Kids preview: Jan Tait and the Bear

Old Shetland folk tale is given a new lease of life in the hands of Canadian composer Emily Doolittle

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Kids preview: Jan Tait and the Bear

The ins and outs of taxation may not be top of a child's agenda, but even young people know that paying your way with dairy products is a little unusual. Back in 15th century Shetland, however, it was part of daily life – as composer Emily Doolittle discovered when she adapted ancient folk tale Jan Tait and the Bear into a family opera.

'One of things that initially drew me to the story is that it takes place during the Medieval era,' explains Doolittle. ' And at that time, Shetlanders had to pay tax to the Norwegian King – in butter. And I read that and thought, that's ridiculous, but I looked into it, and it's actually true.'

The tale follows strong man Jan Tait, who clashes with the tax collector in Shetland and find himself brought before the King in Norway to explain himself. Impressed by his strength, the King agrees to pardon Jan if he can catch a bear – which he duly does, and brings it back to his homeland.

'It's possible that a bear was brought back to Shetland, nobody knows for sure,' says Doolittle. 'But Shetland doesn't have any large native land animals, so people there had a fascination with bears and would go to other countries on boats, see them and bring back stories. So it's not impossible that somebody did actually go to Norway and bring back a bear for others to see.'

Born in Canada, but now based in Glasgow, Doolittle first discovered the story during a trip to Shetland in 2010. Keen to give the work a sense of authenticity, the opera's libretto has been drawn from a play about Jan Tait written by Shetlander Peter Guy. And during its creation, the music was played by an amateur chamber ensemble based in Shetland – but will now be performed by professional Glasgow group, Ensemble Thing.

Passed down through oral storytelling from generation to generation, the tale has always had a wide appeal – which is why Doolittle was keen to make the opera accessible to audiences of all ages.

'One of the things I like about folk tales is they can be understood on lots of different levels,' she says. 'So kids might enjoy seeing the bear and Jan going up north on a boat, while adults might appreciate the clash with the tax collector and identify with not wanting authorities from the outside telling them what to do.

'I have two young children myself, and often feel there's too much segregation between art created for adults and entertainment created for kids. And certainly there's plenty of room for art that's either made for adults or kids – but I also feel that a well written piece is a well written piece. And whoever you're writing for you're trying to make satisfying structures and interesting and engaging ideas.'

CCA, Glasgow, Thu 6 & Sat 8 Oct.

Jan Tait and the Bear

Set in 15th century Shetland, when its islands were under Norwegian rule and when taxes were paid in butter, Fetlar local Jan Tait lands himself in deep trouble when he clashes with the Norwegian tax officer. This comedic chamber opera follows Tait on an adventure-laden journey to Norway, a perilous encounter with the…

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