ONE 3 • The Music of Chance: A Conversation with Sheila Colvin

“It’s been a mess and yet it hasn’t been a mess.” Sheila Colvin has had an extraordinary international career in the arts—including playing an vital role in the Edinburgh International Festival. JANE McKIE talks to her about the adventure of a “completely unstructured life” that took her to London, New York and Rio de Janeiro.

Sheila Colvin is both wryly humorous and refreshingly modest given her achievements as former Associate Director of the Edinburgh International Festival and Director of the Aldeburgh Music Festival in Suffolk, among others. I met Sheila in her garden flat in the West End of Edinburgh; it’s wonderfully lived in, with an open fire to welcome a visitor on a bitter January morning.

On first meeting, she strikes you as diminutive, and very down to earth and affable. This East of Scotland setting suits her—she has a profound attachment to Edinburgh—but it isn’t long before I discover that she’s also lived in London, Glasgow, New York and Rio de Janeiro, and still spends a good deal of time in France. The international flavour of her travel is matched by the varied nature of her career, and it’s variety that has shaped the pattern of her life to date.

A consummate dabbler in the arts, Sheila had an early passion for dance, but was “completely the wrong shape to be a dancer. I was completely pear-shaped. I was obsessed with it to an unhealthy degree.” So, instead, she pursued a career in television production with the BBC in London and then Glasgow, followed by theatre production at the Actors Studio and The Threepenny Opera off-Broadway in New York. Her time in New York also saw her working for WNET Channel 13 on Play of the Week: “They had some marvellous things. They did Rashomon with Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in West Side Story. They did The Iceman Cometh with Jason Robards and Robert Redford. I loved living in New York.”

A holiday back to Edinburgh saw an encounter with Richard Demarco and his wife, and with it, the chance to become involved with the Traverse Theatre, so Sheila never returned to America—she jokes that she “fell into bad company”. Instead, after her involvement with the Traverse, she worked with John Calder on the Ledlanet Nights musical-theatre festival, and they struck up a lifelong friendship.

After all her experience in theatre, Sheila’s career took a departure: she returned to London to become an associate producer at London Weekend Television on Saturday Special, a variety show, and when that contract came to an end, she signed on at a labour exchange. The result was a job with a Brazilian commercial publishing company with offices in London and Rio. She spent her time flying between the two cities and learned Portuguese “from two wonderful old ladies in Copacabana”. With typical modesty, Sheila comments that it was “a very, very dotted about career, you see—you couldn’t possibly do this these days”. It’s no longer so easy to just “fall into things”.

One of the most memorable examples of this kind of luck was Sheila’s involvement with the Edinburgh International Festival, where she spent ten years, first with John Drummond and then with Frank Dunlop, as Associate Director. Sheila recalls this time with great affection, and again alludes to the slightly haphazard way in which she found the job, or rather, the job found her:

“It’s been a mess and yet it hasn’t been a mess. When John Drummond was appointed Director, Richard Demarco rang me up and said, ‘You’ve simply got to meet this man. You’ve got to go and work with him.’ And he also had written to John, obviously, and said, ‘You’ve got to meet this woman. She’s exactly what you need.’ Which instantly turned John off, of course! But we finally did meet up and we did hit it off and we did work together and it was wonderful.

“He was a fabulous boss and he stayed the closest possible friend until he died in 2006. He was a great, great, great man and is much missed. He asked me to lunch and the first thing we discovered was that we shared a birthday. He said to me, ‘Well, tell me about what you’ve done,’ and I told him what I’ve told you. I said, ‘It’s a completely unstructured life really. It’s not a career as such. It’s a life that I’ve led.’ And he said, ‘You’re just exactly what I’m looking for, somebody who’s been around and knows some things about different things.’”

It was a tremendously exciting time in Sheila’s life because of the size and scope of the Festival. Although, in a sense, the Aldeburgh Music Festival was more challenging since Sheila was in charge of a year-long programme of events, Edinburgh was “a forty-nine week rehearsal period for a three-week show” and “had all the glitz and the glamour”.

Her role at Edinburgh, the newly formed position of Associate Director, allowed for creative input, particularly in the area of commissioning performances and, as with many of her jobs, seemed to be characterized by harmonious working relationships with the men in charge:

“Both Frank and John were tremendously generous to work with, and always very receptive to ideas or experiences. If I’d seen something that looked interesting and I mentioned it, they would say, ‘Right, well I think we’ll go with that.’ Or I would be sent off… I went to Poland several times to look for various theatre productions that we might bring to Edinburgh. They were just very inclusive, both of them.”

I wondered how such freedom compares with the Edinburgh International Festival now, almost thirty years on. Has the scope diminished at all? This question leads to a discussion of the funding situation, and Sheila has clear views on the matter:

“I think it’s pretty dire really. I just don’t think this country has got arts funding right. There’s this absolute determination, of whatever government, not to consider tax breaks for individual giving, as you have in the States. Business doesn’t seem to have quite the feeling that I wish it would have.
“I just think the arts matter so much, and the idea that the arts are for a select few and not for everybody is just so wrong. I think we do get that wrong in this country. I’m not going to use the E-word [elite], but I think that’s a common perception for far too many people in positions of power.”

Sheila goes on to clarify the relationship between the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe: “I think the Fringe should be properly funded to administer a massive, massive event. The Fringe is totally differently set up from the International Festival in that to be on the Fringe you pay, whereas at the Edinburgh International Festival you are paid to come. So there’s a certain revenue that the Fringe gets that the Edinburgh Festival doesn’t get. But of course the Fringe should also be properly funded to be able to do its job well.”

Far from seeing the International Festival and the Fringe as uneasy bedfellows, she thinks that some of the rivalry, the controversy, is “there because people like to be controversial and it gets them headlines. It is big but you can’t stop that. If you’re not actually planning a programme and you’re open to all comers, where are you going to draw the line?”

With what she describes as a “totally amateur” background in music, which translates as a profound love—perhaps inspired by the fact that she was the only child of a mother who played the violin and a father who sang—it is not surprising that she relished the opportunity to become Director of the Aldeburgh Music Festival after her time at the International Festival.

Aldeburgh was founded by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears in 1948, and is regarded as one of the best music festivals in Europe. It boasts what Sheila describes as “the finest middle-scale concert hall in Europe, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, which is a complete inspiration to performers and to listeners. It is the most magical place.”

Sheila was Director for nine years, living in Aldeburgh and working on a year-round programme of concerts and master classes. They now have a young artist’s programme that gives postgraduate music students the opportunity to learn with established professional musicians. Unsurprisingly given her steadfast desire to facilitate, Sheila regards it as “so incredibly important that our artists today who have a lot to teach are given an opportunity to pass on their knowledge and their experience to young people.”

As well as the young artist’s programme, Sheila of course valued the public dimension of the role: finding an audience for new music, new performances. It was not without its challenges, however:

“Well I love it when the public responds positively. I hate it when they don’t. That was one of the drawbacks of Aldeburgh—it’s such a small town and of course I lived there because it was a year-round operation. I would get accosted in the Co-Op on a Saturday morning when I was doing my shopping by somebody who’d bear down on me and say, ‘Can I just tell you how much we all hated last night’s programme?’ And I’d think, Come on, I’m just buying my bananas, and you have to sort of grin.

“I think some people are always going to be very set in their ways and they loathe any kind of new experience or any kind of innovation. But they were balanced by wonderful people who would say, ‘Well I certainly didn’t expect to like that, but it’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever heard in my life.’ So I’d concentrate on those. But of course you don’t want people to hate what you’re doing. I used to say, ‘Look, it’s half an hour out of your life this new piece, but if you hate it, you hate it’.”

“Far from seeing the International Festival and Fringe as uneasy bedfellows, she thinks that some of the rivalry, the controversy, is “there because people like to be controversial and it gets them headlines”.

So her desire to enable and enthuse is balanced by a kind of pragmatism coupled with resilience that has obviously served her well over the years; even when she doesn’t like a new piece, she persists in her receptivity to new composition and arrangement: “You can’t understand everything on first hearing and even at tenth hearing you might still loathe it, but I just feel you’ve got to do it. You have to keep working on new things and encouraging new talent.”

She loves both classical and contemporary music. World music also means a lot to her, especially that of Brazil because of her time there: “You can’t live in Brazil and not be passionate about music.” She was invited to do a Radio 3 programme called Private Passions during her last year in Aldeburgh:

“One of the things I chose was a key moment in that Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony that I remember as the first piece of music that ever struck me.” She was about five years old. “I love most music. I love Kurt Weill. Having worked on The Threepenny Opera, I got to know that. I love the big Romantic repertoire—Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov… I love opera. I go to the opera a lot when I can—Verdi and Wagner; I’m a bit of a Wagnerite.”
Sheila pauses at that point and gives me a look, as if I might be about to comment. I ask her why. She chuckles: “Well, Wagnerite’s have a terrible reputation for being totally focused on Wagner to the exclusion of everything else, but I’m not.”

I can’t imagine Sheila Colvin being focused on anything to the total exclusion of anything else. Her whole philosophy is about inclusion. When I ask what she is most proud of, she replies: “The most rewarding thing was definitely working in Aldeburgh and Edinburgh and being a sort of enabler, enabling great artists to do the thing they wanted to do most. Enabling them to shine really, and working with composers and being involved in commissioning work and seeing it come to fruition.”

Music has always been part of her life. She has danced through a career spanning several decades in television, theatre and, most abidingly, music, with a lightness of touch and something akin to surprise at the course it has taken. It is this modesty that is disarming, and her willingness to embrace adventure—and serendipity—that stays with you.

Jane McKie writes poetry and her collection Morocco Rococo was recently published by Cinnamon Press. She is the founder of Knucker Press—a small press established with the intention of encouraging artists and writers to respond to each other’s work: