Scottish Opera - Five:15
As Scottish Opera prepare for curtain up on the second outing of their nugget sized opera season, Five: 15, Anna Millar meets two of its makers
As a savvy soul once surmised, ‘the more opera is dead, the more it flourishes.’ Just take the rise and rise of Scottish Opera. While the opera cynic waxed lyrical about the need to redefine the remit for a noughties audience, there they were setting their stall with Five: 15, a smart innovation that enjoyed its first outing in early 2008. The idea was simple: get a handful of Scotland’s best known writers and musicians and pair them up to create a series of new, 15-minute operas.
Last year’s line-up realised the potential, with the likes of Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith and Nigel Osborne producing works; better still, even its sniffiest of critics applauded its originality, range and scope.
This year looks set to follow suit as popular favourites, such as David Fennessy, Zinnie Harris, Gareth Williams, Louise Welsh and Stuart MacRae prepare to flex their operatic muscles.
For writer Welsh and composer MacRae, who met during a residency in Germany three years ago, it was an obvious pairing, matching Welsh’s delight in the devilishly dark and MacRae’s skill for creating vivid images with his music creations.
Welsh, best known for novels The Cutting Room and The Bullet Trick, admits that their ‘gory’ Remembrance Day operetta emerged with relative ease once the foundations were laid. ‘Stuart’s studio was in the same building as my apartment in Germany,’ explains Welsh ‘so I got very familiar with his music. He’s very clear and straightforward with his ideas.
‘Put that together with my enjoyment of sitting in a dark room and scaring myself silly, and actually it wasn’t that hard to decide what we wanted to do,’ she laughs.
Set in present day, ‘middle class Scotland’, Remembrance Day tells the gothic tale of an elderly man who, on hearing a piece of music, starts to relive a somewhat sinister past. Welsh admits it’s fun to toy with people’s perceptions.
‘The image of old people is often cute and not particularly dynamic, sort of Last of the Summer Wine, but that’s not really the case here; we wanted to turn that idea around. There’s this idea that people, as they get old, stop being the people they were when they were younger, which of course just isn’t true: they just got older.’
In writing the libretto, Welsh was keen to draw on universal themes that the audience could relate to. ‘It’s funny because, although it’s just 15 minutes, it still has to have all the elements there. Take a traditional opera like La Traviata; that was about prostitution and social exclusion. The issues that people consider ‘edgy’ for opera exist already, so we just brought our own themes to the project.’
No stranger to the macabre in her novel writing, Welsh enjoyed creating the darkness of the piece. ‘My partner said it was the goriest thing she’d ever read,’ she laughs, ‘and that she didn’t want to be around me for a while.’
For MacRae, who approached Welsh after being asked to be part of Five: 15, working with the libretto was a pleasant challenge.
‘Louise is such a great storyteller in her novels and the way in which she creates narrative is always interesting,’ says MacRae. ‘We wanted to create characters that weren’t passive people but rather people that have simply gotten old. Their personalities and what’s gone before hasn’t changed; there was a lot of enjoyment in creating music to go with that idea. The music in the piece stirs up memories and shows their reaction to it, so it was important that it told a story.’
MacRae believes opera audiences are more diverse than they are given credit for. ‘A lot of people just enjoy the incredible experience of watching and hearing it, so there’s no prejudice there about who we’re creating this for. We just want to create something interesting and engaging, and hopefully people will enjoy that.’
Five: 15, Oran Mor, Glasgow Fri 20—Sun 22 Feb; The Hub, Edinburgh, Sat 7—Sun 8 Mar.