all the catering.
After Sir Alex died, she moved to a small modern apartment. “The best thing I did was leave,” she says. “I didn’t want to end up wandering around on my own. Sometimes I pass the house and ask myself, did I really live there for 25 years? It feels like a world that has completely gone.”
Nevertheless, her best friends remain those she made through Scottish Opera.
Asked for her impression of the company’s newly announced 50th anniversary season, she replies: “I’m especially keen to see the new Flying Dutchman. The four short operas show that the founding spirit of innovation remains. All the values that Alex inspired are alive and I think he would have approved.
“Although it’s nothing like it once was, it’s wonderful the company is still here and on an even keel. Alex Reedijk (general director) has made a point of living in Scotland, as did Richard Mantle before him. But there was a very troubled period where senior staff commuted here from London and just swanned around.”
Now 75 and a grandmother eight times over, she giggles as she tells me she attends a weekly stretch and flex class for the elderly. “We stand about pretending to be swans, all of us having had hip operations,” she laughs.
She herself has two replacement hips – a legacy, she says, of her dancing days. “I don’t know how young dancers are going to manage. In my day we didn’t have to do the incredible moves they do.”
Still giggling, she bids a graceful farewell and is off, leaving the impression of a contented widow, rather than Lehar’s merry one.
Scottish Opera’s sold-out 50th anniversary concert takes place at the City Halls, Glasgow, on Tuesday June 5