Scottish Opera in climate change world premiere

12:53, 8th January 2019

Report by Neil Jones

Nine years ago, in their second round of Five: Fifteen series of mini-operas, Scottish Opera commissioned the Scottish composer/librettist duo of Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh; a ‘discovery’ that has born considerable fruit. Their latest (and fourth work for the company) will be premiered in this month.

Anthropocene (the term which denotes our current geological age) will visit issues such as man-made global warming and the exploitation of marginalised peoples by wealthy nations and individuals through the story of a group of scientists on an Arctic expedition ship stuck in the ice.

If that all sounds a bit daunting, even righteous, it was reassuring to talk to Stuart MacRae and be told that: ‘The last thing either Louise or I would wish to do is to preach to the audience. That’s not what this piece is for! At the same time the relevance of it comes from the undeniable; climate change and the fact that we’re on the cusp of a point where humankind won’t be able to do anything about it. So, of course, that’s addressed in the opera but it’s done hopefully with a light touch.

‘It’s the relationships between the characters that form 90 per cent of the opera and, yes, they all have opinions, but we’re not seeking to make any political points. We’re not seeking to answer questions, more to pose them to the audience.’

MacRae believes though that opera is a great medium for telling this story: ‘You have multiple characters trapped in each other’s company in a situation they didn’t anticipate. You have all sorts of possibilities for interesting dynamics between the characters and interesting relationship development.

‘It enables the presentation of different opinions and different points of view – all the characters have their own motivation and their own interpretation of the situation and opera is able to present those kinds of dilemmas and conflict in a single moment better than any other kind of art form.

‘And with the use of the orchestra you can add a very subtly changing atmosphere to whatever is going on. What I like about writing opera is the ability to either reinforce or contradict or underline or add nuance to whatever a particular character is saying.’

Over the nine years that MacRae and Welsh have been working with Scottish Opera they’ve got to know the company well.

‘My way of writing for opera has gradually evolved in collaboration with the company,’ says MacRae, ‘but I’m not conscious of which element of the company has influenced me the most.

The relationship is very fluid so whether you’re writing for voices or an orchestra it’s always helpful to know and be able to visualise who you’re writing the piece for. Apart from any audience considerations the performers are a very important part of it.

‘I’ve got to know many of the players so I not only consult with them but I think about what these players can do and what their individual sound and approach is and the more you get to know players the more natural that feeling is. So I do adapt myself to whatever musicians I happen to know I’m writing for. But then you also have to take into account the unknown because you might write for a particular singer or player and then they’re not the one who performs the piece, so there has be be a kind of universalism there.’

The premise of an expedition ship trapped the Arctic has a number of historical precedents so it makes for a very realistic operatic storyline. You might even be view it as a refrigerated version of Jonathan Dove’s Flight –  although you could describe MacRae’s and Dove’s music as being as different as  tropical and polar climates.

MacRae and Welsh have certainly been on a fascinating  journey with Scottish Opera since their Five:Fifteen introduction. And finding some home grown talent capable of writing main-scale opera was surely the point of the whole Five:Fifteen exercise.  Anthropocene will for sure be a fascinating production. Don’t miss it – and wrap up warm!

Anthropocene receives its world premiere at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Thursday 24 January. The production runs until 26 January, followed by performances at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh (31 Jan to 2 Feb) and Hackney Empire, London (7 to 9 Feb). www.scottishopera.org.uk

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