Interview: Louise Welsh – ‘This is a world where magic exists and if magic exists then hell may too’
Author discusses The Devil Inside, her new opera based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp
Best known as a novelist, most recently of the first two instalments of her Plague Times trilogy, Louise Welsh also boasts an operatic string on her literary bow with her latest opera The Devil Inside premiering in Glasgow in January 2016. The new work is co-created with composer Stuart MacRae and is based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp. In Stevenson's short story, a magical bottle containing an imp grants the owner’s wishes but the bottle is cursed. It can only be sold for less than what it was bought for and whoever dies with it in their possession will burn in hell.
Co-commissioned and co-produced by Scottish Opera and Music Theatre Wales, The Devil Inside is the third opera collaboration between the Welsh and MacRae following Remembrance Day and Ghost Patrol. It’s also the first work long enough to fulfil their ambition of an interval. After the Scottish premiere, the show tours the UK before heading to Toronto, Canada. We caught up with Welsh in Glasgow, ahead of The Devil Inside's premiere at the city's Theatre Royal in January.
How different is The Devil Inside to Stevenson’s short story The Bottle Imp, which is set in the South Seas?
Ours is set in the here and now. We wanted it to be relevant. The difficulty with that is some of the jeopardy comes from the fear that you might go to hell for all eternity and now there are less people that believe in that as a real visceral force. We spent weeks talking about this but we decided – this is a world where magic exists and if magic exists then hell may too. We embraced the idea that there is magic in the world, which as a writer is really exciting.
What comes first the libretto or the musical composition?
Always the words. But ideally people shouldn’t be coming out of the opera thinking ‘wow that was a marvellous turn of phrase’. The words should be invisible in a sense. It’s such a fascinating process as, with the great operas like The Magic Flute or Carmen, the orchestra might have played the score before. But this is completely new.
Do you sing to yourself as you write?
A little bit. I want to know what the words sound like. What I have to do as a writer is leave space for the music. When you write a novel you leave space for the reader’s imagination. With theatre you don’t have to do that because you’ve got the set and these fabulous actors. The brilliant thing about opera is you’ve got the music, which tells you all sorts of things. Once you begin to be able to read the music you can see that is the motif from scene one when that thing happened. There’s a whole kind of code to it.
How would you pitch the show to someone who hadn’t been to the opera before?
I think you should try things out. Mind you I’ve never done bungee jumping and never will. I think this is about fundamentals. There’s a touch of the horrors about it, it’s about what would you do for love and it’s about addiction – the idea of this bottle that will give you anything you want. It’s visceral, the singers are amazing and the set is more than I dreamed of. There’s humour in it as well. I think that’s really necessarily when you have anything dark. It’s coming from a legend and although there are serious, bloody elements to it, I hope we retained that playfulness. People who haven’t been to opera before often ask ‘what do you wear?’ I think they’ve seen James Bond and he’s got a bow tie and his companion wears a beautiful gown and it’s important that people know you don’t have to dress like that. You can go in whatever you want to wear.
The Devil Inside, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Sat 23 & Tue 26 Jan; also King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 29 & Sat 30 Jan; then touring.