This was the second collaborative project with librettist James Leonard at the Encouraging New Opera workshops. The story of this piece originated while on a walk through Haughton Park in Alford, Aberdeenshire. The park has lots of deciduous woodland, and as I was walking, I was thinking about the philosopher David Hume, who would most likely have taking such walks in this part of the world, thinking about aesthetics as he goes. I then thought of the fairy Queen Mab, who is the creator of dreams according to Shakespeare, and I had the idea to put the two characters together in the same area. It made for a particularly comic set-up, especially when taken into accout Hume's fully rational, agnostic views, which make him disbelieve in seeing Mab, even though she is actually there. In short, this opera deals with what is perceived as real and how dreams could be real.
James emphasised these dilemmas in his libretto, which includes some of Hume's aphorisms, as well as some chanting in Scottish Gaelic.
The opera was written over the second half of 2013.
From an early age, I have been fascinated by the legends surrounding Bennachie, in particular that of the Maiden Stone, a menhir carved with Pictish symbols. The original legend involved a maiden who bargains with a stranger who wishes to claim her hand in marriage. She tells him to build a path to Mither Tap before she can finish a making batch of bannocks, but the stranger is actually the devil in disguise, and so manages the task flawlessly and reveals his true nature before the bannocks are ready. She tries to escape, but the devil catches her, claims her soul and turns her to stone. The present libretto, written by local poet Catriona Yule, differs slightly from this approach, as can be seen below.
Marn is the daughter of a Laird who often neglects her, leaving her to fend for herself while he spends his time away drinking. In the first scene, we see Marn chopping wood for a fire. As she grimly reflects on her condition, she claims to see the devil grinning from a splintered log. Dirk, a local man, watches her. He is secretly in love for her, but his passion has caused him to go over the edge, and as a result he has been possessed by the devil, who, in the guise of Loki, tells him to make the move closer into Marn’s personal space. As Dirk arrives at her croft, he declares his love for her, but is rebuked by a cautious Marn. After a few attempts, Marn finally promises to take Dirk’s hand if he can build a path to Mither Tap before the end of the following day.
During this time Marn has been somewhat aware of a satanic presence in Dirk’s eyes, and comments upon the whole situation. A forest interlude follows. Dirk meanwhile, has been watching her through the devil’s eyes, and gleefully talks about how easy the task ahead would be for him. He then reflects on how he came to sell his soul. Marn has now begun to plan a counter. She starts making bannocks, and then, through enchantment, she brings them alive and commands them to go down the road.
Dirk has by now started work on his granite track. He lays down boulders with supernatural strength acquired from the devil, but he also delays at points, thinking about Marn. This causes Loki to push him back to work. The bannocks then come marching up the hill and try to stop Dirk, then Marn comes along and talks him down. She then discovers his possession, and finally understands Dirk’s love for her. Then the devil, pushing all his might on Dirk, declares sadistically that HE will wed Marn and Dirk will be left with nothing. However, Dirk finally throws off his possession, claiming that he will always be loved. The bannocks and the boulders of the track march down on Loki and Dirk, chanting, and finally release Dirk from the devil, marking the point of separation with the newly risen Maiden Stone. As Dirk wanders out, Marn comes and they walk off together. Loki meanwhile wanders amongst the crowd, looking for the devil’s next victim.
This opera was written from late 2012 up to mid 2014, and was premiered in early September that year in Bennachie Forest.
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This opera was conceived as the final collaborative project of the Encouraging New Opera workshops, completing the Scottish Opera/Leverhulme Scholarship 2013/14. The original idea came from librettist James Leonard, who had an interest in how Nature is always getting conflicted by Industry. He then condensed this big analogy down to a family saga, where the wife represents Nature and her newly-wed husband Industry. The libretto is divided into three scenes, each separated by interludes and a prologue and epilogue, which all feature monologues from the husband.
The opera is introduced from the perspective of Charles Rust, the husband of the story, who talks about how he acquired the estate of Flora through marriage, and wished to build ‘paradise’ for both of them. After the marriage, Flora’s father Cyril comes to announce to Charles that he will sign the deeds over to him, as he is now old. Charles promises to respect his wife and stay moderate in his ambitions. They all drink a toast to the future.
Charles cuts the celebration short, and in another monologue, he is irritated about being restricted in his ideas for Flora’s estate. In the next scene, Cyril’s health has deteriorated rapidly. Flora tries to comfort him by singing him a lullaby, but Charles rudely interferes and begins to push her about his next big project. Cyril is increasingly distraught by this, in spite of Charles’s half-hearted assurances. Eventually, Flora gives in and hands him a check before leaving.
After Cyril’s death, Charles becomes increasingly excited and agitated by his biggest idea of them all. After raving on about it in another monologue, he storms off and put it into action. The orchestral interlude that follows demonstrates that the result is presumably catastrophic, leaving the estate in ruins. Later on, Charles desperately tries to persuade Flora to give him more money to recover his plans. She naturally refuses, and talks about the destruction he has managed to make, talking him down at every opportunity. She then reveals that she is filing for a divorce. Charles comes down on his knees in sheer desperation, but Flora is unmoved and finally leaves, stating that everything will return to nature in the end.
As she leaves, Charles is left on the floor of the ruined estate, lamenting on the fact that his plans had ultimately failed, and that he actually needed Flora’s guidance in order to build his ‘paradise’.
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Mither Kirk tells the story of a fictional family in 1597 that fall victim to the witch-trials that scoured Aberdeen at this time. It begins with Aileen, begging for her sick daughter Aggie’s recovery. Not satisfied with the priest’s prayers, she moves into another room and reads from an occult book in the hope that summoning Satan (or anyone) will suffice for Aggie. Miraculously, Aggie is restored to full health (whether by the priest’s prayers or Aileen’s sacrilegious interception is never made clear). She happily wanders and plays, while her mother starts gathering herbs, chanting strange cantrips as she goes. Concerned, Aggie prays for her mother’s sanity and starts to take the herbs off Aileen. Her mother slaps her with a wild curse and runs off. Later, a laird’s ship is discovered to have been sunk off the coast with all lives lost. Along with this news, Aggie brings along the priest, who, after looking around at Aileen’s behaviour, and seeing the herbs on Aggie, he comes to the conclusion that Aggie must have placed a curse on her mother. Aggie is at once taken to St Nicholas Kirk to be held captive. In a mock trial, she hears hidden voices accusing her not only of her crime against her mother, but also of sinking the laird’s ship. She is sentenced to death, and is strangled and burned at the stake. Aileen, in her satanic madness, wanders into the flames after her daughter. In a short epilogue, the priest is heard praying once more, alone with the laments of the families who have lost loved ones in the laird’s ship.
The setting of this opera was mainly the idea of librettist Ruth Rose, who was very interested in local history. To help realise the historical and local ideas, the musical foundation of this opera was an original melody I wrote to emulate the stark Calvinist hymns that would have been sung by the local people at this time, symbolising the almost-suffocating adherence to the Word and the Bible, and the tragic consequences of its actions put into practice.
Mither Kirk was originally pitched as a shortlisted entry for Scottish Opera’s Opera Sparks Workshop 2018, but went through several revisions of instrumentation and vocal forces before settling on its present form for three singers, viola, cello, organ and recorded sounds. It was premiered at the back-steps of St Nicholas Kirk, Aberdeen on 1 July 2017, as part of the Silver City Stories project.
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