Q & A: Composer Stuart MacRae On Early Works, ‘Anthropocene’ & “Prometheus”

By Dejan Vukosavljevic
(Credit:Loudon MacRae Photography)

Composer Stuart MacRae has established himself as one of the most distinctive composers of his generation. He has written a range of orchestral and opera works in his career, with his most recent orchestral work including the symphony “Prometheus,” which premiered in November 2019.

He has also composed five operas to date –  “The Assassin Tree,” “Remembrance Day”, “Ghost Patrol,” “The Devil Inside,” and “Anthropocene.”

OperaWire recently spoke with MacRae before the continental premiere of his latest opera “Anthropocene” in Salzburg in May 2020.

OperaWire: How did you know that you wanted to make music by composing rather than performing? What was your path of revelation?

Stuart MacRae: I started to compose before I really knew what that meant. We didn’t have a piano in the house, so whenever I visited someone with a piano I would make things up, as I didn’t know how to play anything else! A lot of music was created (but not written) when I was about 8 or 9 on my grandmother’s harmonium, which I now have in my study. Much later, after singing in the St. Andrew’s Cathedral choir in Inverness, and studying the flute and piano, I met James MacMillan, who was the conductor of my youth orchestra. It was the first time I had met someone who actually made a living from composing. He looked at a little orchestral piece I had written and was very encouraging, even arranging for the orchestra to perform it in their next concert. For the first time, I sat in the audience to listen to my friends play, instead of performing alongside them. I practised the flute less after that, and devoted more time to composing.


OW: What is your creative process when composing an opera? In what ways does it differ from composing a symphony, or any other orchestral work?

SM: Writing opera feels quite different from composing other types of pieces—in some respects it is more challenging, in others it is much more natural, and flows more quickly—or at least smoothly. The reason for this is that, in opera, there is a narrative and dramatic structure on which to base the music. Each day I can either continue where I finished the day before, or if that’s not working, I go back again to the libretto or the synopsis and start reading. Something always makes me stop reading at a particular place, and start writing down musical ideas: the contour and rhythm of a vocal line; or a way to create a special colour in the harmony and orchestral palette that will underpin a particular image in the stage directions. In this way, I find I don’t get lost very often while writing an opera. Writing instrumental music is different. The frame, or the scaffolding of the plot and the libretto are not there, so it can be harder to make consistent progress when things are imagined on a more conceptual level. I enjoy every type of composition—but the process and feeling is not the same.

Of course there is also the question of collaboration: opera is a particularly collaborative art form, and involves a lot of planning with the librettist, the opera company and the director or dramaturg, long before the composing even begins. I am very involved in developing the synopsis and characters with my regular librettist, Louise Welsh, and we also discuss changes regularly during the composition process. At the end of the process, I am involved with rehearsals and discussions with directors, conductors, and singers for several weeks, right up until the premiere, whereas with an orchestral or chamber piece I might only attend one or two rehearsals! I truly love the whole journey of creating opera, from conception of the idea to the moment I sit there, nervously waiting for the curtain to come up on opening night.

OW: Your first opera “The Assassin Tree” was co-commissioned by the Edinburgh International Festival and the Royal Opera House. It is based on the story from James George Frazer’s “The Golden Bough.” What was your guiding idea when you decided to use Frazer’s story as a plot for the opera?

SM: The idea to use “The Golden Bough” as the basis for the plot came from the librettist, Simon Armitage, who now holds the prominent position of Poet Laureate. When we met to discuss ideas, the themes that came up had to do with inescapable fates, succession through a cycle of bloodshed, rivalries and a desire to use something mythical as the basis for the piece. Simon suggested the story of the goddess Diana, and the King of the Wood, the mortal who protected her from harm, who would only be replaced when killed by a stronger challenger. Our twist on the story was that the King’s eventual killer would be his long-lost son, something they would only find out when it was too late. I don’t remember the details of the piece well now—it seems a long time ago, and I’ve learned a lot since writing it!

OW: In 2008, you struck a fruitful professional relationship with writer Louise Welsh, who would later become your librettist. What was the genesis of this collaboration?

SM: Although we both lived in Glasgow, we actually met on a residency in Germany, at the Internationales Künstlerhaus Villa Concordia in Bamberg. We didn’t work together there, but got to know each other’s work, and became friends. Once we were back in Glasgow, I was asked to write a 15-minute opera for Scottish Opera’s Five:15 – Operas Made in Scotland season, and I immediately thought of Louise as someone I’d like to try working with. I’d read some of her novels by then, and was struck by how clearly and excitingly she could tell a story. I thought, I need some of that in my work! Thankfully Louise was an opera fan, and agreed, and it’s been a very happy working relationship ever since.

OW: “Remembrance Day” is a very short, 15-minute chamber opera, and the first Louise Welsh libretto. It was also commissioned by the Scottish Opera as part of Five:15 – Operas Made in Scotland. How did your relationship with the Scottish Opera begin?

SM:Alex Reedijk, then the relatively new General Director of Scottish Opera, had seen “The Assassin Tree,” but didn’t want to revive it as he felt there were a few issues with the piece. In fact, the reviews had almost universally been pretty bad, which was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to deal with in my professional life. He was honest and clear-minded enough to discuss openly with me what hadn’t worked, and what I needed to work on in any new operas, and I’m eternally grateful that he did. I think I needed a shorter, more focused piece to work on before moving to bigger time-scales, and it really helped to rebuild my confidence and even have fun with the medium. If I hadn’t done this I don’t think anyone else would have asked me for another opera.

OW: “Ghost Patrol” was the second operatic work commissioned by the Scottish Opera, this time in a co-production with the Music Theatre Wales. The opera premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2012. In what ways does your music narrate the dramatic nature of the opera?

SM: Ghost Patrol” is about two ex-soldiers traumatized by their war-time experiences, who coincidentally meet up in civilian life. There’s also a woman who is married to one of them but begins to fall in love with the other (of course!) During the process of writing this piece, I became much more aware of what is required from the music in order to tell the story and embody the drama. Each of the characters has their own arc, or trajectory; the overall drama has its trajectory; and the music has, and creates its own trajectory too. It’s the combination and continual negotiation between these that makes the music the central driver of the drama.

OWThis great collaboration with the Scottish Opera and the Music Theatre Wales continued with a Faustian story. “Devil Inside” is an adaptation of a sinister tale by Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Bottle Imp.” Why did you chose Stevenson’s story as a dramatic plot?

SM: It was Louise Welsh’s idea at first. She had known the story since childhood, and when she introduced me to it I also saw its potential as an opera. The plot is ingenious: a little bottle, inside it an imp who can grant all your wishes. But there’s a catch: if you die while in possession of the bottle, you will be damned to Hell, so you must sell the bottle, but always for less than you paid for it. Thus begins a downward spiral of greed, despair and desire until the bottle cannot possibly be sold more cheaply. The tension and drama was already implicit in the story, but Louise and I decided to focus it less on the single main character, and to share the emotions, experiences and actions between three protagonists. This makes it more dramatic, and provides opportunities for the variety and combinations of voices that I think opera needs. It was also a very atmospheric story, with lots of mystery and strangeness, so I had a lot of fun coming up with novel instrumental colours and atmospheres.

OW: What was your experience working with Scottish Opera director Matthew Richardson? What in general do you expect from the director in a staged production?

SM: We’ve worked with Matthew Richardson as director several times now, and he really understands what we’re trying to do in our work. Not only that, but we consult with him during the creative process, and he has offered us invaluable insight and advice on dramaturgy, as well as helping us to visualize and imagine what might actually be happening on stage! Sometimes he has described a scene change or action to me as it will appear on stage, and then I can immediately imagine the music that this moment needs. I remember one very long and animated phone conversation during the composition of “The Devil Inside,” Matthew shouting: “Aeroplane! – Skyscrapers! – Shadows! – Time passing! – A long journey!” down the phone while I laughed and took notes frantically.

In general, I am very happy for the director to bring new ideas into the piece, as long as the intention of the piece is not distorted. I think this is important with new work that has yet to establish itself in the repertoire. The audience needs to understand the intention and the basic ideas before you start adding on too many layers of interpretation. If I ever reach the stage of having had several productions of my operas, it will be really interesting to see what directors do, and the effect they can have on the work. Really exciting, in fact! But this is a privilege one cannot take for granted…

OW: The crown of your operatic work as of now is the still very young opera “Anthropocene.” It is an icy story, spine-chilling and frightening. How did you and Louise Welsh navigate through the arctic waters in this both vocally and dramatically demanding project?

SM: This was a story of our own making, though of course there were references and influences. We knew we wanted to do something longer, and with more characters than we’d previously written for, and we started by deciding to trap the characters in one place—the Arctic circle, in winter—and then introducing a mystery character—Ice—who would act as a kind of catalyst to the breakdown of the characters’ relationships and psyches. There are eight characters in total, and this allowed me many more expressive possibilities than I had previously had, particularly in the use of ensembles—duets, trios, and even bigger groups. It was a challenge to keep it all together with a clear narrative, but also extremely rewarding, and I think I wrote more quickly and fluently than I ever have before.



OW: What was the message you wanted to send to your audiences with “Anthropocene”?

SM: I always feel it’s more important for artists to ask questions of the audience than to offer a message, or to provide an answer. If people are arguing about which character is right, or have different interpretations of what has just happened, then I feel we’ve done our job! I should stress that I don’t mean that the work should be confusing or obfuscatory—it has to be dramatically and narratively clear—but that intriguing people and prompting them to think about the work is more interesting than simply satisfying their expectations. That said, we couldn’t very well write a piece set in the Arctic and ignore the prevailing narrative surrounding that location: the melting of the ice due to global warming. So this forms a part of the opera’s argument, particularly in the person of the scientist Charles and the central dilemma he perceives; but there are stranger and probably more fascinating things in the interactions and tensions between the characters, and ultimately the piece is, like nearly all opera, about human nature, human flaws, human frailty.

OW: The Continental Europe premiere of “Anthropocene” is coming shortly, May 2nd at the Salzburger Landestheater. Why did you choose Salzburg and the director Agnessa Nefjodov for this new production?

SM: I was delighted when Carl Philip von Maldeghem, the Intendant of the Salzburger Landestheater, approached me so soon after “Anthropocene’s” premiere to ask if they could stage it—and in a new production. He suggested Agnessa Nefjodov to direct it, so she and I met up last year to talk through the piece in some detail. We saw eye to eye on what the piece is about and how it should be staged, and I very much liked her ideas and approach. Of course I have not yet seen the production, but I am very much looking forward to it. This will be the first time one of my operas has been performed in Continental Europe, and it will be interesting to see what the audience thinks!

OW: Which of the characters in your operas are the most similar to you? And which are the most different, and why?

SM: This is a difficult question: in order to write the vocal parts, I have to empathise with every one of the characters as I write for them. In this way, each develops its own musical personality through the use of certain motifs, intervals and rhythms (for example), and I have to be simultaneously inside, and distant from the characters in order to write them. When I was writing “Remembrance Day,” there were some dark weeks when I had to get inside the mind of the character Douglas Grieve, an old but still potentially dangerous serial killer (I’d like to think he’s the most different from me!). I suppose the simplest thing to say would be that part of me is in all of the characters, and they are all a part of me.

OW: Speaking of your symphonic work, your latest symphony “Prometheus” had its world premiere in November last year. It is pretty much a dramatic exploration of the Greek myth, and it also involves vocal soloists—a soprano and a baritone. What was your approach in composing “Prometheus?”

SM:I have been fascinated by the Prometheus myth for many years, and knew I wanted to write a piece, or several pieces, exploring it. I didn’t really know what kind of pieces they would be until I started writing, and I’m enormously grateful to the Lammermuir Festival in Scotland for commissioning three pieces in three years and letting me explore the subject in my own way. Such a commitment to an artists’ idea and process is very rare! I started the “Prometheus Symphony” by finding and setting (and in some cases making my own translation of) texts from Aeschylus and Goethe, and making a plan not to tell the story in an operatic manner, but more in the sense of a secular cantata with two singers and a medium-sized orchestra. I also wrote instrumental passages that were a kind of rediscovery, or invention of ‘tonal’ harmony and materials, which in a way symbolizes Prometheus as the source of all human knowledge. In the end, the piece had a form and unity that felt, to me, symphonic, and that’s where the title came from. I might not be finished with Prometheus yet, and he may make it to the stage one day, in some form.

OW: Do you have any plans for let’s say the next one to three years?

SMI am finding myself writing a lot of songs, of various types at the moment, and I am also hoping to write a solo guitar piece based on a Shakespearean character, Macbeth, later this year. And I have started work on several operatic subjects: some are becoming more advanced than others, but at the moment I have so many ideas, and such a passion for writing more operas – it will be interesting to see which ones come to fruition first!


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