When I created a new Song Writing blog category to accommodate the post on How to Write a Song, I never thought I would use it again. After catching Five:15 in Edinburgh last Friday, five 15 minute long contemporary Scottish operas, I’ve found another song writing subject.

I don’t want to trivialise the work involved in creating and producing an opera. The five we saw were broad in scope, encompassing themes of loss, death, lonliness, pain and healing. There were both tragedies and comedies amongst them. So many people were involved in bringing these productions to life – singers, musicians, directors, designers, technicians… the list goes on and on – but as someone passionate about writing, my interest is in what happens when a writer and a composer collaborate to tell a story. That’s why I’m filing this one under Song Writing as well as under Scriptwriting.* Beware of the spoilers.

Zen Story Composer: Miriama Young, Librettist: Alan Spence 

A young girl falls pregnant and claims the baby is the holy man Hakuin’s. Her father is furious and demands that Hakuin accept responsibility for the child, which he does. Later, the girl admits that she lied about the father’s identity and the mortified parents apologise to the holy man.

This story suffered from being confined to 15 minutes. There was a beginning and an end but no middle. Where was the driving force to make the girl admit the truth? What were the consequences for Hakuin for taking on the child? What did he have to sacrifice? Hakuin’s lack of emotion may be down to his Zen-like calm, but I found it infuriating that he responded to the girl’s parents’ accusations and apologies with nothing more than an enigmatic “Is that so?” Putting the words to music seems to have allowed a poetic licence to tell-not-show. The audience could have figured out that time had passed when Hakuin appeared with the baby in his arms. Just in case we missed the point we were reminded by the girl and Hakuin singing, “Time passes. Sound of wind in the pines.”

Sublimation Composer: Nick Fells, Librettist: Zoë Strachan

A  woman walking by a lake with her son and sister is tormented by a painful memory from the past. The urgent, agitated music as the woman experiences flashbacks highlights the contrast between the past horror and the idyllic present day. Gradually a mythical element creeps in and, instead of winding up in a clichéd ending where the woman comes to terms with her past, the story concludes with a surprising twist.

Money Man Composer: Lyell Cresswell, Librettist: Ron Butlin

This is an hour long production so only the first three scenes were performed for Five:15. Set in the Stock Exchange as the market is crashing, The Money Man is a comedy about stock broker Tom Masters who loses his daughter’s inheritance when shares prices plummet. Tom’s assistant Steve hopes that Laura’s sudden loss of capital might at least help him to convince her that he loves her for herself and not for her money. Laura is not the only one with an admirer: feisty TV journalist Jenna is trying to get her claws into Tom, but she doesn’t yet know about his precarious financial situation.

This production was refreshingly different. It was interesting to see how opera can be used to comic effect. The quick-fire conversation between Jenna and Laura was particularly entertaining.

74° North Composer: Paul Mealor, Electro-acoustic score: Pete Stollery, Librettist: Peter Davidson

Andrew is a scientist in the Canadian Arctic visiting the graves of John Franklin’s crew at Beechey Island. He encounters a stranger and as they become involved in a dialogue, Andrew realises that he is talking to the ghost of one of Franklin’s crew members.

The conversation between Andrew and the ghost never quite meshes, showing that they are in two different planes of existence. It is almost as though they are speaking into a void, the empty expanse of the Arctic. The text was evocative and poetic but I didn’t fully appreciate its beauty until I read the script after the performance. Watching the opera, I found it quite difficult to engage with the words that were being sung.

The Letter Composer: Vitaly Khodosh, Librettist: Bernard MacLaverty

The Nazis are rounding up the Jews in a small Ukrainian town and dispatching them to a ghetto. Anna Semyonova writes a letter to her son to tell him of her last days. Drawn from Life and Fate, Chapter 18, by Vasily Grossman, this is a moving portrayal of the uncertainty and hope felt by a community that have been cast out by their neighbours. The narrative style, with Anna verbalising the contents of the letter she is composing, allows events that have taken place over many days to played out in a short time.

There will be three further performances of Five:15 in Òran Mór, Glasgow on the 25th, 26th and 27th of May.

*Have since spruced up my blog and eliminated the Song Writing and Scriptwriting categories.


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