Jenny Ogilvie, opera director

WHEN Scottish Opera makes its debut at the award-winning Lammermuir Festival in St Mary’s Church in Haddington on Friday with Benjamin Britten’s The Burning Fiery Furnace, the performance will also be a first for the director Jenny Ogilvie.

An actor with a long list of stage and television roles, she has in recent years moved off the stage to work as a movement director on theatre and opera productions, notably Scottish Opera’s hugely acclaimed revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Greek for last year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Friday’s performance of the most rarely seen of Britten’s three Church Parables marks her first solo directorial credit, in a staging on which she has worked with Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark, who conducts.

“What’s great is right now it feels like I am drawing together different threads,” she says. “I was born in Ayrshire and went to primary school in Alloway and early on I did a lot of dance training, as little girls often do, there and when we moved south to Sussex to follow my dad’s work. I took it back up again in university years, trying different styles, starting off with classical dance and then moving in to contemporary which I enjoyed a lot more.”

“It’s funny, it’s easy to be dismissive about the kind of school years dance experience, and it gets parodied a lot these days, but from a very early age you are listening to classical music and you are responding to it, and interpreting it, and that is something that I have come to value.

“The next phase was that I studied languages at Oxford University and that has been not very useful to me for about 20 years, but now I am working in opera, and it was Italian and French that I studied.”

But the desire to perform had not left her – “the voodoo was in my bloodstream” is how she describes it – and training as an actor was her next move, taking her first steps into the profession in 1999.

She worked at the RSC and on the West End, in Manchester’s Royal Exchange and at Birmingham Rep, and on the national tour of The Diary of Anne Frank. On television there were roles in Silent Witness, Grantchester and Poirot. (“I sold stockings to David Suchet. It was a small part but I did as much as I could with it. It was very camp.”)

But she began to feel frustrated with the kind of stage productions she was in. “I wanted to be more ambitious about the way that stories were told, and I kept turning over in my mind different ways that productions could make performers work harder. That’s something that dancers and musicians and singers have in common – they have an incredibly high work ethic. Everyone has trained for years and has skills beyond the reach of the average person. It is extraordinary to sit in an opera rehearsal room and listen to someone at the peak of their powers.

“Actors have a very different formation and often a more quixotic combination of skills. And while the best of them are highly skilled, there is also room for people who fuel their careers on their charm and personality.

“So I wanted to reframe the way that I worked using my movement and dance as a way in, and I did course that was geared towards exactly that, drawing together what I’d learned as an actor in a rehearsal room and my dance training and using that to offer to productions a way that can help lift what the show achieves.”

Then, as in every walk of life, but perhaps particularly in the arts, fate had to help her ambition. “I’ve been very fortunate, because it is all about who you end up collaborating with,” she says, “and in the space of a few years I’ve met some incredible companies. I was so lucky to be introduced to Scottish Opera, not least because I get to spend time in Glasgow, which is my favourite place in the world. I still have a lot of family in Scotland, so it is always a pleasure to see them too.

“I had worked with the director of Greek, Joe Hill-Gibbins, in London on a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and he asked me to work on Greek with him, and it was a really wonderful experience. We worked very closely on that because it had a very particular style and clear vocabulary of movement that we wanted to establish with the performers. It was a lot of fun. I’m very proud of that.”

Audiences liked it too. Following the glowing reviews in Edinburgh, it appeared on the company’s home stage at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal at the start of this year, and will be seen in New York’s BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music) before it ends.

“We start re-rehearsing it at the end of November and it is on at the beginning of December – and there are whispers that it may have a further life and I really hope so. With an amazing cast, and it was the best kind of rehearsal period; everyone bought into it and brought their best selves to the party.”

As distinct from a choreographer, who will work solely on the specific dance scenes of an opera, Ogilvie’s “movement director” role has been a more obvious stepping stone to taking charge of her own productions.

“The role of movement director depends on who are working with, but you are another director in the room and the best collaborators will want you to offer ideas as widely as you like. You are there to make the physical life of the show as vivid and committed and daring and imaginative as it can be.”

It happens that the original production of The Burning Fiery Furnace benefitted from first person to be credited with “movement” on a theatrical production in this country.

“She was an amazing woman called Claude Chagrin, who worked at the National Theatre in the 1960s and 1970s when they were doing productions like Peter Shaffer’s Equus and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. They were very physical pieces, not dissimilar in style to the first production of The Burning Fiery Furnace. She trained the cast for weeks in the physical skills they needed for the Noh theatre-like stylised movement.

“I was absolutely delighted when Scottish Opera asked me to work on it. It’s not giving anything away to say that there is a furnace, so how do you achieve that in a simple, striking way? It is about honouring the transformative elements of the parable in the simplest way possible – and that’s really difficult. Stillness can be difficult, but there is nothing more moving than that moment of silence at the end of a particular moving performance.

“The most important thing is that people get to hear this piece in all its glory. As far as I know there has only been its original tour in the mid-1960s, and then German and French productions, but it should be done more often. At the time people recognised an extrovert quality to the piece that set it apart.”

Ogilvie has already been back in Scotland this year, working with director Kate Hewitt on the National Theatre of Scotland revival of David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s Midsummer at the Festival, and she has not said farewell to her acting work.

“A lot of people seem to think that you have to stop doing one thing in order to do another and I don’t really feel that way. I hope that one of the things I offer as a movement director as part of the team is that I can empathise with the performers and find ways to help them.

“But it is a novelty to begin to plan my diary beyond the coming month and I’m enjoying that, having lived week to week as actors do, being called up at the last minute.

“And you do tend to get offered a lot of the same kind of roles. I played one abused alcoholic mother on Silent Witness and then I seemed to be offered a lot of those. You get to a certain age when you are “the mum” – so it is always about some dreadful thing that your child has done or that has happened to your child.

“Of course there is a challenge in trying to do that in the most interesting way that you can, but it is not as much fun as being in a rehearsal room with an amazing piece of Britten or Turnage.”

Scottish Opera’s The Burning Fiery Furnace is at St Mary’s Parish Church, Haddington on Friday at 8pm.

Career high - Taking Scottish Opera’s production of GREEK to New York

Career low - Any audition that involves being a “Weeping Mum”

Favourite film - Nights of Cabiria [Fellini drama, 1957]

Last book read - Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin

Best trait - I empathise

Worst trait - I’m quite grumpy in the morning

Best advice received - My dance teacher: “There are always some people who can do it better than you, and some people who can’t do it as well as you.”

Biggest influence - Werner Herzog

Favourite meal - Dim sum

Favourite holiday destination - Anywhere as long as it’s soon!

Favourite music - I often lead a warm up to Nina Simone singing “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”

Ideal dinner guests - Having dinner with anyone I don’t know and really admire would be quite tense, so I’d rather see a friend and have a bottle of wine.