Scottish Opera explores the Anthropocene with Louise Welsh and Stuart MacRae

It takes two

Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh / credit: Julie Broadfoot

Writer Welsh and composer MacRae share their creative collaboration process as they prepare to debut Anthropocene, their latest work for Scottish Opera

Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan – the names trip off the tongue as famous pairings from the lighter side of the operatic stage. But what about other composers and librettists? Not much heard about are Mozart & da Ponte or Puccini & Giocosa. Yet the partnership between composer and librettist is the one which brings the creation of an opera into its very being, even though too many librettists end up as unsung heroes. Not so with Scottish Opera's Five:15, a research and development project designed to bring together new opera makers. Taking its name from five operas of 15 minutes each, it was hugely successful, with one of the most lasting matches to emerge from it being writer Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae.

Anthropocene is the fourth Scottish Opera commission for Welsh and MacRae. Their most recent was 2016's The Devil Inside, based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story. This time, the story is of their own devising, inspired by the anthropocene age, the geological era marking the destructive impact humans have made on the planet.

'There's a research expedition to Greenland, where the ice is beginning to melt,' explains Welsh. 'Through microbes in the ice, they are finding out about prehistoric times.' The scientists, their ship trapped by the ice, find a frozen body. What happens next is partly up to the audience to decide, as there is, she says, 'an element of mystery and uncertainty. It's that delicious feeling of what's real and what's not real.' Led by billionaire entrepreneur Harry King, the ship takes his name – King's Anthropocene. 'We've chosen it as the name of the boat,' says MacRae, 'as it represents that character. He thinks he's helping the human race, but he's doing it for himself.' The pair are not, however, making an explicit comment on climate change or rich men's vanity projects. 'We are more drawing on people's awareness,' says MacRae, 'and their thinking differently. We've worked very hard at getting the story right.'

In reaching that point, Welsh says, 'we have a method of working which is really pleasurable. We meet for tea and scones – no alcohol – maybe in the National Library cafe, and talk and talk.' Or perhaps they'll use Skype, but the important thing is to keep talking. 'Louise and I come to a project from different places, with different ideas,' says MacRae, 'and it ends up a melding of that, with us trying to imagine the atmosphere and pacing of the music.'

Anthropocene is sparse in terms of words, with only around ten words, repeated a few times, equating to four minutes of music at times. In other places, chunkier sections of text move on quickly. For MacRae and Welsh, trust in each other is key. 'I would trust Stuart with anything', says Welsh, 'particularly artistically.' It's the same for MacRae, who says, 'We have a deep trust, but it doesn't mean we can't disagree. It's got to feel right for both of us.'

Anthropocene, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Thu 24, Sat 26 Jan; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, Thu 31 Jan, Sat 2 Feb.

Scottish Opera: Anthropocene

A new opera from Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh, in which a team of scientists trapped in the Arctic has a strange encounter.

Hackney Empire, London E8

Thu 7 Feb

£10–£35 / 020 8985 2424

Fri 8 Feb

£10–£35 / 020 8985 2424

Sat 9 Feb

£10–£35 / 020 8985 2424

King's Theatre, Edinburgh

Sat 2 Feb

Prices to be confirmed / 0131 529 6000

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

Thu 24 Jan

£12.50–£32 / 0844 871 7647

Sat 26 Jan

0844 871 7647

£12.50–£32 / 0844 871 7647

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