The Okavango Macbeth: Alexander McCall Smith’s 'Shakespeare and baboons' opera
The author/librettist teams up with Tom Cunningham and Robert McFall
Alexander McCall Smith’s inspiration to write an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth isn’t the first. Verdi was certainly there before him, but what makes McCall Smith’s The Okavango Macbeth decidedly different is that the characters are all baboons. It may sound wacky, but, says McCall Smith, who has a longstanding interest in primate studies, ‘it suddenly occurred to me that the ambitious female baboon, who wants her male to advance, has Lady Macbeth issues. So why don’t we tell the story of Macbeth, with the themes that Shakespeare addresses, such as violence and ambition, set in a troop of baboons?’
The ‘we’ McCall Smith refers to is himself as librettist with regular composer partner Tom Cunningham. ‘My words and Tom’s music seem to work well together and he’s produced a wonderfully melodic score. There are some catchy tunes, but at the same time it’s very moving.’ Originally for piano, the music has been rescored for small ensemble by Robert McFall of Mr McFall’s Chamber, who give the Edinburgh performances along with Edinburgh Studio Opera and post-grad students from the RSAMD. ‘There’s one scene, one of the loveliest,’ says McCall Smith, ‘where the Lady Macbeth baboon is urging Macbeth on to murder Duncan. It’s such haunting and beautiful music.’
First performed in the No 1 Ladies’ Opera House in Botswana, which was set up by McCall Smith to give a platform to local singers, the opera was an instant hit. Full houses packed out the tiny venue for ten nights. Director then was Nicholas Ellenbogen, from Cape Town, who now comes to Edinburgh. ‘He is a theatrical genius,’ says McCall Smith, ‘and he’s come up with an absolutely fabulous production using masks and movement. It’s breathtakingly vivid staging. I shouldn’t be saying this myself, but it’s just wonderful!’
Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, Wed 20 and Thu 21 April.