Dr Catherine Harkin interview: Music is the best medicine

GP and singer Dr Catherine Harkin is also medical adviser to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Dr Harkin rehearsing The Magic flute (Photo: Douglad Robertson)
Dr Harkin rehearsing The Magic flute (Photo: Douglad Robertson)

What drew you to opera?

My family was very musical. My auntie sang with the Orpheus Club in Glasgow so I was taken to my first Gilbert & Sullivan show when I was six, went to see Scottish Opera as a child and caught the bug. We had a holiday in Rome when I was about 10 and saw Aida at the Baths of Caracalla; I didn't understand a word but the music blew me away. Verdi has been my favourite composer ever since.

How did you develop your interest?

I sang in choirs at school and university but then my medical career took over, so I didn't start training my voice until about 12 years ago with a fantastic teacher who had me doing things I didn't know I could do. She encouraged me to audition and I did a music diploma with the Open University and started a distance learning course with Rose Bruford College in opera studies, because I'd always played and sung, but never actually studied music.

I still hate theory but I've learned a huge amount and it made me listen to music from outside my comfort zone, which really expanded my horizons. I love opera because it's about people, so in addition to fantastic music, you have human stories and real characters, as well as all the fun of dressing up.

Which choirs and companies have you have sung with?

We're very lucky here to have so many good quality amateur companies and choirs.

I've sung with Jubilo, the Edinburgh Singers and the Chapter House Singers, and been on stage with Edinburgh Gilbert & Sullivan Society, Dunfermline Gilbert & Sullivan Society (DGASS) and Opera Camerata. I also did a fantastic residential workshop on Islay in 2006, called Smaull Song, and a singing weekend with Sally Burchell at Fairlaw House in the Borders.

Two years ago, I joined Aria Alba, which is a new community opera company, and performed in The Marriage of Figaro at Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It was a pretty steep learning curve (especially as I was playing Lady Blanche in Princess Ida with DGASS in the same season).

Last year we performed Dido and Aeneas and this year we're tackling The Magic Flute.

I'm one of the Three Ladies and we get lots of lovely music and most of the fun. We'll be at the Fringe again, so do come along and see us.

Which is your favourite production?

I've been in so many brilliant shows that it's really hard to pick one, and some are more fun for the chorus than the principals or vice versa.

The Merry Widow had the best frocks, and if you're going on adrenalin, Dido and Aeneas has six costume changes in 50 minutes, which is quite exciting.

Carmen and Princess Ida have the best fights, and I really enjoyed Ivanhoe, just because it's rarely done, so it was great to have the opportunity.

But I think my favourite probably has to be Figaro. I played Cherubino and he's such a fun character that it would be impossible not to have a good time. All the roles were double-cast and we played two different venues so it kept everyone on their toes - fortunately, if you are playing a funny character and you trip over something, the audience think it's intentional, so it takes some of the pressure off.

What does your medical adviser role entail?

I had quite a few musicians on my list as a GP and got involved with the British Association of Performing Arts Medicine, a charity that helps performers with health problems, and the Association of Medical Advisers to British Orchestras (AMABO).

Through them, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra approached me and I agreed to be its medical adviser, which just means being available for advice or discussion about any health issues that crop up.

The first port of call for the players is always their own GP and they have an excellent physio who takes care of the musculoskeletal problems, so it isn't too onerous.

I think they are fantastic and the best orchestra in the UK, but I suspect all the AMABO doctors feel the same about 'their' orchestra!

Do your patients attend any of your performances?

Yes, sometimes, but fortunately they usually don't recognise me because I'm dressed up as somebody else.

  • Dr Harkin is a GP in Edinburgh.

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