By Jessica Zammit, Marketing and Communications Assistant

23 May 2019

As part of our meet the composer series, we grabbed 10 minutes with Stuart MacRae. 

Extracts from Stuart's new opera Anthropocene will be featured in the National Opera Studio contemporary scenes production Voices of Now on Friday 7th and Saturday 8th June 2019.


How closely did you work with Louise Welsh in bringing Anthropocene to life, and how would you describe the composer-librettist relationship in general?

Louise and I tend to work very closely together for the first part of a new project. We meet up for hours at a time and talk through ideas until something takes on a life of its own through the conversation. Then we know we’re onto an idea for which we both have a passion, and it’s important that we both feel ownership of it! 

After that, there’s an exchange of phone calls, synopses, character sketches, more meetings, until eventually we’re able to propose a synopsis or a ‘treatment' to a company. All of this takes place over several months, and that’s before the libretto is even started. Once we have the go-ahead to make the piece, Louise sends me sections of libretto - whole scenes or parts of scenes - and then I get back to her with some suggested edits. Louise is very flexible in responding to my requests for changes, but sometimes we have to discuss things a lot before we find a solution we’re both equally happy with! There’s a lot of overlap in our work, so I can send bits of music for Louise to listen to as well - but we aren’t sitting there in a room together with me composing and Louise writing. 


Could you tell us a little more about Anthropocene and what musical ideas came to mind when you first read through Louise's libretto?

At its heart, I think Anthropocene is a story about human ambition and selfishness, and conflicting interpretations of the meaning of sacrifice. It’s not without warmth and compassion, but we wanted to see what would happen if we put our characters under a huge amount of pressure, until one by one they crack, and the glue that holds the fabric of their society together loses its grip. So we have a small team of scientists on a research ship in one of the most isolated places on Earth, the North of Greenland; a self-obsessed business tycoon who has funded the expedition and his daughter; a scheming journalist (sorry, journalists!); and the ship’s crew. They become trapped in the encroaching winter ice. Their communication systems fail. And when one of the scientists brings a mysterious outsider onto the ship, each member of the team reacts in a different way to these multiple crises.

Louise’s libretto contains many imaginative references to nature and the Arctic environment: the aurora borealis, the sea ice closing in, an ice storm, the wind, wildlife. All of these gave me images to create musically, and many of the scenes are pervaded with a distinct atmosphere that frames the development of the characters (aurora - string harmonics piled up in thirds with flutterings of harp and glockenspiel; ice storm - turbulent layers of dense activity, like waves in a confined space). In the first scene we hear optimism give way to dread as the ship’s engines give way against the ice, descending in microtones, becoming heavier and heavier until they fail.

The style of each character’s speech is also slightly different, and I immediately start to set lines when I get them, to try and enhance and define the character clearly. Sometimes I set the same line several times until I feel it fits the character’s true nature and the situation of the moment. This contributes to the ‘ensemble’ nature of the opera, where we tried to develop each character and keep them in play throughout. They are trapped on the ship, so we felt it would be strange to ignore anyone! There are really interesting group dynamics to play with, and we spent a lot of time working on, and sometimes wrestling with this aspect. Inevitably, though, certain characters come to the fore and have more of a development than others, especially towards the end.


What do you hope audiences will discover about Anthropocene and what do you hope that they will take away with them after experiencing the opera?

I hope it’s a thrilling, emotional and thought-provoking journey. I like opera to be dramatic and entertaining first and foremost, but I also like the sense of the real world making an appearance - the characters do not live in a vacuum, so we bring in references to the outside world from the perspective of the characters. That doesn’t mean we’re voicing our own opinions - it’s up to the audience to decide with whom they agree!

Scene 1 of Anthropocene features in the National Opera Studio contemporary scenes production Voices of Now (Friday 7 June, 7.30pm; Saturday 8 June, 3.00pm, 7.30pm).


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