There was a time when operas were restricted to stories of unrequited love, courtly romances and ancient mythology. Productions were sumptuous; surroundings lavish – with ticket prices to match. These shows still exist – and can be highly enjoyable – but there are many new works that demonstrate how the art form has modernised. Opera brings together literature, theatre, visual art, music and fashion, and, as each of these reflect their own particular cultural development, so productions act as a snapshot in time of our creative industries. Stage works are becoming increasingly ambitious as they reflect the complexities of the human condition, with innovative theatrical settings.
Such is the case with Anthropocene, a new opera set in the frozen Arctic wastelands, where an expeditionary team of scientists trapped within the ice witness something unexpected (no spoilers here). The work – created by composer Stuart MacRae and novelist and librettist Louise Welsh for Scottish Opera –was premiered on January 24 at Theatre Royal Glasgow. It then moves on to King’s Theatre in Edinburgh (January 31, February 2) before concluding its run at London’s Hackney Empire (February 7, 9).
With the developments in opera plotlines come welcome changes in character. For centuries, the role of women has been limited to scorned wife/mistress/prostitute, whose future can only be secured by a good man. The more interesting female roles tended to result in the character’s demise, either by suicide (Salome) or murder (Carmen). Contemporary opera is changing this through works like ENO and Opera North’s Jack the Ripper: Women of Whitechapel, which premieres at London Coliseum on March 30 (running until April 12). Composer Iain Bell and librettist Emma Jenkins tell the story of the serial killer through the eyes of his victims, who are brought centre stage. In fact, Jack the Ripper doesn’t appear in the production at all.
While Puccini, Verdi et al remain masterpieces to revere, contemporary opera is, as you would expect, often far more relevant
Then there’s The Monstrous Child, a new opera by composer Gavin Higgins and Horrid Henry author Francesca Simon, who bring us teenage Loki, daughter of a Norse God, as she searches for her identity in the mythical world (February 21 until March 3, Linbury Theatre, ROH). Incidentally, I’m writing this column from Germany, where I’m preparing to see Jonathan Dove’s Marx in London, a new comic-opera that focuses on socialist Karl Marx’s time in Kentish Town, where he wrote Das Kapital [amid a series of tumultuous relationships]. The work is to be shared with Scottish Opera and comes to Scotland for its UK premiere next year.
While Puccini, Verdi et al remain masterpieces to revere, contemporary opera is, as you would expect, often far more relevant. It appeals to audiences who love stage shows but thought that opera isn’t for them. Venues and promoters understand this (tickets start from as little as £10 for Anthropocene). So, give a new work a go – you may be pleasantly surprised.