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World-renowned opera impresario from Aberdeen shares stories of the greats in new book

Aberdeen-born John Duffus is the author of new book, Scottish Opera's Golden Years. John is pictured in Vienna for a Haydn concert, in 2009.
Aberdeen-born John Duffus is the author of new book, Scottish Opera's Golden Years. John is pictured in Vienna for a Haydn concert, in 2009.

Not everyone can say they’ve met Pavarotti.

But for Aberdeen-born John Duffus, 15 years of his life was spent working alongside The Great Tenor during his colourful career in opera.

From His Majesty’s Theatre to Sydney Opera House, John has worked primarily in Asia over the last four decades in various opera production, management and directing roles.

John on the cover of the first edition of International Arts Manager in 1988.

Setting up concerts with The Three Tenors and working with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage companies are just a few of his career highlights.

But now, John is revisiting some of his earliest memories closer to home in his new book, Scottish Opera’s Golden Years, tying in with the company’s 60th anniversary this year.

Operatic pursuits

“I remember while I was at Robert Gordon’s College, we had a wonderful music teacher called Douglas Tees,” says John.

“It was an all-boys school where most other boys had no interest in learning anything about music.”

While his classmates may have been disinterested, John continued to pursue his passion for music – going on to study at the University of Aberdeen.

John organised the final three concerts Luciano Pavarotti was ever to sing before a paying audience in Shanghai, Beijing and here in Taichung, Taiwan, in December 2005.

He’d been playing piano since the age of six. But by the time it came to his thesis on the production of opera, it was clear where his future career was headed.

“I was terrified when I found out that one of the external examiners for my oral exam was going to be the professor of music at Cambridge, and chairman of Scottish Opera, Robin Orr,” John explains.

“But come the exam, all he asked me was whether I was interested in a career in opera… I was staggered.

“I wrote to him a year later and as a result of that, I ended up being offered a job in Scottish Opera.”

John at the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, Bhutan, 2008.

Scottish Opera’s Golden Years

John went on to spend eight years in Scottish Opera from 1971 to 1978, working his way up from personal assistant to technical controller of opera production.

He defines the period from the mid ’60s to the late ’70s as Scottish Opera’s golden years where the company grew exponentially with successful opera productions across the country.

The cover of Scottish Opera’s Golden Years.

In his book, John traces his personal journey through the golden years and feels that there was a sense of magic during this time that couldn’t be matched.

“Audiences were growing and Aberdeen opera performances during this time were always virtually full,” says John.

The Queen Mother is given a warm welcome by the audience as she arrives in the Royal Box at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, for a performance of Don Pasquale by Scottish Opera on October 10, 1972.

“I remember hearing the last sequence of Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier opera at His Majesty’s Theatre, which has the most glorious trio for three female voices I think has ever been written.

“I thought how lucky I was to not only be hearing it, but for it to be in my hometown and working with such a wonderful company.”

John in Beijing, January 2013.

John also documents the decline of Scottish Opera in the latter stages of his book, but adds that the importance of teamwork was the main lesson he learned during his time there.

“Anytime I visit old friends who I worked with in Scottish Opera, we always chat fondly about our memories,” says John.

“Nothing quite compared to the feeling we had during the golden years. It was a very special time.”

Coveted career

After leaving Scottish Opera in 1978, John went to Hong Kong to work with the country’s Philharmonic Orchestra, beginning his love affair with Asia.

He continued to work across the continent for four decades and currently lives in Bangkok as a freelance consultant for the arts in Asia.

The finale of The Three Tenors concert in Beijing’s Forbidden City in June 2001.

2001 marked a career high for John, helping arrange a concert for The Three Tenors in Beijing’s Forbidden City to help with China’s efforts to host the Olympic Games seven years later.

“This was the first time the Forbidden City had ever been given to somebody for a concert or artistic event – 20,000 people were there,” says John.

“I had dinner with Pavarotti and the tenors a few nights later and they talked about this impromptu concert they had over lunch with the president of China, Jiang Zemin.

“President Jiang was word and note perfect duetting Neapolitan songs with Pavarotti – who couldn’t remember some of the words!”

John at The Kremlin, Moscow, 2011.

The Great Tenor

Pavarotti is the subject of John’s next book.

Full of funny stories and disasters working with The Great Tenor, John says he has already written the book and hopes to publish it later this year.

Pavarotti in concert at Taichung, Taiwan.

Far from sailing off into the sunset yet, John rounds up by offering advice for Aberdeen youngsters looking to get involved in the music industry today.

“For anyone at school in Aberdeen thinking about a career in the field, don’t just think about a career in this country,” he says.

“There are many opportunities in the UK, but the world is a big place. Keep that at the forefront of your mind.”

Scottish Opera’s Golden Years by John Duffus is available in hardback for £17.99 at www.amazon.co.uk

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