Tag Archives: Scottish Opera

Opera Highlights

Eastwood Park Theatre

Scottish Opera’s four-singers-and-a-piano touring to small theatres and community halls is now the most dependable ingredient of its season as economies bite into the more expensive elements of the programme. Dependable, but not predictable, because although some of the shape of these shows is unchanging, other ingredients are always excitingly new.

Most obviously the cast is a constantly refreshing introduction to singers in the early years of their careers, occasionally with a more experienced voice in the mix. In February and March this new show will be a showcase for all four of the company’s new recruits to its Emerging Artists programme, and they will have a hard act to follow.  Of the quartet on the road now, two are making their company debut and the other pair have just a single Scottish Opera gig in their performing history.

The soprano and mezzo are both home-grown, although they made their reputations elsewhere. As a Garsington Opera Young Artist, Katy Thomson stepped in for an indisposed Miah Persson as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier – and her singing here leaves no doubt that she has the chops for that role. Katherine Aitken has been a studio principal at the Opera de Lyon and was a terrific Tisbe in the Stefan Herheim production of La Cenerentola the French company brought to the 2018 Edinburgh Festival.

Baritone Jerome Knox is Glasgow-trained, at the Alexander Gibson Opera School of the Royal Conservatoire, and he and South African tenor Innocent Masuku have extensive CVs of work with UK companies.

Although all four make excellent solo contributions to this programme, displaying their individual versatility, it is more impressive how well they bond as a team, with some beautifully blended ensemble singing and a display of acting skills and physical expression that should shame some of their more illustrious seniors in the opera world.

The choice of material for them to sing remains, for this year at least, in the capable hands of recently-retired Head of Music at Scottish Opera, Derek Clark. There are possibly fewer of his maverick selections, and more music that is better known (at least to me), but the key to the show’s success is the way they are combined. With the simple device of placing her characters in the socially interactive hothouse of a wedding reception, both as guests and (with some quick changes) in the conveniently androgynous uniform of staff, director Laura Attridge provides a plausible context for duets by Tchaikovsky, Rossini, Offenbach and Puccini, arias by Handel, Donizetti, Gounod and Massenet, and a splendid trio from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment.

Such concepts in Highlights staging often come unstuck when the show reaches the recent inclusion of a new commission, but not in this instance. Following last year’s Told By An Idiot, composer Toby Hession, who is music director and accompanist on this tour, and librettist Emma Jenkins (director of Strauss’s Daphne at the start of the month) have supplied another world premiere with In Flagrante, conveniently also using a hotel function suite, but now at the end of a debauched political party conference.

As government ministers crawl from under the tables in states of undress and a suitcase full of used banknotes is discovered, it is all too recognisably of the moment, brilliantly exposed in sparkling text, set with great skill by the composer and performed with gusto by the cast. When spin doctor Rhona (Aitken) arrives to save the day in abrasive fashion, we are left in no doubt that she is uninterested in saving either the skins or the reputations of her supposed paymasters. As in so many opera plots.

Perhaps the conceit of Attridge’s staging runs out of steam a little in the (shorter) second half, but it was already a stretch for the Papagena Aria and Duet from The Magic Flute that closed the first. The music, and ensemble performance, remains top drawer, even as it becomes lighter fare in the way these shows always conclude. These four singers are adaptable enough to give everything its most appropriate delivery – and they will be doing that from Thurso to Dumfries and Aberdeen to Arisaig until the end of October.

Keith Bruce

Picture by Sally Jubb

Lammermuir: Opening Concerts

St Mary’s Church, Haddington / Gladsmuir Parish Church

The opening weekend of this year’s Lammermuir Festival toyed with history. We had a Richard Strauss opera, written in 1938 but rarely seen on the world’s stages, that was now breathing Scottish air for the very first time. Scottish Opera delivered that opportunity in a powerfully revealing concert staging. Why has it become a museum piece?

And while Mozart’s string quintets are performed often enough on modern instruments to modern ears, hearing them on period instruments, with all the fragile idiosyncrasies that entails, was a time-travelling ear-opening courtesy of the uniquely talented string ensemble, Spunicunifait. 

As for the Marian Consort, one of many excellent UK a cappella vocal ensembles focussed on fine-tuning our understanding of early sacred music, they were instrumental, so to speak, in articulating the paradoxical highs and lows of the fortunes besetting Haddington’s medieval St Mary’s Church during the early half of the 16th century.

Strauss’ Daphne, the Festival’s opening evening spectacular in St Mary’s, was a revelation. It has its weaknesses, not least a rather tepid storyline by librettist Joseph Gregor – drawn loosely from Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Euripides’ The Bacchae – that somehow passed muster with the composer. 

In this concert staging, director Emma Jenkins aimed to give it new life, thoughtfully transferring the original “bucolic tragedy” concept to a shadowy 1930s Weimar nightclub and the clandestine activities of the anti-Nazi White Rose movement. It was challenging, if strangely inoffensive, neither stealing the show nor threatening Strauss’ red hot score. 

The focus was firmly on the latter, sung by a cast that knew its worth and driven to the most thrilling Straussian heights by a turbo-charged Scottish Opera Orchestra, its uninterrupted musical narrative the very nerve centre of the piece. Placed behind the singers, superbly nurtured by conductor Stuart Stratford within the expansive church acoustics, the impact was all-embracing, from the sweet-scented pastoralism of the opening to the surreal string effects that etherealise the closing transformation music.

Soprano Hye-Youn Lee stole the vocal show as Daphne, a performance as steely and rapturous as it was affectionate and vulnerable. Australian tenor Brad Cooper addressed the role of Apollo as a pugnacious SS official, his manic animation sharpening the contrast with fellow tenor Shengzhi Ren’s penetratingly naive Leukippos. Recast as nightclub owners, Daphne’s father and mother – Dingle Yandell and Claire Barnett-Jones respectively – appeared like Cabaret side-show equivalents of Le Mis’s Thénardiers. 

Every performance, including a snappy supporting cast, served the performance well, and its worthy ambition to prove what an inspired piece of music this forgotten opera actually is.

The genius of Mozart’s six string quintets has never been in doubt, the consequence of the extra viola – which the composer himself would have played – opening up vistas for harmonic density, contrapuntal complexity and expanded musical conversation. 

In the second of their programmes exploring all six, Spunicunifait’s exclusive interest – they formed purely to celebrate these quintets – was borne out in performances that not only crackled with instinctive interaction, but treated us to the more visceral sound world Mozart’s audiences would have experienced.

That had its issues. Gut strings hate the heat, and Saturday in Gladsmuir Church was exceedingly hot and humid. Tuning between movements extended the concert – recorded for BBC Radio 3 – by a good 20 minutes, not to mention a mid-performance string break that required a quick change by one violist and an impromptu lecture on the perils of period instrument performance by the other (the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s’s new principal viola, Max Mandel).

In many ways the vulnerability of these instruments, and the level of player concentration required to make them speak truly and expressively, added immeasurably to the excitement of the event. A whispered fragility cast an air of suspense around the opening bars of the Quintet No 2 (Mozart’s arrangement of his own C minor Wind Serenade), a performance further enriched by its raw dynamism. The other works were originals: the late String Quintet No 6 in E flat, full of harmonic surprises, boisterous interplay and a golden Andante; the earlier No 3 in C unmistakably operatic through the playful jostling of its instrumentally-conceived dramatis personae. A playing style that took time to acclimatise to was always a joy to ingest, something of a challenge for 20th century ears, but always invigorating.

As for the ensemble’s curious name, Spunicunifait is a made-up word, a conflation of a nonsense phrase penned by Mozart in one of his often racy letters to his cousin “Basle”. 

Nothing was made up in the Marian Consort’s two Saturday events back in St Mary’s. These were based on facts surrounding a stormy few decades in which the Haddington church witnessed the burgeoning of musical excellence – it had its own song school – and the physically devastating impact of invading forces and the Reformation. 

The first Marian appearance was effectively a supporting role, providing music that gave context to a lecture-tour of the church – A Glory of the Middle Ages – by Edinburgh University’s Dr Lizzie Swarbrick, a foremost authority on medieval art and architecture. While much of what she told us about the likely richness of fabric, decoration and spiritual icons existing then within St Mary’s had to be imagined, the music examples by Rory McCleery’s first-rate ensemble was an immediate and exhilarating presence. Motets by Christopher Tye and Adrian Willaert combined with ritualistic chants, performed in a progression of strategic positions within the building. 

It also acted as an intoxicating taster to the more formal concert that evening, a sequence of 15th century music sourced from the Dunkeld part books housed in Edinburgh University, some of it anonymous, some of penned by key continental figures, reflective of 16th century Scotland’s independent openness to the sophisticated fashions of mainland Europe, something the SNP would no doubt approve of. 

The anonymous Missa Felix namque echoed such inspirational circumspection, acting as the programme’s spinal cord and exemplified in a performance that sourced spiritual depth from its outward naivety. That said, the high points were undoubtedly the surrounding set pieces: a melancholic Pater Noster by Pierre Certon, the florid intensity of Josquin’s Benedicta es caelorum Regina, and the gloriously rich harmonies of an anonymous O Maria stans sub cruce.

The supreme purity of the singing, its immediate contextual relevance, and periodic commentary from Swarbrick, struck a resounding consonance against a historically dissonant background.

Ken Walton

Scottish Opera Young Company

Edington Street Studios, Glasgow

The ampersand in the heading of this review is doing a lot of heavy lifting. For all the skill and cleverness evident in every aspect of this challenging double-bill from the youth wing of Scottish Opera, the way in which director Flora Emily Thomson, conductor Chris Gray and this excellent ensemble achieved the transition between Henry McPherson’s contemporary take on Dark Ages myth and a faithful presentation of Kurt Weill’s compact tale of mid-20th century rural American Gothic was quite masterly.

There was no break in this double-bill, some swift side-stage costume changes and a stripping-back of lusher elements of the sylvan setting (both the work of Finlay McLay) taking place as the musicians segued from McPherson’s score to Weill’s. It was bold, but made perfect sense because of the shared elements of the stories, in which insular communities demonstrate a fearful ruthlessness at the expense of the charismatic hero we are all rooting for.

McPherson’s Maud was first seen as part of a triple-bill of short premieres at Glasgow’s SWG3 in 2018 in an event that looked back to Scottish Opera’s 5:15chamber-opera commissioning strand and forward to the establishment of the Young Company as a successor to the company’s “Connect” project. It had the best of the presentation then, and – although scaled down in terms of its instrumental forces – worked well here too, even if the balance between the keyboards and percussion and the whispering ensemble was initially difficult to tune into.

Young mezzo Imogen Bews, who also brought a fine swaggering presence to her trouser-role as Thomas Bouché in the Weill, supplied the role created by Danish mezzo Lise Christensen as the Wise Woman overseeing the tale with a strong and flexible voice. The triple-casting of the title role – Elinor Gent, Maria Wotherspoon and Anna Sophie Montgomery – gave our heroine a physical presence to match the meaner influences of her parents and the villagers with their palpable suspicion of “the other”.

McPherson’s music may not be the most melodious or harmonic, but his use of arias and choruses was recognisable enough, and the ensemble singing was as impressive as the range of solo voices.

If that piece was far from an easy sing for these young musicians, neither is the Weill, even if the composer’s use of traditional American folk songs suggests a closer kinship with musical theatre. The star solo turns here were baritone preacher/community leader Joshua Campbell, tenor Luke Francis as Brack Weaver, and especially Helena Engebretsen as the central love interest, Jennie Parsons.

With violinist Katie Hull joining the keyboards of Karen McIvor and Hilary Brooks and percussionist Darren Gallagher, her solo line was a key partner to the soprano’s anguish in what is almost a Victorian melodrama transferred to the rural USA. Told in flashback, the crucial fight scene was excellently choreographed in a production in which the ensemble movement, using all of the auditorium, was as accomplished as the choral singing.

The Young Company can be seen  at Barrfields in Largs on Saturday (July 29) and Stirling’s Albert Halls on Sunday (July 30).

Keith Bruce

Picture of Helena Engebretsen and Luke Francis in Down in the Valley by Sally Jubb

Lammermuir 2023

With its programming including a concert staging from Scottish Opera as well as music performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the BBC SSO, Lammermuir Festival has outgrown any impression of it as a showcase for small-scale chamber music in pretty East Lothian churches, although it is that as well.

All of its dozen venues bar one, Garvald Village Hall, still fit that description, but Dunbar Parish Church has joined St Mary’s in Haddington as capable of accommodating larger ensembles and performances – most recently April’s community opera Catriona and the Dragon. Just as Lliam Paterson’s work demonstrated the range of Lammermuir, the September Festival runs from a first Scottish performance of Richard Strauss’s late opera Daphne to an enticingly diverse sequence of solo and duo recitals.

They include this year’s Artist in Residence, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, playing Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier as well as more recent music pairing his instrument with live electronics. Both JS and CPE Bach feature in his recital with violinist Antje Weithaas and then in a concert with the SCO.

The box office violin and piano partnership of Alina Ibragimova and Festival Patron Steven Osborne play Debussy, Prokofiev and Part, and Osborne returns a week later to close the Festival with the SSO and Ryan Wigglesworth, playing Michael Tippett’s Piano Concerto alongside Beethoven’s Third Symphony. A duo of tenor Nicholas Mulroy and Ryan Corbett on accordion promises a programme ranging from Monteverdi to Joni Mitchell.

Return visitors from last year include French string quartet Quatuor Agate and the NYCOS Chamber Choir and other chamber music ensembles include a debut from international group Spunicunifait, playing Mozart (whose made-up word gives them their name), and three concerts by Kaleidoscope, whose Tom Poster and Elena Urioste will also be revisiting their Juke Box lockdown selections, live.

The Maxwell Quartet begin a three-year association with Lammermuir, working with baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Christopher Glynn in the second of their two performances, and Dunedin Consort continues its association with soprano Nardus Williams in a concert of music by women composers of earlier years.

With Fretwork and Gesualdo Six celebrating the 400th anniversary of William Byrd in St Mary’s, Rory McCleery’s Marian Consort and historian Lizzie Swarbrick combine forces to celebrate the venerable venue and its musical heritage on the festival’s first Saturday, marking the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the building.

Lammermuir Festival runs 7-18 September. General booking opens on Friday.

Scottish Opera: Pop-up 2023

Springburn Auditorium 

It is impossible not to warm to the grandiose title bestowed upon the corrugated metal road grit storage shed in Springburn Park that has now been kitted out with timber from salvaged pianos as a bijou venue northeast of Glasgow city centre. Where else to see the latest excursion of Scottish Opera’s Pop-up Operas than Springburn Auditorium? 

Beginning as a project for audiences in single figures who could be accommodated inside the trailer of an articulated lorry alongside the performers and the staging, the Pop-Up project was – like so much else – absolutely transformed by the challenge of the pandemic. The trailer became the stage, with the socially distanced audience seated outside in well-ventilated venue car parks and parkland. 

Rather than retreat to the earlier model, the Pop-ups are now touring to the sort of smaller venues that also see the company’s Opera Highlights packages of up-and-coming singers with a piano accompaniment. The next dates are in Stornoway, Dornoch and Strathpeffer, but this one retained something of the Covid-era model in the repurposed venue in a park where outdoor performances had happened previously. 

More importantly, the shape of the Pop-ups is as before: classic opera plots abridged by Storyteller Allan Dunn, the music arranged by Derek Clark for a duo of guitar and cello – Sasha Savaloni and Andrew Drummond Huggan at these performances – and sung by a soprano and a baritone, Jessica Leary and Andrew McTaggart. 

Beyond costumes and props, the only staging, once again, is an easel of storyboard illustrations, flipped over by Dunn – who also steps out of his narrator role and into non-singing roles opposite the duo as required. Those pictures are by Essi Kimpimaki on this excursion and are very lovely as well as being narratively useful. 

That’s particularly true of the half-hour version of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, the origins of the work in Pushkin’s short tale made more evident in that storyboard. McTaggart, and especially Leary, who delivers a beautiful version of the Letter Song, have less doubling of roles to do in this one, and the close focus on Tatyana and Onegin can surely only help sell the opera to the new audience the Pop-ups aim to entice. “What happens in the other 100 minutes it usually takes to perform?” would be a fair question. 

By contrast, there is much squeezing of a quart into a pint pot to bring Strauss’s Die Fledermaus to a happier conclusion in rather more than half an hour. Dunn manages to negotiate his way through the machinations of its convoluted plot with considerable skill, channelling the alliterative multisyllabic introductions of Leonard Sachs on television’s The Good Old Days and the saucy double entendres of Kenneth Williams on radio’s Round the Horne along with way. Leary and McTaggart vary their costuming to portray all the characters, and – as in the Tchaikovsky – deliver the arias with no compromises. These condensed versions may be brief, but the glory of the melodies in both are sacrosanct and undiminished. 

In its own way, that goes for the instrumental accompaniment as well. Clark’s scoring preserves all the crucial figures in the orchestration and both players have to work their socks off for the duration. The music remains at the heart of the Pop-ups and is performed with passion and commitment. 

People who love opera have made these short versions of two classics for everyone, whether they are also seasoned fans or are tipping a toe into opera for the first time.  

Keith Bruce 

Picture by Kirsty Anderson of Andrew McTaggart and Jessica Leary in A Little Bit of . . . Eugene Onegin.

Scottish Opera / Carmen

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

If nothing else, director John Fulljames has a reputation for making you think. That’s exactly what he does from the very outset in a new production of Carmen for Scottish Opera that reexamines Bizet’s popular opera, not from the standpoint of its historical performance tradition, but by digging into its psychological origins – Prosper Mérimée’s original novel – and shifting the emphasis to the crime and its murdering perpetrator.

As such, it is reasonably justified. We see before us a classic television crime drama. On one level there’s the running interrogation of Don José by a leech-like “investigator”, spoken with cold and menacing persistence by Scots actor Carmen Pieraccini. On another is the opera we are more familiar with – the dangerously taunting Carmen playing a passionately jealous soldier against a pompously self-loving bullfighter – positioned now as the back story. 

Just to add further intrigue, it’s all updated to a turbulent 1970s post-Franco Spain, when women like Carmen sensed the opportunity and felt the urge to exercise greater freedoms.

If that all sounds complex, it is and it isn’t. The real challenge is to shake off preconceptions of traditional Carmen presentations, where spectacle overrides evil, and consider the reality of the heroine’s murder and the hideous factors that precipitate it. Fulljames utilises a tart English translation by Christopher Cowell, and tends to subdue – with darkened visuals and digital projections from his design team – much of the traditional gaiety. His solution throws a lot at us, sometimes conflictingly so.

The cast is clearly on side. The first glimpse of Alok Kumar’s José coincides with the opening of the Prelude, seemingly at the point of confession under Pieraccini’s icy questioning. Throughout the opera he is a towering presence, troubled but insistent, rising to raging vocal heights as the tragic denouement approaches. His challenger in love, Escamillo, is not so convincing, a palpable weakness in Phillip Rhodes’ lower register robbing this toreador of an otherwise colourful and doughty conviction.

As Carmen, Justina Gringyté’s lithe physicality cuts a ballsy protagonist, with just enough softness to entertain empathy, and plenty snarls from her rich mezzo soprano voice to put up a necessary front. It’s not a wholly consistent vocal performance from the Lithuanian, and her English pronunciation occasionally misfires.

There’s a fine performance from Hye-Youn Lee as Micaëla, the childhood sweetheart from José’s homeland who attempts to save him, her big Act 3 aria surely the most moving moment of the show. Carmen’s friends (Mercédès and Frasquita) and the criminals (Dancaïre and Remendado) are a proficient grouping sung by Scottish Opera Emerging Artists Lea Shaw, Zoe Drummond, Colin Murray and Osian Wyn Bowen. Neat performances, too, by Dan Shelvey (Moralès) and Thomas D Hopkinson (Zuniga) complete the team.

What of the chorus, though? There’s a sense at times that their presence in this particular production is a minor inconvenience. They sing pleasingly well, and move with businesslike efficiency, but like the design concept their significance seems correspondingly muted. Except for the bullfight, where some resounding merriment lifts the spirits.

The ultimate, and most consistent, champions of this Carmen are the Scottish Opera Orchestra, whose performance on opening night under Australian conductor Dane Lam was exemplary, capturing Bizet’s red hot vibrancy, electrifying energy and melting expressiveness to the absolute full, proving that the beating heart of any opera emanates from the notes on the page.

Ken Walton

Carmen runs in Glasgow until 20 May, with further performances in Inverness (23-27 May), Aberdeen (1-3 June) & Edinburgh (9-17 June). Full information at http://www.scottishopera.org.uk

(Image: James Glossop)

Scottish Opera’s new season

As its 60th anniversary celebrations wind-up with a new staging of Bizet’s Carmen, Scottish Opera has unveiled its 2023/24 season, with a new production of Jonathan Dove’s Marx in London! and revivals of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Verdi’s La traviata the mainstage offerings.

Chief executive and general director Alex Reedijk acknowledges that the activity level of the birthday year could not be maintained.

“On the back of a tremendous 60th anniversary we’ve put together what we hope is an interesting season for our audiences,” he said. “The 60th anniversary season was a combination of new productions and a big commitment to finishing off work that had been in the pipeline pre-Covid. Now a new economic reality is dawning – not particularly for Scottish Opera, but more widely across the performing arts in the UK and in Scotland. 

“We are focussed on maintaining the momentum we’re building with audiences returning to our productions after the pandemic. Carmen’s advance sales are as strong as we’ve ever seen, so Barber and Traviata are us trying to maintain that momentum. Our average attendance has been very good for our 60th anniversary, 85 to 90 per cent of capacity, and we’ve seen a change in where that audience is coming from, with an uptick in metropolitan areas.”

Sir Thomas Allen’s staging of the Rossini will be sung in Amanda Holden’s English translation, with Samuel Dale Johnson in the title role, opening in October. This time next year, Sir David McVicar’s 2008 La Traviata will also tour from Glasgow to Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, with Hye-Youn Lee as Violetta.

Following a year that featured four new productions in Candide, Ainadamar, Il trittico and Carmen, much attention will focus on next February’s unveiling of director Stephen Barlow’s new staging of Dove’s Marx in London, superseding Scottish Opera’s investment in the original German production at the end of 2018.

“It’s a proper helter-skelter through Marx’s life,” said Reedijk, “delivered in one day of his life in London. It had its world premiere in Bonn and then lost a bit of momentum, but like Flight [a hit for the company earlier in 2018] it takes characters with humour and pathos through a very intense period.

“On reflection we decided to start afresh with the production, taking a different visual direction because we loved what Stephen Barlow did with Flight. It seemed right to bring his focus and sense of humour to bear on Marx.”

Reedijk adds that much of what has happened in the UK in the intervening years gives the director material to draw upon.

“There has been much to say about capitalism, London life and how someone’s public face relates to their chaotic private life. We have seen that in one or two of our more recent leadership models – some of whom have delivered chaos both publicly and privately!”

The show will play Glasgow and Edinburgh, with David Parry conducting and company favourite Roland Wood, mostly recently seen in McVicar’s Il trittico, as Karl Marx.

“Roland has revealed, in both Tosca and Falstaff, the capacity to find humour as well as pathos in a role, as well as a degree of physical menace. He’s become a really rich performer, and we love using him,” said Reedijk.

The 23/24 season will open with a concert performance of Richard Strauss rarity Daphne, the company’s contribution to the Lammermuir Festival, but having a preview performance at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal before visiting St Mary’s in Haddington and then later repeated at Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. Music director Stuart Stratford conducts that and both the Rossini and Verdi revivals.

“Lammermuir Festival has been a wonderful provocation for us,” said Reedijk. “It has enabled us to consider what repertoire would appeal to a particular audience, and for Stuart to continue to find work that has either rarely or never been presented in Scotland. By also presenting that in Glasgow and Edinburgh we are sharing that with other audiences.”

Elsewhere in the year, alongside regular features like the Opera Highlight tours, Scottish Opera Young Company has a mini-tour of Glasgow, Largs and Stirling with a double bill of new work Maud by Henry McPherson, a winner in the company’s 2018 Opera Sparks initiative, and Kurt Weill’s Down in the Valley.

“The stories that underpin those operas are centuries apart but both have resonances for communities in Scotland,” said Reedijk.

“It was always the intention that the Young Company would be part of a pathway into the world of opera – not necessarily Scottish Opera, but the artform – just as the Emerging Artists programme is about preparing younger, post-grad singers for life in the opera world.

“One happy outcome of Covid was the amount of attention we were able to give to that programme, and the singers came out of that experience even more operatically muscular, and we’ve been able to find them work in main-stage productions as well as in Opera Highlights and other projects.”

Pictured: Jonathan Dove

Investigating Carmen

The director of Scottish Opera’s new production of the perennially popular tale of murderous lust talks to Keith Bruce about his 1970s staging, and the challenges facing opera in the 21st century.

If director John Fulljames expresses himself in the rehearsal room with the clarity he brings to addressing the existential questions currently facing his artform, it is no wonder his stage story-telling results in popular and successful productions.

“Opera is not fundamentally elitist at all. Opera plays to very large audiences; it is a large scale, popular artform.

“The reality of bringing hundreds of artists and technicians together is that it is an expensive artform, not per head for everybody involved, but just in total. For that reason the funding of opera has long been a controversial topic. That’s not a new question.”

Fulljames last worked with Scottish Opera on the revival of John Adams’s Nixon in China, a co-production with Royal Danish Opera, where he was Director for five years, and Teatro Real in Madrid, where the production ended its run at the start of this month.

“The current debate is particularly interesting for me, coming back from working in Europe and seeing the centrality of opera and music to the cultural landscape there, and also the willingness of society to invest in those things.

“The consequence, in somewhere like Denmark, of sustained investment is an extraordinary strength of audience. Copenhagen is not a big city, but we were selling 120,000 opera tickets a year and something like three-quarters of the Danish population will visit at some point in their lifetime. That sort of level of cultural engagement is the result of years of consistent investment.”

If that is not replicated in the United Kingdom, Fulljames believes he and colleagues need to step up.

“We are living in a time of extraordinary pressure on public finance, and some of that is self-manufactured and some of that is to do with political choices. We have failed to make the case why artforms like opera are necessary to everyone for the health of society. 

“One of the interesting things about the debates of the last month is that the arguments making the case have become more honed, and there has been a level of passion and commitment that hasn’t always been articulated before.”

Fulljames returns to work in Scotland having moved to a new post in Oxford, heading up the university’s Humanities Cultural Programme, based at a new multi-disciplinary arts centre.

“I’m setting up a new cultural programme in the university which will be based in the Schwarzman Centre with a new concert hall, a couple of theatres, an exhibition space and a cinema. It is a multi-artform building, opening in summer 2025, that is intended as a place where the university and the city and the region can meet.

“That connects to my interest in commissioning and incubating new work and developing new ideas in the arts. I’ve always been interested in how opera finds new energy through collaboration with other art forms. Opera is a meeting-place artform and the more open and inclusive we can be about that, the healthier the artform is.”

Nixon in China belatedly found itself at the centre of a row about exactly that when it was nominated for a Sky Arts award and objections were raised about the low representation of east Asian singers in the cast. Scottish Opera swiftly excused itself from the competition, apologising for any offence caused.

Fulljames is quite happy to address the issue and put his own considered perspective on the row.

“There is an enormous issue of diverse employment and representation onstage and Nixon in China was a tiny part of a much broader conversation. It blew up more than a year after the show opened, so for the company and its audience it was about something that was in the past.

“When we made the production, we went out of our way to think very carefully about representation onstage, but however carefully you think, you are always happy to be challenged about whether you could have approached something with even more care. The intervention came quite late, but it was a contribution to an important conversation.

“We had made a context for the production so that the Scottish Opera Chorus were not Chinese people but archivists, like a branch of the United Nations. But it is important that you have as many perspectives in the conversation from the outset, and clearly that is not something that we achieved sufficiently with Nixon.”

It bears pointing out, perhaps, that the lack of a Sky Arts award has been little hindrance to the revival of a modern opera that – like Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar – was deservingly in need of one.

“The show has been a big success in Madrid,” Fulljames confirms, “and it’s amazing how many shows Scottish Opera has around the world at the moment, including Ainamadar and Pelleas in the States – it is quite an export business.”

Part of those overseas success stories are based on partnerships with other companies. Unlike them, Carmen is entirely Scottish Opera’s own production, and touring more widely on its home turf. That is something of which its director is very appreciative.

“Carmen is an opportunity to work for a bigger audience – Scottish Opera is doing 15 performances, going to more venues than any of the other shows which I’ve made for the company.

“We are setting it in the 1970s, which was a really interesting time in Spanish history, post-Franco and before democracy was established. One of the themes of the piece is the search for freedom, both personally for Carmen and broader than that, between the smugglers and the corrupt civil guard.”

That updating is only part of what will be a new version of the familiar story, for which Fulljames and translator Christopher Cowell have gone back to the Prosper Merimee novella on which the opera’s libretto was based.

“Chris Cowell had previously translated Carmen for English National Opera and he has produced a new set of dialogues that take the content of the original opera libretto and gives them a structure that is much more akin to the novella. In the novel the narrator meets Don Jose when he is on death row for the murder of Carmen, so the story is relayed from his perspective, and he tries to justify himself through the way he structures the story.

“The libretto basically stuck with that perspective without acknowledging it as such, which is one of the reasons the piece is challenging in the way it sees Carmen, and her exoticisation as a corrupting seductress.”

By re-introducing an on-stage narrator, in the form of actor Carmen Pieraccini as a female detective investigating Carmen’s murder, the production aims to make clear exactly how and when the title character is being subjected to the ‘male gaze’.

“The original narrator is a travelling gentleman who encounters Jose, but we talked about the emergence in the 1970s of the female detective, when police forces across Europe began to admit women. It was another reason for setting it in the period.”

Fulljames also thinks that Cowell’s revised book for the show improves the drama.

“In the original score the dialogues were really important. The balance between text and music was very different from how we usually encounter the piece now. Because we are a little bit embarrassed by the dialogues, they have often been cut to the bone so a page becomes a single line and the drama doesn’t quite hang together. It becomes a ‘number’ opera – we think we know the story and just rush to the next big tune.

“One of the challenges of ‘number’ operas, with text in between, is to get the text working really well so it has the quality of spoken theatre. Carmen is a piece in which there are many editorial choices about things like which second verses to do, and we are making decisions that balance with the amount of dialogue we have.

“There’s more dialogue than in some productions but less than others – it’s about having the right dialogue. And having a fantastic actor like Carmen Pieraccini in the midst of that really helps bring it to life as a piece of theatre.”

As far as the director is concerned, that can only help the music.

“What’s striking about the music is how wide-ranging and diverse it is. On the one hand there are some really dark verismo duets and then there’s the song-based music of Carmen, and the opera-comique choruses that have more levity and lightness.

“So one of the challenges of the piece is how you sew together these languages, covering the gamut from broader entertainment to something tragic and dark. The dialogue is key, because it is the glue that holds the tonal range together.”

At the same time, the introduction of a female detective gives the opportunity to expose that ‘male gaze’ to some interrogation – and Fulljames believes Bizet would have appreciated that.

“If we say this is a narrative as told by Jose – his construction on events – it is helpful for that to be challenged from a female perspective.

“How many female collaborators did Bizet have in his artistic life? That’s an interesting question. Did he hear any female voices as stage directors, designers, or conductors? The answer to that is surely ‘no’.

“I like to think that if he came to a production of Carmen today and there was a female conductor, he would rapidly get over his astonishment and enjoy that quality of the music-making.”

Carmen opens at Theatre Royal, Glasgow on Friday and tours to Eden Court, Inverness, His Majesty’s, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk

Picture by Sally Jubb of John Fulljames in rehearsals with Assistant Director Roxana Haines and Movement Director Jenny Ogilvie

Scottish Opera: Il trittico

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

When Scottish Opera first announced its 2022/23 60th anniversary season, the plan was for Sir David McVicar to stage all three short operas of Puccini’s Il trittico on the one set with an ensemble cast. At some point along the line that bold notion fell by the wayside, and only one singer – soprano Francesca Chiejina, making a memorable company debut – appears in all three pieces (as does actor Keith MacPherson in small silent roles, including the lively corpse of Buoso Donati in Gianni Schicchi).

The set designs, by Charles Edwards, who is also working with Scottish Opera for the first time, are grand and bespoke for each story, to the impressive extent of a moving barge docking at the quayside at the start of Il tabarro (The Cloak), and the splendidly angular tapering perspective of the cluttered room where Donati dies and Schicchi tricks his family out of the juiciest cuts of his estate.

In between sits the problem piece of the trio, Suor Angelica, the convent-set story of an unmarried mother, a child given up for adoption, another family legacy and the mortal sin of suicide. As mezzo Karen Cargill – terrific in the piece as Angelica’s domineering aunt, “The Princess” – promised in her interview with VoxCarnyx, McVicar manages to redeem Sister Angelica with an inspired staging of the work. Alongside Cargill there are characterful cameos from Chiejina and Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw, and Edwards and McVicar have created what is one of the best uses of a staircase in music theatre since The Sound of Music.

The other crucial ingredient is the performance of Korean soprano Sunyoung Seo in the title role. Another company debut, she is a real find, with a glorious voice across her range, quite thrilling at the top and full of emotional heft, combined with a magnetic stage presence and acting skill. The ending of Suor Angelica has been condemned as sentimental nonsense, but she, and the young lad playing the ghost of her dead child, made it genuinely moving in McVicar’s staging.

She is just as effective as Giorgetta in the soap opera love triangle of Il tabarro, for all its cliches of melodrama. Her complex characterisation matches that of Roland Woods as her barge-skipper husband Michele, and her voice is well paired with that of Russian tenor Viktor Antipenko as Luigi (yet another company debut).

There are no weak links in the vocal casting in those first two operas at all, and that high standard of musicianship on stage is paralleled in the pit across the whole evening, where conductor Stuart Stratford steers a huge orchestra, including some exotic instrumental colours, through a terrific account of a score that is Puccini at the very pinnacle of his powers.

Where Il Tabarro and Suor Angelica are immaculately paced by McVicar and Stratford, Gianni Schicchi comes roaring out of the blocks like a whippet on speed – a riot of colour in set, costumes and sound, and delighting in its hectic ‘70s sitcom aesthetic. That frantic activity builds to Lauretta’s showstopping aria O mio babbino caro (the best-known music in the whole four hours and Francesca Chiejina’s big moment) and then runs out of steam. Woods is fine as Schicchi, but not as funny as some of the Donati family clowning around him, and marooned upstage for too much of the time.

It is an odd lapse by McVicar, who is a master of naturalistic theatrical narrative in opera, but the broad comedy of the most often seen part of this trilogy fails to communicate as confidently as the tragedy of the two earlier tales.

Keith Bruce

Playing hard

As she prepares for Scottish Opera’s new production of Puccini’s Il trittico, mezzo Karen Cargill talks to Keith Bruce

Sir David McVicar’s new production of Puccini’s problematic late-career triple-bill Il trittico will, Scottish Opera has said, address the difficulties inherent in staging its three contrasting stories in a single evening with adaptable staging and an ensemble cast.

The success or otherwise of the approach will become clear at the Theatre Royal on Saturday, but the presence in the company of Scotland’s star mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill, already signals a departure from the plan.

Cargill will be seen only in the central – and most problematic – of the three pieces, singing La Principessa in Suor Angelica, the thoroughly nasty regal aunt of the titular heroine. While the first story, Il tabarro (The Cloak), is a dramatic dark tale of love and murder on a barge, and the last, Gianni Schicchi, a fun comedy that is often seen as a stand-alone, the sentimental convent-set all-female Sister Angelica is about unmarried pregnancy, suicide and redemption.

It is possible to draw interesting parallels with the composer’s own life from the original story by librettist Giovacchino Forzano (who also wrote Schicchi), but the fact that the venerable Kobbe Opera Guide devotes just a single paragraph to Suor Angelica while finding two pages of things to say about the other two parts of Il trittico speaks of the way the middle tale is often regarded.

Unsurprisingly, Cargill thinks that McVicar’s version will sort any problems. Her own casting certainly bodes well, as it builds on her acclaimed performance as Mere Marie in Poulenc’s Dialogues de Carmelites at the New York Met. In fact she will return to that role in a new production by Barry Kosky this summer, the first time Glyndebourne has tackled the work.

“The Principessa is an extraordinary character because she is so hard, which is a treat to play, because I don’t get to play many characters like that.

“She is a little like Mere Marie in Carmelites, who is someone who has a strong belief system – the Word of God is everything and it dictates how she reacts and communicates. Mere Marie is often seen as a real baddy, but I don’t think she is in the way the Principessa in Suor Angelica is.”

The scene between The Princess and her niece is the dramatic heart of the tale. Arriving to have Angelica renounce her claim on the family fortune, she brutally tells her that the baby she gave up is dead. Patricia Bardon tried to soften the delivery of the crucial line in a touring Opera North staging a few years ago, but that will not be the way Cargill delivers it for McVicar.

“It is a test not to show compassion, because Sunyoung Seo, who is playing Angelica, is so gorgeous and so immersed in the whole thing. The aria I have is angular but dramatic, so it has that romantic Puccini language but with a hardness there.

“I’ve seen so many of David McVicar’s shows over the years, and I always thought that it was the type of story-telling that I want to do. That’s the beauty of this job, that you get to play complex characters who are not one-dimensional.”

As for the contention that Suor Angelica is the sentimental weak link in Il trittico, Cargill is having none of it.

“This production is emotionally direct and truthful. The thing with David’s work is that all the characters are recognisably human. It’s emotional but not sentimental – it’s direct.

“I don’t know why it is less admired because I think it is an extraordinary piece. I think people will fall in love with it, because of how it is done.”

The production is part of  a busy year for the mezzo, who recently seemed to be taking a step back from her performing schedule when she accepted a post as Interim Head of Vocal Studies at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

“There’s been quite a bit of travel recently, just when you’d got used to being at home, for the first time in 20 years.

“Once this closes I go to Brazil for Bluebeard’s Castle with Sir Richard Armstrong and the Sao Paulo State Symphony. I am going a few days early rather than just turn up and sing, so I’m in Brazil for ten days.

“Then there’s an SCO tour of Berlioz’s Les nuits d’ete [St Andrews, Edinburgh and Glasgow], before a  teaching residency and a concert at Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst. I drive to Glyndebourne the day after that and start on the Monday.

“I couldn’t give the Head of Vocal Studies job the full energy that I wanted to give it, and sing at the same time. I would have had to have stopped singing, and that’s my addiction. But I still want to work with young singers and share real information.

“So I’m no longer head of department but still an Associate Artist, so this year I work with third and fourth year undergraduates. It’s about eight visits across the year, and I am taking two sopranos, a mezzo, two tenors and a baritone to Drumlanrig Castle at the end of next month, at the end of which they perform at the Tryst.

“I encourage students to listen as widely as they can but also not to become locked in to what someone else does. That emotional freedom and curiosity about how to perform a piece is important. Music is about joy and communication and you must not lose the ability to play around with that.”

Recently signed to the big international agency Askonas Holt, Cargill happily lists works (the Trojans by Berlioz and any number of Verdi roles) and theatres (La Scala, Milan and Sydney Opera House) that she hopes lie in her future.

“If it happens, great, but if it doesn’t that’s OK. You have to be realistic. I’ve never had a set path of things I want to accomplish. I’d love to sing Carmen but I don’t think it will ever come my way.”

Puccini’s hard, bad Princess is what obsesses her at the moment, and she is excited about revisiting the Poulenc, a work she first sang as a student in Glasgow.

“It is the most extraordinary music. There is a constant sense of unease, you never get to relax in Carmelites. The Kosky production could be radical and I’m up for that – we should all be challenged every day.”

Scottish Opera’s Il trittico opens at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Saturday March 11 for three performances, followed by two at Edinburgh’s Festival  Theatre. Full details scottishopera.org.uk

Scottish Opera: The Verdi Collection

City Halls, Glasgow

Although it is, for some obscure reason, lousy at labelling them – the non-mainstage strands of its activity are often lumbered with the most prosaic of titles – Scottish Opera has long been highly adventurous in the different ways it goes about selling the artform to the widest public. Those who moan about the reduced number of fully-realised productions it can afford to mount rarely give the company proper credit for that.

If it is “opera in a car park” you want, and apparently the Arts Council of England is particularly keen on that, Scottish Opera blazed a trail during the pandemic. It was also ahead of the game with filmed work, and its work with young people, the mentoring of emerging singers, and outreach into the wider community, has decades of productive history – making last year’s astonishing Candide not the one-off wonder it seemed to some.

Since the arrival of Stuart Stratford as Music Director, there has also been the addition of regular concert performances of rare gems – particularly lost works by Puccini and Mascagni – that are also important in showcasing the strengths of the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, restoring its profile after the musicians were given part-time contracts as a cost-saving measure.

The Verdi Collection is the latest development of that strand, four dates in the current season following a one-off Puccini gala in Dundee’s Caird Hall in December 2021. It would not be unkind to say that the format currently falls between stools as it tries to both please seasoned opera-goers and entice new audiences.

As Stratford introduced it, the programme was an exploration of the mature work of Giuseppe Verdi, from La traviata to Otello, although not in that order, as well as being a celebration of “the beating heart of the company”, its orchestra. In that latter aim, it was a magnificent success. There is a warmth to the string sound of the opera orchestra that is all its own, and there were some high quality solo turns from guest first cello Thomas Rann, clarinettist Kate McDermott and the always-distinctive oboe of Amy Turner. Only once – although regrettably at the climax of Violetta’s aria in Act 2, scene 1 of La traviata – was the onstage orchestra too loud for the singing to be heard properly, and Stratford’s balance of his ensemble was generally impeccable.

That extract, however, highlighted both the strengths and the weaknesses of the concert. The opera’s titular “fallen woman” was sung by Japanese soprano Eri Nakamura in one of many company debuts among the soloists. If this was in preparation for her featuring in Scottish Opera’s future plans we shall be fortunate indeed. In partnership with tenor Peter Auty and, especially baritone Lester Lynch in that piece, as Amelia in an aria from the end of Un ballo in maschera, Leonora in La forza del destino, and, supported by Edinburgh mezzo Katherine Aitken’s Emilia, as Desdemona in Otello, Nakamura revealed a dramatic assurance paired with a superbly articulate and versatile voice.

South Korean bass Jihoon Kim will also be welcome back anytime. He stepped in here to replace Brindley Sherratt, having been part of the entirely different cohort of singers in November’s performances of The Verdi Collection in Aberdeen and Inverness. He has an enormous vocal instrument for his compact frame, and although less mobile than either Nakamura or Auty, used it very expressively.

It is plain that the aim of these “Collections” is to go beyond the gala concert of showpiece arias without their context, and impart a sense of the drama and storytelling of the artform by presenting longer extracts, but that does mean the conductor and his team are trying to cover a lot of bases. Perhaps there was more of a sense of the whole of La traviata than of any other work in the programme, but it did take up a lot of the evening. And the whole concert may have been a value-for-money ticket, but it clearly exceeded the attention-span of some in the audience, who elected to slip away.

Lots of good stuff, then, but sometimes it is true that less is more.

Keith Bruce

RPS Awards nominees

The shortlists for this year’s Royal Philharmonic Society Awards includes a diverse trio of nominees from Scotland, alongside many others who are regular visitors or sometime residents.

Aberdeen’s sound festival is nominated in the Series and Events category for its 2021 festival, which explored the climate emergency through specially commissioned works and environmentally themed performances. Performers and audience members were encouraged to travel to the festival using sustainable modes of transport and the programme included a ground-breaking multi-media chamber work by composer Laura Bowler which saw soprano Juliet Fraser performing in Aberdeen with the Talea Ensemble streamed live from New York.

Director Fiona Robertson said of the nomination: “It recognises the contribution that the arts sector can make, both practically and artistically, to the climate emergency. It shows that it is possible to bring some of the world’s leading performers and composers to a festival in the UK, without an enormous carbon footprint.”

In the Opera and Music Theatre category Scottish Opera is up against ENO’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Garsington’s Orfeo and Theatre of Sound and Opera Ventures’ Bluebeard’s Castle, and unusually not linked to a single production. The citation reads: “Scottish Opera are on a roll. From their hilarious, magical take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream to their community-driven Candide, all their ventures this year have embodied their signature spirit and talent for magnetising audiences from near and far.”

Given the task of unveiling the shortlists on BBC Radio 3’s Breakfast show, Edinburgh’s Kate Molleson modestly omitted the Storytelling category, presumably as the writer and broadcaster herself is nominated for her acclaimed book exploring 20th century composition beyond the mainstream, Sound Within Sound. She is competing with James Runcie’s Bach novel The Great Passion and Manchester Camerata’s short film Untold: Keith.

The awards have been described as the classical music BAFTAs, but VoxCarnyx prefers to think of the BAFTAs as the RPS Awards for film and television! 

The full shortlists are available at royalphilharmonicsociety.org.uk and the winners will be announced on March 1 in London.

Scottish Opera / Ainadamar

Theatre Royal, Glasgow

This is absolute fresh territory for Scottish Opera. Osvaldo Golijov’s Ainadamar: the Fountain of Tears may claim itself an opera, and by literal definition it is, but that is perhaps to diminish the uniqueness with which it eschews idiomatic purity, embracing most notably the hypnotic charisma of Spanish flamenco dancing, the laid-back sensuality of Latin American rumba, the feral intensity of authentic flamenco singing, and an all-pervading theatrical earthiness that could easily bag Ainadamar legitimacy on the Broadway stage.

I doubt if anyone witnessing the opening night of its UK stage premiere in Glasgow, the first directorial venture into opera by Brazilian-born choreographer Deborah Colker, cared a jot. For this is, purely and simply, genuine entertainment, heavy going in its emotional reminiscences on the life and untimely execution during the 1930s’ Spanish civil war of poet and playwright Federico Garciá Lorca (expressed through the lens of those who adored him), but realised here – the Argentine composer himself was present in the audience – with such ardent physical fluidity, unceasing visual stimulation and musical intoxication as to signal the ecstasy and optimism central to Lorca’s legacy.

Colker is a dynamic presence, amusingly witnessed in her animated opening night curtain call appearance. She also, understandably, places the importance of movement foremost on her agenda, materialising here in an uninterrupted hour-plus piece that flows with bewitching organic unity. A cast of disparate parts – key characters, a genuine flamenco singer (Alfredo Tejada as the Falangist officer Ruiz Alonso), flamenco dancers and supporting ensemble – come together under her influence as one swaying mass, like underwater reeds dancing to the rhythm of the tide. 

That, in itself, serves to gel the musical extremes at play in Golijov’s untamed score. What begins as a primeval-sounding orchestral prelude and mournful ballad, courses variously through hi-octane foot-stomping flamenco, rapt verismo-style eulogies, a steamily-enacted Cuban excursion (Margarita tried to lure Lorca to safety there), and those spine-tingling interjections by Tejada of genuine Andalusian cante. Under music director Stuart Stratford, a virile Scottish Opera Orchestra, spiced with dazzling onstage Spanish guitar (Ian Watt) and traditional cajón (percussionist Stuart Semple), are the chief energisers in this riveting presentation.

Colker’s creative team are wholly on message. Jon Bausor’s ever-morphing stage design simple and effective, soaked in the emotive darkness of Paul Keogan’s shadowy lighting, and enlivened by well-integrated video and sound production from Tal Rosner and Cameron Crosby respectively. 

It’s a credit to this cast that the key characters achieve a powerful balance between prominence and coalescence. As Margarita Xirgu – Lorca’s actress of choice, close friend and key protagonist in this theatrical lament – Lauren Fagan counters reverential passion with glowing sincerity. As Lorca, a role scored unexpectedly but effectively for female voice, mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey argues convincingly a warm and affectionate slant on the volatile poet. Julieth Lozano’s innocent portrayal of Nuria, the student of Margarita destined to carry on Lorca’s legacy, is a potent symbol of truth and hope. 

There’s no denying that Ainadamar, first performed in 2003 in Massachusetts and revised for a Santa Fe production in 2005, has minor questionable traits: the last ten minutes or so, for instance, that seem to unnecessarily prolong the final denouement. But this is a grand achievement for Scottish Opera in its 60th anniversary season, a reminder of the bold principles that governed its founding in 1962. 

Ken Walton

Further performances in Glasgow (26 Oct & 5 Nov); and at Edinburgh Festival Theatre (8, 10 & 12 Nov)

Ainadamar is produced by Scottish Opera in collaboration with Opera Ventures and co-producers Detroit Opera, The Metropolitan Opera and Welsh National Opera

Photo credit: James Glossop

Opera’s life of Lorca

Polymath David Henry Hwang is the librettist of Osvaldo Golijov’s hit contemporary opera Ainadamar, having its UK staged premiere from Scottish Opera. He talks to KEITH BRUCE.

There are few artists in any field anywhere in the world with quite the diverse, and conspicuously successful, CV of David Henry Hwang. As a creator of original works of his own he is primarily a playwright, but his global fame rests as much on his role as a librettist in the world of opera and musicals.

Scottish audiences were introduced to him in 1989, when his first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, visited Glasgow’s Mayfest in the run up to the city’s profile-changing year as European City of Culture. Fresh from its premier performances in a Vienna aircraft hangar and a Berlin ice-rink, it received mixed reviews, but impressed enough folk to have a local revival by Paragon Ensemble at the Tron Theatre in 2003.

That same year Hwang was working with Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov on a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer residency. Created in just a few months, Ainadamar explored the life and work of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, as remembered by his muse, Catalan performer Margarita Zirgu.

It was only after considerable reworking, and the input of director Peter Sellars for a Sante Fe Opera production two years later, that Ainadamar found its finished form and became a success.

“One of the differences between the Boston production and the Santa Fe production was learning more about Lorca’s life,” Hwang remembers now. He also credits the composer with being adaptable in a way that he recognised from the world of theatre but encounters less often in opera.

“On Broadway there may be six weeks of previews during which you can make changes, but that is not the opera composer’s way of working. Osvaldo was very comfortable making changes – we are both very flexible people and made an unusual team.”

The score the Argentinian created was, the librettist contends, years ahead of its time.

“We did get on well, but that doesn’t always mean that a composer’s music speaks to me the way Osvaldo’s does. He was breaking boundaries and doing things that hadn’t been done before.

“Osvaldo integrates other voices seamlessly, drawing from different musical styles and using electronic sounds. At that point it was not something that people were generally doing in opera.

“It’s beautiful and fun to listen to. The arias and the trio at the end are gorgeous and you can kinda dance to it! I still enjoy listening to Ainadamar.”

Ainadamar Rehearsals, Scottish Opera. Picture by Julie Howden.

It is also true that the story chimed with a direction that Hwang’s own work had already embarked on in plays and would go on to explore more thoroughly. His background as an Asian American runs through early work F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), his breakthrough play M Butterfly, which deconstructed Puccini and has had a new incarnation as an opera at Santa Fe this year, and more recent Broadway hits Yellow Face and Soft Power, which mined his own life and included characters called “DHH”.

“There is a parallel in that I have brought different cultural voices into my plays. With Osvaldo I got to play in this other sandbox, with Spanish and Moorish influences and duende and Roma voices, and it was a great world to be in.

“When we first met, we started by kicking around different subjects because we had to create the thing really quickly. One of the things that attracted me, when Osvaldo pitched the Lorca story, was that Lorca to some extent predicted his own demise. As artists you sometimes reach into yourself and pull something out and that thing ends up manifesting itself in your life.

“Writers generally write autobiographical characters, they just don’t often name them after themselves. Ultimately you have to do the thing that you are interested in and believe in and let the chips fall where they may. In general I have had more success with things that are personal and idiosyncratic.”

Hwang is speaking particularly of his own work, and he draws a careful distinction between that and his work with composers.

“I work in a lot of genres, and in each there is someone who is the primary artistic voice driving the project forward and the other artists are supporting that vision.

“If I write a play, I am the primary artist, but in opera it is the composer because the work will rise and fall on how the music is perceived and evaluated. That isn’t to say that the libretto isn’t important, because it affects the perception of the music, but fundamentally it is about the music.

“I am also very economical with words, and that is the discipline for the librettist. There have been a couple of times when I have adapted my plays into operas and you have to lose about 50 to 60 per cents of the words in a play to make an opera.”

The new opera of M Butterfly has music by Huang Ruo, but David Henry Hwang’s most regular composing partner has continued to be Glass, including the New York Metropolitan Opera commission The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice, based on two of Hwang’s plays, and most recently Circus Days and Nights, using the poems of Robert Lax, for Malmo Opera.

“Philip is very easy to work with,” says Hwang. “We come up with an idea together, and I’ll write a story outline – although in the case of The Voyage at the Met the outline was Philip’s – and then he assumes that the librettist’s job is to write the words and his is to write the music.”

An impressive list of other composers clearly find Hwang an agreeable collaborator  too. They range from Unsuk Chin (2007’s Alice in Wonderland) and Howard Shore (2008’s The Fly, based on the film by David Cronenberg, who made a movie of M Butterfly) to Elton John, Phil Collins and Prince – Hwang co-wrote the least salacious song on the late funk musician’s 1994 album, Come.

He still proudly lists that last surprise on his comprehensive and varied CV.

“I’m pretty eclectic and I don’t really make a distinction between high culture and writing a Disney musical,” he says. “The primary distinction is always whether I am in charge or am I helping someone else realise their vision.

“When I was a kid, the two pop stars that meant the most to me were Prince and David Bowie, so the fact that I got to write a song with Prince and it ended up on an album is just the coolest thing!”

Ainadamar has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal from Saturday October 29 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from November 8. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk

Scottish Opera: Opera Highlights

Linlithgow Academy

It would be a challenging assignment to compile a programme for one of Scottish Opera’s regular four-singers-and-a-piano tours that did not favour the women with the more dramatic music. Such is the nature of the artform in repertoire ancient and modern.

Soprano Zoe Drummond, one the company’s current cohort of Emerging Artists, certainly had the best of it here, with solos from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden and Gounod’s Mireille in the first half of the programme. Mezzo Shakira Tsindos had her share of the spotlight too, but her voice seemed less suited to Handel and Gluck than it was to Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia later on, although her Bertarido blended well with Drummond’s Rodelinda in their duet.

The two men in the line-up, baritone Christopher Nairne – like Tsindos making his Scottish Opera debut – and tenor Osian Wyn Bowen, another Emerging Artist, did have the crowd-pleaser before the interval, however, in their duet from Les pecheurs de perles.

The established formula of these programmes was intact here, Scottish Opera’s Head of Music Derek Clark mixing rarities with favourites and a brand new work (Told by an Idiot by Toby Hession) opening a second half which then tended towards lighter music nearer the end. Director Emma Jenkins, who also contributed the text to Hession’s composition, resisted any linking storyline, working instead with scenic devices by designer Janis Hart.

These were diverse, and variously successful. If a theme of “love” linked the music – offering plenty of scope – 1970s (rather than 60s) costuming was not an immediately obvious choice. The subject matter of each scene was captioned on a blackboard and easel stage left, as in the music hall variety shows – and television’s The Good Old Days – but the titling was in the style of episodes of the rather more recent TV hit, Friends.

That blackboard device was continued in Hart’s modular staging, which the cast was required to decorate with chalk drawings, with varying degrees of accomplishment. Occasionally effective, it was more often distracting from the performance in front.

The period elements did gel for Hession’s “Scene for four voices and piano”, which was a clever bite-sized encapsulation of some of the ingredients of Macbeth in the style of a television drama. Nairne was Mac, Drummond his wife Beth, Wyn Bowen his boss Duncan arriving for dinner, and Tsindos the witch Hecate, whom only Mac can see. As clever musically as it was conceptually, it was one of the most successful of these commissions, and fitted better into the programme than many of its predecessors.

It was also one of the few occasions on which all four of the cast appeared together, which was a shame. Elsewhere they combined well in duos and trios and each had successful solo moments, even if Tsindos was hampered in her dramatic roles by being dressed rather like a children’s TV presenter.

Pianist and musical director Kristina Yorgova – also an Emerging Artist – favoured the music hall side of the staging in her costume of silver dress and bowler and she won Linlithgow’s most enthusiastic ovation for her expert accompaniment, and occasional conducting, of the vastly varied programme.

Keith Bruce

On Tour across Scotland to October 29

Toi, Toi, Tay!

A new opera festival launches this weekend in Dundee. KEN WALTON reveals the plot

Is there really room for another classical music festival in Scotland? The people of Dundee certainly think so. From Thursday to Sunday this weekend (22-25 Sept) the first ever Opera Festival Scotland gets underway in the feisty Tayside city with performances of Verdi’s Aida and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, a visit by Scottish Opera’s Highlights Tour, and a supporting programme of lectures, masterclasses and singing competitions.  

Nobody is keener for it to work than locally-born events guru and festival organiser Michael Jamieson, whose brainchild it is, and who has fought against the odds to make this inaugural event happen. “It’s not been without its challenges,” he freely admits. “Firstly we had to be taken seriously, decide on exactly what would happen, then Covid came and we had to move the Festival back a year.”

Even now, he and his organising colleagues have had to deal with the hiatus around national mourning for the late Queen, and the general nervousness of the paying public at a time of economic hardship. “The cost of living crisis is probably our biggest immediate challenge. People are not confident in parting with their money right now,” he says. Nonetheless, optimism is not in short supply.

That’s as much to do with the inclusive nature of a programme designed to involve local opera enthusiasts as it is with the organisers’ prudence and realism in engaging affordable artists, focusing limited funds on where they will make the most impact, and in establishing creative collaborations with key professional bodies. “Those collaborations came remarkably easily,” says Jamieson, who has secured support from Scottish Opera, English National Opera, Perth Festival and the RSNO. 

The centrepiece, Friday’s concert performance of Aida at the Caird Hall, is all about involvement. Yes, the Festival has imported experienced singers to fill the key roles, but to make this the extravaganza Jamieson wants it to be, the hordes of soldiers, priests, prisoners and slaves will be eager and enthusiastic Dundonians. 

“We wanted to involve as many amateur singers as possible from local communities,” Jamieson explains. “Dundee and the surrounding areas are full of small groups who want to do big operas but just don’t have the resources. Different events are forever competing with each other, so we though, let’s do it differently, do something big where they can all join in on neutral ground.” Friday’s performance will be directed by local music teacher and conductor Ralph Jamieson. “Yes, we’re related,” admits Michael.

As for the fully-professional performance activity, Scottish Opera has chosen to open its latest country-wide Opera Highlights Tour in the city’s Marryat Hall. The same venue hosts Opera Bohemia in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro on Saturday. 

Another highlight has to be the presence of internationally-renowned, Glasgow-born soprano Janis Kelly, once a regular star with Scottish Opera, now chair of vocal performance at the Royal College of Music. 

A number of the Opera Festival Scotland events revolve around her presence. On Sunday morning she conducts a masterclass at Dundee High School, sharing her musical knowledge and experience to two upcoming sopranos, Scots-born Rosha Fitzhowle and London-based Jila Mariko. 

Kelly will also chair the judging panel that afternoon in another key Festival event at the Caird Hall, the Young Artists Singing Competition. She’ll be joined by fellow judges Julia Lagahuzere (founder and general director of Opera for Peace), veteran mezzo-soprano Linda Ormiston, and the heads of casting for Scottish Opera and ENO. “We had over 100 applications from around the UK,” says Jamieson. The winner, chosen from four finalists who will perform with the RSNO, will receive the Opera Festival Scotland Trophy, £1500 career grant, a lunchtime recital promoted by ENO, and a masterclass with Bollywood playback singer Kamal Khan, courtesy of Opera for Peace.

Other Festival events include a Non-professional Singing Competition, and two keynote lectures: one on the History of Opera Performance in Scotland by Fife-based Iain Fraser, co-creator of the website Opera Scotland; and Julia Lagahuzere, focusing on the artist as a world ambassador and their place in society. One further event at Dundee’s V&A, presented by experts Megan Baker and Raymond Uphill-Wood, offers a workshop on Costume and Make-Up Design. The Festival has also been active in local schools in the run up to the inaugural event, introducing opera to children at both primary and secondary level. Pupils have also been offered free admission to Festival events.

Jamieson’s future ambition for Opera Festival Scotland is that it should operate on a two-year cycle. “That depends on what happens this weekend,” he says guardedly. “If it’s something Dundee wants we’ll do everything we can to make it a regular fixture in the Scottish cultural calendar. The first indication it is will be the audience figures and feedback from this event. We’ll see how it goes.”

Opera Festival Scotland runs 22-25 September in Dundee. Full details at www.operafestivalscotland.co.uk

Lammermuir: Therese

St Mary’s, Haddington

There will, inevitably, be those who think otherwise, but the decision to press ahead with Scottish Opera’s Lammermuir Festival performance of lost Massenet opera Therese an hour after the news was announced of the death of the Queen was the correct one. The audience stood for a minute’s silence and listened to a (rather good) playing of the National Anthem by the orchestra before the show, but it was the work itself that turned out to prompt thoughtfulness about the monarch’s legacy.

Of course, as Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is alleged to have said of the French Revolution: “It is too soon to tell”. Massenet and his librettist Jules Claretie, biographer of Moliere and director of the Theatre Francais, were making a similar point in the first decade of the 20th century about the events of the last decade of the 18th in France.

If “Marianne” is the female symbol of the revolution, Therese is a more realistic depiction of French womanhood, caught between loyalty to her Girondist partner Andre Thorel, offspring of a lower-middle-class working man, and memories of her previous lover, Royalist nobleman Armand de Clerval.

Those three are the story, and Scottish Opera’s recent deft form in casting is continued here with Lithuanian mezzo Justine Gringyte ideally suited to the demanding range of the vocal line of the titular heroine, baritone Dingle Yandell looking as well as sounding the part as Andre (were he to consider slumming it in Les Mis, he’d be Jean Valjean), and former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Shengzhi Ren having a welcome opportunity to show off his powerful but relaxed tenor voice.

Credit should go to the work of the language coach on the production, Florence Daguerre de Hureaux, for what is very fine diction of the text by all three – outstanding in Yandell’s case – as well as from everyone on stage, including the smaller roles and compact men’s chorus.

There are also surtitles, and that clarity (as the well-named librettist would surely concur) is important, because the background debate of ideas is as crucial as the love triangle onstage.

Yandell’s early aria, and duet with Gringyte, declares that “we must love to live” – condemning revolutionary hate, despite his loyalty to the cause – while Gringyte’s Act 2 opener of longing for the open meadows of rural France is a recognition of the values of the ancien regime in the face of the Terror outside the Paris apartment in which she – and, secretly, Ren’s Armand – are holed up.

Idealists in their own way, Massenet and Claritie are arguing, during La Belle Epoque, for pragmatism instead of extremism – an accommodation of the strengths of France’s Royalist past within the egalitarianism of the Third Republic.

The composer – a tunesmith and orchestrator of proven skill, whose work we hear too little of and whose vast catalogue is scarcely covered in most opera guides – provides a sumptuous score to this debate. That early baritone aria comes with lovely pealing winds and the most captivating orchestral scoring accompanies the romantic memories of both male characters in Act 1.

The music does the work again in the move to Paris from the chateau near Versailles at the opening of Act 2, but staff director Roxana Haines contributes with eloquent simplicity in the staging, replacing the often-sung-about stone bench in the chateau garden with a covetable chaise (courte, rather than longue). The costuming is similarly stylish and pithily expressive, Gringytye elegant in black, blue and mauve, the chorus of revolutionaries in caps, Andre sporting the inevitable neckerchief, and Armand, amusingly, an aristocratic Barbour coat.

The sightlines may not be ideal in St Mary’s but the acoustic is wonderful, and guest conductor Alexandra Cravero, who is immersed in this repertoire and had the orchestra playing superbly, produced a balance that was ideal, every detail of the music emerging with clarity and the singers always perfectly audible.

Keith Bruce

Repeated at Perth Concert Hall tomorrow, Saturday September 10, at 7.30pm

Pictures by Sally Jubb

Scottish Opera: Candide

40 Edington Street, Glasgow

Where do you want opera to take you? Lisbon, Paris, Buenos Aires, Suriname and Venice? Check. On a philosophical journey, along the catwalk and to fleshpots and sex dungeons? Check. Into war zones, across viciously-patrolled borders and on an inflatable boat to a new life as a refugee? Check. From one of the most familiar overtures in 20th century music through less well-known terrain that is filled with echoes of the scores to stories old and new that you already know? Check.

Scottish Opera’s new production, programmed with admirable cheek at the peak of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe, has an extravagant address of its own: Live at No 40, New Rotterdam Wharf, on the canal side of the company’s technical centre in Edington, beyond where it staged La boheme and Falstaff during lockdown. What the company has purpose built in a vast rigid tent, filled with platforms, containers, curtain-sided trailer and trucks that become the stages, is an event – and one that everyone who loves opera, musical theatre or spectacle should rush to see. It is also an ideal introduction to any of those to the uninitiated.

The company has a significant history with Leonard Bernstein’s long-in-development adaptation of Voltaire. At the end of the 1980s, then music director John Mauceri undertook a major revision of the work by his mentor, and Lenny himself became involved in the latter stages of a revival that resulted in the “Scottish Opera version”, which is, of course, the basis of the new production.

I’d wager, however, that neither Mauceri nor Bernstein could have envisaged what director Jack Furness, conductor Stuart Stratford and their respective teams have created for this 21st century staging. Utterly true to both Voltaire and Bernstein – and using the long list of wordsmiths who have contributed to it, Lillian Hellman, Stephen Sondheim and John Wells among them – this is a Candide that is a bold satirical swipe at the ills of the world today: social media, pornography, perilous journeys by refugees, sleazy politicians and aggressive miliary invasions among them.

It is also a story of love winning out against the odds, and a vehicle for some of the most hilarious slapstick broad humour and slick verbal wit, while containing sumptuous music that may well find you choking back tears at times.

The number of performers involved in creating this rich spectacular is huge. Prominent on the central raised platform are Stratford and the orchestra, playing at their best, and largely confined to their station, although one clarinet does go walkabout. Everything else is constantly in motion; when Candide’s journey reaches Venice Carnival the gaming tables are all around us and the action and singing projected from all points of the compass in quite dizzying style.

But then, it all began in that way, with the chorus suddenly revealed as being amongst the paying public promenading in the arena. That ensemble is also revealed as being a multi-ethnic, many-aged collective with professional singers among them. They move brilliantly together, with many individual step-out moments, and sing with passion and precision; this choir sounds brilliant.

The principals would have to be on their mettle to match them, and this cast certainly is. Levels of experience range for Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Lea Shaw to company stalwarts Susan Bullock and Jamie MacDougall, with Ronald Samm (Dr Pangloss) previously featuring in ScotOp’s Pagliacci in Paisley, the recent production this most closely resembles.

The three young singers at the heart of the tale, Dan Shelvey as Maximilian, Paula Sides as Cunegonde, and William Morgan in the title role are all quite superb performers in spectacular voice, up for everything that Furness throws at them in his brilliant re-imagining of the work.

But that goes for everyone performing, and – on the evidence of the first night – for the audience as well.

Keith Bruce

Further performances August 13, 14,16, 18 and 20.

Picture  (l to r) William Morgan (Candide), Paula Sides (Cunegonde), Lea Shaw (Paquette), and Dan Shelvey (Maximillian). Credit James Glossop.


Scottish Opera, Elmbank Crescent, Glasgow

Under the current regime, Scottish Opera likes to name things literally – “Opera Highlights”, “Live at No 40” – and there could be no more apposite name for the current cohort of what used to be called “Connect” than “Scottish Opera Young Company”. The new work that is having just four public performances in the rehearsal space at the top of the HQ building at Glasgow’s Charing Cross is both essentially a tale for and by young people and a superb ensemble performance. However unlikely it may be that all 21 of these talented youngsters go on to professional musical careers, they will always have this achievement to boast of.

Composer Gareth Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight have given them a bold piece to get their collective teeth into. The Rubble of the title is the ruin of a 1980s care home, Findenterran Farm, where young people were taken for their own safety, only to be subject to abuse. Told both by the characters at the time and their older selves looking back from the present day, the parallels with recent criminal proceedings and public inquiries do not need explanation. In his trademark style, McKnight nonetheless manages to bring broad humour and just enough leavening sentimentality to the subject matter. Director Roxana Haines’ insistence that neither the central abused child nor the perpetrator of the abuse is ever portrayed by an individual onstage is key to both the drama of the staging and that crucial ensemble feel to the production.

That Williams and McKnight have experience of working in partnership is obvious in the music. There are echoes of Philip Glass – particularly in the finger-counting of piano lessons early in the piece – and of Stephen Sondheim in some of the phrasing of lyrics, and when the music lands on a melodious phrase, the composer makes sure it lodges in the consciousness. Scored for single strings, percussion, accordion and piano, under the baton of Chris Gray, there are some lovely touches in the instrumentation, but the focus is always on the chorus, save just two longer arias. Soprano Shuna Scott Sendal, the sole professional singer, has a perfectly-timed double-edged moment as the staff member taking refuge in drink, and Haydn Cullen takes his opportunity to deliver the score’s pivotal revelatory song with stylish confidence. As new arrival Jude, who pairs up with the home’s Queen Bee Charlie (Imogen Bews), he sets in motion the chain of events that leads to decisive action by Sendal’s Mrs Pearson.

In the contained space, audience on two sides and musicians on a third, the fluent choreography of the ensemble is as impressive as the singing. As was quickly pointed out in a Q&A session after the first performance, it is regrettable that such a powerful piece of work will be seen by relatively few people. Although a through-composed operatic work, much of the sound-world is as close to music-theatre and it would not be at all fanciful to see the production enjoying a successful Edinburgh Fringe run. The award-winning work there by much-missed Tramway-based Junction 25 youth theatre company was often brought to mind, and that is high praise.

Keith Bruce

Ready to Rubble

Composer Gareth Williams talks to KEITH BRUCE about his new work for Scottish Opera’s Young Company

There will come a time when new work in the arts does not carry some legacy of the pandemic, but it has not arrived just yet.

For composer Gareth Williams, who – as he puts it himself – “emerged from lockdown with a baby”, it was a time of personal as well as professional challenges. If fatherhood has dictated that he still doesn’t get out as much, the lengthy gestation period of the latest of his stage works for Scottish Opera meant that it has gone through a number of versions on the way to the performances in the company’s Elmbank Crescent HQ at the end of this month.

Rubble is the third collaboration between Williams and librettist Johnny McKnight for Scottish Opera, following The Last One Out in 2012 and Hand for an Opera Highlights tour. The initial proposal to Director of Outreach and Education Jane Davidson came from Williams, drawing on a celebrated Graham Greene story from the middle of the last century, The Destructors.

“I said I wanted to write something with young people and in The Destructors they are fishy characters that don’t conform to society’s rules, and I really liked that about them. I wanted an edge about them, and some bite, and I wanted to work with Johnny. So we handed it over to him and after it had been through his mind the Graham Greene is long gone, and what has emerged is something very dark and menacing as well, but more contemporary.

“We had a libretto reading in February 2020 and I remember it very clearly as on the way home I crashed my car because I was so pre-occupied. It is a really troublesome, challenging story. Johnny is someone who throws the gauntlet down to you and you have to take it somewhere else.”

What McKnight came back with was a scenario of young people who have been let down by the care system picking through the fragments of their lives in the rubble of an abandoned children’s home. Parallels with some harrowing recent court cases and public inquiries may well be self-evident in a black comedy that Scottish Opera is describing as challenging. The performance of the cast of 17-23 year olds is not recommended for those under 14.

Although the creative team was in place, with staff director Roxana Haines and young company artistic director Chris Gray conducting, events conspired to put obstacles on the road to Rubble’s production.

“Rubble is kind of haunted by Covid,” says Williams. “I had to stay away from wind and brass instruments, so it is written for piano, two percussionists, accordion and single strings. But part of my want from the very start was to write for a chorus, about 30 strong, singing together for as much of the opera as possible. That felt quite affirmative with the young people.

“The initial idea was that there would be lots of opportunities for workshops, and because of the pandemic that didn’t happen. So we have all had to live with this opera a lot longer.

“We didn’t know when it was going to happen, so it became a process of eternal tinkering. At one point it might have been an outdoor show so I started to arrange it in that direction, and then it came back to being indoor so that changed it again.”

There were positives about the extra time gifted to the team, however.

“It was the most open casting call. Before we made a final decision on voice types we allowed the young people to go for any of the main characters, so it is very non-gendered. That left it for me to do a bit of sculpting at the end, but it was a good call.

“And because I didn’t have access to the chorus, I wrote as a singer-songwriter at the piano and sang some of the arias and made demos and sent them to the director and conductor. So they already know this piece inside out, because of that extra year.”

Williams had plenty of experience in that singer-songwriter role because of the other project that has occupied a lot of his time recently: Songs From The Last Page.

Working with Chamber Music Scotland, Williams has created an ever-growing suite of new songs that draw their texts from the last pages of books, most of them Scottish and running from classics like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island through to contemporary writers like Ali Smith and Andrew Greig. Arranged for himself at the keyboard with cello and violin, Williams has brought onboard guest singers to supplement his own vocals. Following a show by the trio at Glasgow’s Aye Write literary festival, the next two performances will include Deirdre Graham, at her home in Skye, and Lori Watson, in Portobello.

“We have a run of gigs in the autumn,” says Williams, “including Wigtown, Aberdeen and Blairgowrie, and then we are back in Glasgow, at Partick Bowling Club, in December.”

The set list has its staples, but Williams is constantly adding to the catalogue.

“Somebody asked me to do an Alexander McCall Smith one, so I did that – I am just kind of responding and keeping loose with it. It has become this weird hobby. I just can’t stop doing them and there is an inexhaustible supply of ideas – there are plenty of good last lines!”

Songs From The Last Page has remained mostly based on adult books, despite the composer’s best efforts following the birth of his son.

“There have been a couple of books I was told I couldn’t have; the publisher just said no. I wasn’t allowed the last line of The Gruffalo or Winnie the Pooh – anything with a big corporate image attached was a no-no.

“But many living authors have been really generous, and it is good to have things like Treasure Island in there too – things that are out of copyright. I am going to record some of them this autumn and see if it might make an album, in the hope that we might persuade international book festivals to book us next year.”

Also grabbing a slice of his time are the Grammy Awards, after Williams was proposed as a voting member of The Recording Academy by fellow composer Craig Armstrong, and duly appointed. “The first round of deliberations starts this month and I am really keen to try and become more involved and learn how it works.”

He has other projects in the pipeline, but the final weeks of rehearsal of Rubble – about the full plot of which Williams is very tight-lipped – and the still-new experience of being a father are top of the agenda.

“Parenthood takes up a lot of your blue-sky thinking time, it turns out – I am a slave to this little sleepless god. And writing that piece about vulnerable young people and becoming a dad at the same time weighed on me in a very interesting way.”

Rubble has four performances in Scottish Opera’s Elmbank Crescent home, at 2pm and 7pm on July 30 and 31. For future performances of Songs From The Last Page, see chambermusicscotland.com

Rehearsal pictures of Gareth Williams and Johnny McKnight and the Scottish Opera Young Company by Sally Jubb

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