The first interview in our new Supporter Spotlight series, featuring Ruth Wyman, OHP Volunteer and Young Artists Supporter. Anna Picard chats to Ruth about her love of opera and her favourite productions at OHP.
Small and stylishly dressed, with a ready laugh and bags of energy, Ruth Wyman is a familiar figure at Opera Holland Park. “I’m my own person,” she says. “I just enjoy life and do mad things.” Music is in Ruth’s blood: her grandfather played cards with Richard Strauss. Since retiring from her work as a PA for The Royal Society in 2007 she has been able to devote more time to her great love, opera.
She is a supporter of the OHP Young Artists and a volunteer at Opera Holland Park. We caught up with her a couple of weeks into lockdown. Was she dejected? Far from it: “I listen to opera on the radio, obviously, but I think it’s a good break, actually. I think I’m going to appreciate it more when we’re back. I have so many interests. I play bridge, I walk, I talk, I eat, I drink. You name it, I do it.”
“My relationship with opera began when I was a child” says Ruth. “I had a German mother and an English father and they both liked opera.” She holds a copy of Lionel Salter’s Going to the Opera up to the camera. “This is one of the first books I got. It’s a Puffin book and it was published in 1958. My parents took me to see Benjamin Britten’s Lets Make an Opera and I’ve still got the music to the Sweep’s Song.”
As a schoolgirl her first visit to Covent Garden was to see Carmen. She was also taken to the Ernest Read concerts for children. “I never questioned why I love opera”, she says. “It was always there. I don’t read music. I don’t play an instrument. I just enjoy listening to opera.” So which performances sealed the deal when she was an adult? “That’s easy! The Trojans in 1963, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Aldeburgh with James Bowman. And Boris Godunov with Boris Christoff. That coronation scene, with all the gold! That has remained in my memory ever since. I just absolutely loved that production.”
Lockdown is not the first break from opera that Ruth has experienced. For fifteen years she lost the habit, only going once or twice a year. “In the old days there was only Covent Garden”, she says. “I do have a big regret about that now because I missed a lot of good productions elsewhere. Perhaps I started too young and I need a break?”
In the late 1990s a friend had a spare ticket for The Fairy Queen at ENO and that was that. Ruth was hooked again and her horizons widened dramatically. Over the last few seasons she has attended performances from Charles Court Opera’s G&S to the Ring Cycle in Seattle and Les Troyens in San Francisco, visiting La Monnaie and the Opéra Comique, Glyndebourne, Scottish Opera and, of course, Opera Holland Park.
Ruth was introduced to OHP by the late Sara Turnbull and was due to celebrate her eleventh season as a volunteer this summer. “I asked Michael [Volpe] for a badge like the Aquarium staff in Monterey” she laughs. “It’s lovely to be able to give something to the company. It’s a very kind company. When James [Clutton] talks about Holland Park as a family, we are a family. I used to work at the stage door when I first started volunteering because I liked to see what was going on backstage and I did see what was going on. Seeing how James spoke to all the artists, whether they were principals or chorus, he respected everyone as a person. That to me summarises Opera Holland Park.”
During the season Ruth enjoys selling programmes and “trying to impart my love of opera. People offer me food and I say ‘Oh no, I’m working!’ Or they offer me a drink and I say, ‘Oh no, I’m on duty!’ I can’t really swig around with a glass of wine in one hand and sell programmes with the other,” she laughs. Her support of the OHP Young Artists extends beyond the season. “I don’t have any children and I don’t have any nephews or nieces. I thought it would be nice to help somebody, and as my love is opera, why not help a young singer? I keep an eye on them,” she says. “I was looking forward to seeing Alys Roberts in The Pirates of Penzance, and Tom Mole, who I supported in 2019, he’ll go far.”
Looking back over her experiences with OHP, Ruth’s personal highlights are wide-ranging. She loved the 2011 production of Eugene Onegin and The Turn of the Screw in 2014. More recently, she says, “Ariadne auf Naxos was absolutely wonderful. Iolanta was a real highlight, and I absolutely adored Susanna’s Secret. I wish they’d made a film of it. I loved it. I thought John [Savournin] in that role was wonderful! Also, volunteering.
When things get back to normal, I really want to help. I think Opera Holland Park is a special company and it’s gone from strength to strength over the years. It’s lovely to see someone like David Butt Philip, who started in the chorus, in Fidelio at Covent Garden, for example. That tells you the sort of people Opera Holland Park attracts. They’re nice people.”