It's a risky business commissioning new works, but Scottish Opera has boldly pulled it off with five new short operas from composers and writers in Scotland who are new to the business.
Each lasting fifteen minutes, the works are complete in themselves. But, far from carrying the feeling of a one-act opera, each has the potential for expansion into full-length form.
The works deal with wide-ranging topics and issues, and are written by eminent (male) writers and composers from across Scotland including Alexander McCall Smith, Ian Rankin, Nigel Osborne and Craig Armstrong. These include a surreal delve into the world of dreams, an exploration of power struggles between men and women and a setting of a gory murder plot.
Staging the production at The Hub (a concert venue), rather than in the company's usual Edinburgh location at the Festival Theatre, led to some compromises in staging. Two large white staircases encircling the stage gave the set a defining space but the elaborate props and scenery that Scottish Opera usually lavish on their shows were missing, disadvantaging the audience's imagination. Nevertheless, this intimate setting and great lighting gave the audience a chance to hear the singers at close range - which was a real treat.
By far the most successful opera was The Queens of Govan by Nigel Osborne in collaboration with Wajahat Khan and with words by Suhayl Saadi. The opera centres on the inner turmoil of Glaswegian-Asian Ruby (Elizabeth McCormack, the sole character in the opera) as she runs through the street of Govan in the rain. Scottish and Asian influences were revealed musically through the Glaswegian accented speech, hints of Gaelic music at the end and the excellent improvisatory music of Wajahat Khan. Exciting moments came when the Indian Rags of Kahn's sitar came in unison with the orchestra, creating an elaborate fusion of cultures.
The King's Conjecture tells the story of a deaf-mute servant, Grizel, who was placed on a Scottish island by King James the Fourth of Scotland with one twin boy. He hoped that the boy (who would not hear anyone talk) would then be able to speak the word of God. Having a mute character created musical depth in Garath Williams' score as Grizel's inner feelings had to be shown musically rather than by narrative. Kate Valentine's sensitive singing and excellent acting of Grizel created a solid performance of the work, but the opera could have benefited from a more sophisticated set and props.
McCall Smith's script for Dream Angus is precise, surreal and gently poked fun at Scottish culture in scenes such as the picnic outing where the characters brought Irn-bru and an umbrella. Though the plot had serious undertones - a wife seeing a psychiatrist because she longs for her separated husband - the surreal elements of the dream stole the show with a quartet of pigs creating the most interesting musical language and comic display.
The Perfect Woman is also a comic opera but in an entirely different way. Using the audience as 'colleagues', a scientist operates on his wife to make her aesthetically beautiful. This opera made some interesting comments on the exchange of power between men and woman as well as what it means to be beautiful. Least effective was Gesualdo by Craig Armstrong and Ian Rankin. Based on the real-life sixteenth-century composer Gesualdo, who murdered his wife and lover, the plot had auspicious beginnings, a bloody murders and a striking twist at the end. But the music that accompanied it was rarely as dramatic as the plot. Taking the choice not to call upon the renaissance music of Gesualdo, the music utilised repetitive chords in an accompanying style rather than integrating itself as an equal to the plot.
Overall, the Scottish Opera performance was an interesting and exciting display of new commissions with an excellent chamber orchestra and cast taking on multiple characters. A repeat of the project is planned each year until 2011, placing Scottish Opera at the forefront of promoting new music in Scotland.
By Mary Robb
Read our interview with Alex Reedijk about the genesis of Five:15 and his plans for Scottish Opera here.
Read also recent reviews of Scottish Opera's productions here.
And read concert reviews of events in Edinburgh here.