Few operas have found their way into popular culture in the manner of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. From Neil Gaiman’s adaptation of Papageno’s bird catcher for the character Old Bailey in his novel Neverwhere, Whitney Houston claiming she is the ‘Queen of the Night’ in the movie The Bodyguard, and with music which has been used to sell everything from cars to contraception, it’s influence has spread far and wide. This is something which Scottish Opera’s revival of their 2012 production plays with beautifully.
It embraces the aesthetic of steampunk fully. If you know the graphic novels of Alan Moore’s The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, or films such as Brazil, Howl’s Moving Castle, or the recent Mortal Engines, you’ll have some idea of the look and feel. In fact the wizard Sarastro can be described as a mix of The Matrix’s Morpheus and Kenneth Branagh’s Dr. Arliss Loveless from the otherwise forgettable Wild Wild West.
Throw in minions who seem to be a marriage of Disney’s Minions & Tik Tok from Return To Oz, a dragon which is more H.G. Wells than Game Of Thrones, and strange men in top hats who watch over proceedings, and it’s clear that everyone has risen to the challenge to offer up a production which is as much a treat for the eyes as for the ears. Those involved with stage, costume, lighting and props should take a well-deserved bow.
But for all the magic and magnificence of the staging what runs through this production is heart, humanity and humour. Central to this is Richard Burkhard’s Papageno who represents the everyman, the link between the audience and the stage, (the ‘Buttons’ character, so to speak – see more below), whose mistakes and mishaps are all too recognisable, and who reminds us that while not everyone can be a hero, they still deserve love.
There is more than a touch of pantomime about The Magic Flute with a prince and a princess, a wicked Queen, slapstick and farce, playing to the gallery, and (*Spoiler*) happy endings for most by the time the curtain falls. As such it is easy to explain its continued popularity, regarded by many as the opera for all the family, and there is an excellent piece in the programme by Paul Maloney which sets out the influence on vaudeville and music hall.
If you’ve been looking to introduce someone to the joys of opera, then Scottish Opera’s The Magic Flute is the perfect choice. If that someone is you, then why not give it a chance. I guarantee you’ll leave with a smile on your face and a song in your heart.
Thanks to Scottish Opera for use of the following images: Credit – James Glossop
Theatre Royal – GLASGOW Tue 14 May to Sat 18 MayBOOK TICKETS
As regular visitors to SWH! will know, 404 Ink have, in a fairly short space of time, come to be recognised as a reliable mark of quality, publishing books which are not only well written and enjoyable to read, but which challenge readers and the literary status quo, allowing for marginalised voices to be heard, loud and clear.
Their latest is Elle Nash’s Animals Eat Each Other and it is a welcome and worthy addition. It’s a novel which hits you full in the face so hard it makes you fear for your front teeth. The arresting opening sentence sets the uneasy, and often queasy, tone which doesn’t let up till the last. A visceral read which is at times dreamlike as you become intoxicated by the sensual and sensory images and language. You may want to look away but you’ll find you can’t, desperate to know how things resolve themselves. However you’ll soon realise this isn’t about where the narrative is going, but why.
The writing is exemplary – lean and mean, reflecting the content – it’s where Ernest Hemingway meets Kathy Acker. It also pulls off the difficult trick of making you think you have experienced or read things which you haven’t. As with the infamous shower scene in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Nash makes you believe you have witnessed visceral acts of violence, and sex, when in fact she cuts away and lets your imagination run riot. In terms of editing as much as writing, Animals Eat Each Other is an example to all.
We are introduced to ‘Lilith’, although that is a name given to her by others, and which, she learns, is one rich in meaning and which comes to define her, and even shape her. Nash makes it clear that language is important, the things which are said and those that remain only thoughts, as well as how people are referred to and the way in which relationships are defined. The latter hold the promise of, if not happiness (which is rarely considered a possibility), escape, belonging, change, submission, and subsummation – the chance not only to be with someone else but to become someone, or something, else.
There are shifts in power and thought happening constantly, sometimes in the space of a single embrace. This is in no small part down to the fact that ‘Lilith’s’ is a mind never at rest, except when quietened by drink and drugs, or distracted by pain or pleasure. The world as she has experienced it has her constantly anxious which in turn has made her uncomfortable in her own skin – a skin she is, as with her identity, keen to shed, or to have others remove for her in the belief that psychological change can happen through physical manipulation.
Despite what you may initially think this is not a novel about sex and violence, but one which examines obsession, self image and worth, fantasy vs reality, want and the need to be wanted, and the complexity of human appetites and infatuation. You could say it is concerned with the politics of desire, the rules and regulations – some made clear, some unsaid – which play out in various, and arguably all, relationships. I have seen Animals Eat Each Other described elsewhere as ‘erotic’ but that doesn’t do it justice it at all as Nash digs much deeper than that. She is not concerned with the aesthetics of desire, but with the psychology – more Erica Jong than E.L. James.
If you are looking for recent points of reference then those of you who have read Helen McClory’s novel Flesh Of The Peach, Pauline Lynch’s Armadillos or Anneliese Mackintosh’s short story collection Any Other Mouth, will find similar themes in Animals Eat Each Other. With it Elle Nash has written the literary equivalent of a great Punk single – fast, furious, and unforgettable, one which sticks in your head and creeps beneath your skin. Animals Eat Each Other – you couldn’t ignore it if you tried.
New music review, ahoy! At the time when voting for this year’s SAY Award opened (and you can nominate your favourites here) it’s heartening to reflect on just how much good music there is at the moment, in all shapes, forms and sounds. But before you head off to add to the list, here’s the latest review of the best new music to reach SWH! in recent recent weeks.
There’s a nice balance this month – at least we like to think so – not just in terms of the return of well-loved regulars and warm welcomes to the new-to-us, but also in the way that, as with the best stories, it has a beginning, middle, and an end. The perfect soundtrack to your weekend? It’s that and so much more, starting with…
..The Pearlfishers – and a long-awaited new album in the form of Love And Other Hopeless Things, the first since 2014’s Open Up Your Colouring Book. If you aren’t familiar with their music, boy are you in for a treat as this is a band steeped in classic pop. You can detect the influence of Bacharach, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Kinks, Paul Simon, The Carpenters, Steely Dan, Prefab Sprout, and – well, you get the idea with that. Suffice to say that this is a band whose standards are set sky high.
This is in no small part down to David Scott, one of the finest songwriters/arrangers around. He appears to live and breathe music, as anyone who has listened to his essential BBC Radio Scotland series Classic Scottish Albums will know. Scott is the main driving force behind The Pearlfishers, and from the opening chord to the last his influence is clear in every note. Have I convinced you yet to investigate further? Then perhaps this will seal the deal. From Love And Other Hopeless Things this is ‘Could Be A Street Could Be A Saint’. Sit back, relax, and enjoy:
The Pearlfishers: Could Be A Street Could Be A Saint - YouTube
While we’re on the subject of Scotland’s finest, there’s a new single from Tenement & Temple, who are Monica Queen and Johnny Smillie. It’s called ‘Loving Arms‘ (the second single from their forthcoming album which can’t come quickly enough) and it is a thing of fragile beauty with Queen’s heartbreaking vocals and Smillie’s understated guitar proving the perfect partnership.
This is appropriate as, while the two regularly collaborate and work with others (to great effect), Tenement & Temple feels intensely personal, a statement of who they are individually, but, more importantly, who they are together – making music, and creating an ambience, which is theirs alone. ‘Loving Arms’ is a song which can’t fail to move you. Are you ready to be heartbroken…?
Tenement & Temple - Loving Arms - YouTube
Andrew Howie contacted SWH! last month to suggest we listen to his latest music, and we couldn’t be happier that he did as his new single ‘Fragile‘ is really something special. That slightly unwieldy term ‘folktronic’ sprang to mind on first listen, but the song needs further explanation. As its title suggests, it’s a song which is delicate, but it’s also insistent – creating an atmospheric sound which demands repeated listening.
For SWH! regulars I’ll go with some familiar references. It’s the place where Blue Rose Code meets OK Button, or if Findlay Napier were remixed by L-Space – and hopefully you’re beginning to get the idea as to what Andrew Howie is about. Of course, the easiest way to do that is to listen to ‘Fragile’ right here, right now:
Andrew Howie - Fragile (edit) - YouTube
Also new to SWH! are HYTTS, whose single ‘Car Crash Carnivore‘ is one of those dance tracks that has the people who say they don’t dance out of their seats and on the floor before they even realise it. It’s a belter of a tune – falsetto vocals, finger clicks, disco beats, and a pop production which is pitch perfect. It was then no surprise to find out that Gary Clark (of Danny Wilson/King L/Sing Street fame), has been a musical mentor to HYTTS as few know their way around a pop song like he does. ‘Car Crash Carnivore‘, like much of the best electronic music (and the best clubs, come to that), hints that something dark is going on, and is all the better for it. Are you dancing?
HYYTS - Car Crash Carnivore (Official Video) - YouTube
With each release wojtek the bear get better and better, adding new ingredients to an already winning formula. The latest single is ‘tonic youth’, a wry reflection on, and ironic paean to, so called wasted youth and the long-lasting influence of those ‘wonder years’. There are few bands better at marrying acerbic lyrics to a deceptively upbeat and melodic soundtrack, in the long and fine tradition of Jimmy Webb, Elliot Smith, The Beta Band, and far too many others to mention here. Prick up your ears – while you were looking elsewhere wojtek the bear have become one of the best bands around. This is ‘tonic youth’.
wojtek the bear - tonic youth (official video) - YouTube
This review sees the return of many of SWH!’s favourites from through the years, and that certainly applies to PAWS, who initially won us over with their 2012 album Cokefloat!. Last month saw the release of Joanna‘, the first single from their new album Your Church On My Bonfire – also out now. It can be double-edged to suggest that a band have ‘matured’ in terms of their lyrics and music, but believe me when I say that in the case of PAWS it is absolutely meant as a compliment.
If their first three albums were the riotous soundtrack to the mother of all parties, Your Church On My Bonfire is something different altogether as it picks up the pieces and reflects upon what comes after, with Phillip Taylor’s songs examining life’s more sombre and sobering challenges and the way we try, and often struggle, to deal with them. It’s a record which reveals more with each listen, and it’s shaping up to be one which will stay long in the hearts and minds of those who hear it as it makes you reflect upon your own lives, loves, and losses. In all honesty, I can’t recommend Your Church On My Bonfire highly enough. This is ‘Joanna’.
PAWS - Joanna - YouTube
Discovery of last month for me was the music of Glasgwegian composer Richard Luke, his collaboration with Scottish Chamber Orchestra violinist Amira Bedrush-McDonald, and the album Glass Island (and thanks to the legendary Jockrock for bringing them to my attention). It’s an achingly beautiful record where classical meets electronic music and they make each other better – the perfect late-night/early morning listen when you want to immerse yourself in sound that makes everything in the world seem alright, despite contrary evidence.
Out now on Canadian label Moderna Records, Glass Island could just be the record we need right now. If you’re a fan of the likes of Murcof, Nils Frahm, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, (and if you’re not, you should be) then this is your next favourite album. From it this is ‘Everything a Reason’, but believe me one track is not enough – you need the whole for full effect.
Richard Luke, Everything a Reason - YouTube
Long terms visitors to SWH! will know the high esteem in which we hold Siobhan Wilson and her music. After the well-deserved critical success of her 2017 album There Are No Saints she is back with new songs which prove she isn’t going to stop now. She is one of those musicians who carry with them a guarantee of quality and confidence in her music and songs.
Exhibit A is ‘Marry You’ with understated grungey guitars and drums supporting Wilson’s effortless vocals, reminiscent of Kristin Hersh or early Cat Power. It suggests that the forthcoming album, The Departure, is going to cement Siobhan Wilson’s reputation as one of those musicians whose records are essential – with no collection worth its name truly complete without them. While you wait for its release on May 10th, this is ‘Marry You’.
Marry You - Siobhan Wilson - YouTube
Meet you here next month for more of the best in new Scottish music. But while you wait – SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm. You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.
A new novel from Douglas Skelton is always reason for cheer so the recent publication of his latest, Thunder Bay (Polygon Books) was welcome news. It’s another departure in terms of style and setting from Skelton, a writer who refuses to rest on his laurels, always keen to explore different literary approaches to writing crime fiction. A prolific writer of non-fiction books on crime as well, he is steeped in his subject area and brings all his knowledge and understanding to his fiction. The style may vary but the name Douglas Skelton is a guarantee of quality.
His characters are usually to be found pounding metropolitan mean streets, but the action in Thunder Bay takes place on an island off the coast of Scotland and Skelton manages to make this landscape as equally dangerous and disturbing, understanding that the threat is not in the place, but with those who live there. In doing so he brings to mind many influences including films such as The Wicker Man and When Eight Bells Toll, the Shetland TV series, as well as island novels such as Alan Warner’s These Demented Lands, Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way, and Louise Welsh’s Naming The Bones.
As with all of the above examples, Skelton understands that island life has a very particular, and, especially to outsiders, an often peculiar feel. Due to the necessary close-knit dynamic of such a community strangers are noticed and viewed with suspicion. Secrets are closely guarded but never forgotten, passed down through generations, and crime and recrimination are often two sides of a very similar coin.
Journalist Rebecca Connolly arrives into just such a community, travelling from the mainland to the appropriately named island of Stoirm in search of a story which will make her name. 15 years previously the island’s most infamous native, Roddie Drummond, was charged with the murder of Mhairi Sinclair but, in that singularly Scottish and often unsatisfactory manner, found Not Proven. This is a verdict which splits locals into factions which don’t heal despite Roddie leaving. His return for his mother’s funeral threatens to stir up all those old resentments and Rebecca is determined to discover the truth. What she finds is more shocking and sensational than she could ever have imagined.
Skelton understands people, both their strengths and flaws. He certainly understands the evil that men are more than capable of doing but manages to avoid making his characters monsters. He doesn’t simply divide them into white and black hats, they are more complex than that – sidestepping stereotypes while acknowledging types. He is also confident enough to have more than one storyline unfolding keeping the reader on their toes as to where the narrative is going.
Skelton proves once more that he is master of his craft. I can’t think of many, if any, other writers who bring such varied and distinctive styles to their books. With that versatility in mind, as well as his wry humour, a deft way with a cliffhanger, and a barely concealed anger at injustice, with Thunder Bay in particular the writer he most reminds me of is Iain Banks, especially the latter’s later novels The Steep Approach To Garbadale and Stonemouth.
From the Clydeside crime novels of his Davie McCall series, through the tales of Glasgow gumshoe Dominic Queste, his action-packed New York novel The Janus Run (a movie adaptation waiting to happen) and now Thunder Bay, Douglas Skelton shows that he is a writer who you can’t pidgeonhole or pin down. I, for one, can’t wait to see what he gives us next.
For the latest podcast Ali spoke to writer Claire MacLeary about her trilogy of Aberdeen set crime novels, Cross Purpose, Burnout, and her latest, Runaway (all published on the Contraband imprint of Saraband Books) . These novels introduced readers to Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, two middle-aged women who join together to work as private investigators.
Claire and Ali discuss the central characters, how they are a refreshing change from the norm, other people’s reaction to their choice of career, and the development of the relationship changes over the three books. They also talk about the importance of research, the often dark themes of Claire’s writing, the importance of bringing something different to the genre, Aberdeen as a setting, and the distinctive way she approaches her work. It’s a must listen for anyone with an interest in books – crime or otherwise – one which gives a fascinating insight into the life of a writer.
You can read the SWH! review of Runaway here, but before you do I suggest you listen to the podcast as I think the two work together well to give you a clear idea as to Claire MacLeary and her work.
If you are new round these parts there is quite a substantial back-catalogue of podcasts for you to discover. If you aren’t yet a subscriber you can do so, (or simply listen) at iTunes, on Podbean, or by RSS (but you’ll need to have an RSS reader to do so).
You can also download the podcast by clicking on the relevant link to the right of this post, or, if you want it right here, right now, you can listen on SoundCloud…
Without wanting to go in too heavy in these days of storm and stress, music becomes increasingly important to help make sense of, comes to terms with, or just forget for a while, the world and its woes. The future may be uncertain but against such a backdrop 2019 is proving to be a rich, varied, and exciting year in terms of Scottish music, as the following review will evince.
Some may say that’s small and insignificant comfort, but they are wrong. It’s important and necessary comfort, and we hope time spent with the music featured will make your day, and give it an appropriate soundtrack. There’s understated anthems, songs of fragile beauty, experimental compositions, exciting collaborations, the personal, the political, the melancholic, and the uplifting. If you don’t find something to love then we have failed you and ourselves…
First off, it’s a case of “say hello, wave goodbye” as A Mote of Dust release their new album A Mote Of Dust II while simultaneously announcing their, and musical maverick Craig b‘s, retirement. As I’m sure you’ll know, Craig b was an integral part of Ganger, Aerogramme and The Unwinding Hours before recording as A Mote Of Dust, and it’s a quite remarkable musical legacy with nary a bad song to be found from the beginning to the (in this selfish reviewer’s opinion) premature end.
The album launch/farewell gig at Glasgow’s Mono recently showed clearly just how much Craig b is respected and loved as it was packed not only with fans but also many of his musical contemporaries. I doubt anyone else was reviewed in Glasgow that night judging by the number of music writers and bloggers also in the room. So it’s a fond farewell and bon voyage to A Mote Of Dust and Mr b. If you want to show your appreciation, or discover just what all this fuss is about, get yourself a copy of A Mote Of Dust II. To convince you further, this is ‘Slow Clap’:
Slow Clap By A Mote of Dust - YouTube
Annie Booth‘s debut album An Unforgiving Light, (a joint release on two of Scotland’s most discerning record labels – Last Night From Glasgow and Scottish Fiction) is one of the most talked about in recent years – literally. More than any other I can think of, perhaps with the exception of LNFG label mates Sister John, it was the record that people discussed most often at gigs and get togethers, often in hushed and awed tones. Her latest EP Spectral (another LNFG/SF collaboration – &, by the way, more of this sort of thing can only be a good thing) shows clearly that Booth is a rare talent indeed.
There’s a melancholic and haunting quality in her vocals which, on the evidence I have seen, can silence any room, but it is in the songs themselves where the real magic is to be found. All four tracks on Spectral are memorable, but ‘Mirage’ and the single ‘Magic 8’ are two of the best of the year. I’ve been trying for a while to think who Annie Booth reminds me of (cos that’s the sort of thing reviewers do) and have realised that, among others, it’s Aimee Mann, especially in terms of marrying the songs to the way they are delivered. There’s an integrity to her music which demands your attention. During one of those gig conversations, as mentioned above, someone whose opinion I rate highly called her “the best singer/songwriter in Scotland at the moment”. Listen to Spectral and I think you’ll find it hard to disagree. From it, this is ‘Magic 8’:
Annie Booth - Magic 8 (Official Video) - YouTube
Citizen Bravo is the latest musical project from Matt Brennan, one-time member of the much-missed Zoey Van Goey. He has his debut album, Build A Thing Of Beauty, released on Chemikal Underground but that is only part of the story. It is also part of, and soundtrack to, Brennan’s research project which includes a film, The Cost Of Music, and an incredible one-off interactive musical sculpture called the SCI★FI★HI★FI, which will tour as part of a series of public lectures in 2019.
It’s a fascinating undertaking, one which should be of interest to any music lover as Brennan looks to the history of music making, and consumption, to better understand the present and even the future. But while that is important, it would mean little for this review if the album wasn’t quite extraordinary. With a lyrical wit and insight reminiscent of Neil Hannon, a band made up of some of the finest musicians around, and a judicious use of samples, you have a record unlike any other you are likely to hear in many a year. Inform, educate, and entertain – Citizen Bravo ticks all the boxes. From the album this is ‘Limbs and Bones’:
Limbs and Bones - YouTube
In the space of just a few singles OK Button have proven themselves to be one of the most exciting new bands around, one who aren’t afraid to mix the political with the often intensely personal, and all to the most exquisite soundtrack. Their latest, ‘Grenade’, is arguably their finest yet, but then I previously said that about ‘The Message’, ‘Beds’, and ‘Flesh & Blood’. Suffice to say that their debut album is shaping up to be something rather special and one off the most eagerly awaited of recent times.
The band’s atmospheric electronica, and Amber Wilson’s heavenly vocals, lull you into a false sense of security and before you know it you’re floored. OK Button are going to be playing Aberdeen at The Tunnels with SWH! favourites L-Space on July 27th which promises to be a musical match made in heaven, so I recommend grabbing your tickets while you can. While you mull that over, this is ‘Grenade’:
Josephine Sillars featured recently on these pages as guest vocalist on Frog Costume’s excellent ‘A Daydream’ which, while a treat, made you long for new music from her all of her own. Luckily we didn’t have to wait too long. Her latest single ‘Skeleton’ sees Josephine reunited with The Manic Pixie Dreams, and features Spring Break’s DJ Butterscotch. It’s a winning combination of ska-inflected pop, hip-hop, and Sillars’ velvet vocals, with a social-political message at its heart that has never been more relevant. It’s a fine example of the sort of agit-pop song which is all too rare these days in that it makes you dance and makes you think simultaneously. More of this sort of thing:
Next up, it’s the welcome return of Sacred Paws, last seen riding into the sunset clutching a well-deserved SAY Award for 2017’s Strike A Match. How do you follow such a success? Well, if the first single from their forthcoming LP Run Around The Sun is anything to go by Sacred Paws are going to do what they did before only better. As soon as it starts up ‘The Conversation’ (for that is its name) puts the listener at ease with the unmistakable drum and guitar sound that we have come to know, love and cherish. Sacred Paws are back with a vengeance and the world is a far better place for it:
Sacred Paws // The Conversation (Official Video) - YouTube
How you feel about the next song will depend how you feel about the music of the mid-late 1980s. If, for you, it was only ever The Smiths, The Wedding Present, The Cure, The Woodentops, The Fall – and many other artists with the definite article – then move on, nothing to hear here. But if you had space in your life for Erasure, Pet Shop Boys, New Order, and even, god help us, Alphaville, then Michael Oakley takes you back, way back, to that time and place. Oakley’s latest single is ‘Left Behind’ (from the album Introspect) and it is as nostalgic for the ’80s as Max Headroom drinking a can of Schlitz. If you’re going to go with Michael Oakley’s ‘New Retro Wave’ then you have to embrace it fully. Go on, try it – what have you got to lose?:
Michael Oakley - Left Behind (Official Music Video) - YouTube
And finally…it’s the Sonic Bothy Ensemble with their album Fields – a record which almost defies definition, but here goes. It’s an experimental, at times unnerving, surprising, and always exciting composition. If you like your ambient music more challenging than chill out – think Harold Budd, Philip Glass, Tim Hecker – then you’ll love Fields. It’s an album which has you believing it’s going to be one thing, then pulls you in a completely different direction altogether.
Whereas many ambient albums are little more than aural wallpaper, Sonic Bothy Ensemble force you to listen, encourage you to engage, and never allow you to settle. It’s quite the most intriguing, hypnotic and thought provoking composition I have heard this year and I’ve been returning to it most nights (often late at night) since that first listen. If you want to know more about Sonic Bothy Ensemble then click here, but I would suggest you first settle back, relax, open your ears and mind, and expect the unexpected:
We told you it was good. Meet you here next month for more of the best in new Scottish music. But while you wait – SWH! now has a regular radio show on LP Radio on Monday nights, 7-9pm. You can catch up with the previous shows, along with all the other fantastic LP Radio shows, by following the relevant links in the sidebar.
A quick look at Scottish Opera’s 2019/20 programme (right) makes it clear that the company are reaching for a balance between the old and the new, the classic and the experimental, the expected and the unexpected. It’s a tough act to pull off as there will be those who think that a national company should concentrate on the tried and tested. Others will think their remit should be groundbreaking and challenging. While you can’t please all of the people all of the time, Scottish Opera give it a good go.
While the coming season has productions of Puccini’s Tosca, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, there is also the promise of John Adams’ Nixon In China, an original piece called Amadeus & The Bard which looks at the similarities between Mozart and Robert Burns, and, most intriguing of all, Missy Mazzoli’s adaptation of Lars Von Trier’s controversial film Breaking The Waves. Add to those the Opera Highlights Tour, the Scottish Opera Young Company production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, children’s opera Fox-Tot!, and various pop-up events, and you can see that there is something for everyone, but also everything for some of us, reaffirming Scottish Opera’s reputation as a company of national and international renown.
And I haven’t yet mentioned the Opera in Concert series which puts the Orchestra (conducted by musical director Stuart Stratford) centre stage. The latest of these was at Glasgow’s City Halls on Sunday, the rarely performed Silvano. It is a dramma marinaresco, literally translated as a “seafaring drama”, by the Italian composer Pietro Mascagnic – a classic love-triangle, which, if literature, poetry, and country & western music has taught us anything, never ends well. Set at the Adriatic coast in central Italy, the plot revolves around the rivalry of two fishermen who are in love with the same woman. The drama climaxes in a duel which ends, unsurprisingly, in tragedy.
In many ways this is opera in its purest form. Being able to see as well as hear the majestic music that the orchestra makes, and the skill and passion with which they make it, is a rare treat. This style of concert is one for music lovers as you also get to concentrate on the power and purity of trained opera singers’ voices. Aexey Dolgov as Silvano, David Stout as Renzo, and Leah-Marian Jones as Rosa were all magnificent, but when Emma Bell hit the high notes as Matilde you feared for the City Halls very foundations. With strong support from the chorus in the balcony, this was a tour de force of orchestration and performance.
I have been attending and reviewing Scottish Opera for almost four years now and I can honestly say I haven’t yet had a bad experience, and more often than not have had an unforgettable one. You can find out more about what the coming season holds over at Scottish Opera, and I urge you to take a look at what’s on offer and, if you haven’t yet done so, take a chance on at least one of the shows. If you’re anything like me you won’t look back.
One of the defining characteristics of most successful crime series is to have protagonists who readers look forward to spending time with. This is particularity prevalent in Scottish Crime Fiction. From Sherlock Holmes to John Rebus and beyond, the best crime writers have created characters who are undoubtedly flawed – arguably defined by those flaws – but who carry enough charisma, charm and intrigue to keep us on their side.
It’s with that in mind that we can give a warm welcome back to private investigators Maggie Laird and ‘Big’ Wilma Harcus, whose flaws, while still evident, are less-sensational than an opium or whisky habit. They are back for round three in their fight against Aberdeen’s criminals in Claire MacLeary’s latest novel Runaway.
This time around we find Maggie and Wilma’s relationship beginning to fracture as cases are increasingly rare, often disagreeing as to the best way to go about their business. Imagine Cagney and Lacey, older, wiser, and wearier, but working the slightly less-mean streets of Mannofield rather than Manhattan, and you have some idea as to the women’s dynamic. Not love/hate, more love/exasperate.
When Scott Milne reports his wife Debbie as missing the police aren’t interested so he decides to go private, asking Harcus & Laird if they will help. The two argue as to whether this is a case worth taking on, with Wilma for and Maggie against. When they do it takes them to places which in turn remind them of their past, reassess the present, and make them fear for the future.
Runaway has a distinctly darker tone than MacLeary’s earlier work, commenting on homelessness, the lives of sex workers, and people-traffiking (something which appears to be rife in northern Scotland, also featuring in Douglas Skelton’s latest novel Thunder Bay as well as being central to the plot of the last series of Shetland).
But, as with Cross Purpose and Burnout, Runaway is as much about the drama of everyday living as it is about solving crime. The reason Maggie and Wilma are relatable is because they are so believable. Two suburban middle-aged women working as PI’s is a tricky scenario to pull off, but MacLeary clearly understands these women and their lives.
Whereas Ian Rankin’s Rebus, Christopher Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane, or Douglas Skelton’s Dominic Queste all have lifestyles which allow them to play the loner, fulfilling crime/noir stereotypes as perfected by the likes of Raymond Chandler and James Ellroy, Maggie and Wilma have responsibilities which many readers will relate to – ones which they take seriously. Family, partners, friends and colleagues, for most of us these are ties which are not easily severed, and they fight for them despite often receiving disapproval, opprobrium, and often condemnation for what they do. Overcoming, or rather dealing with, such attitudes, often from their nearest and dearest, shows true strength and determination.
This recognisable humanity is what makes Claire MacLeary’s novels as notable as they are welcome. She makes nods to, and understands, the tropes and themes of crime fiction but adapts them to her characters rather than the other way round, avoiding cliche and stereotype. This also applies to the way people talk to each other. MacLeary clearly has an ear for how people argue, bicker, and tease, but also understands how they struggle to apologise, explain, or make-up afterwards. It’s as much about what remains unspoken as what is said, and the problems that result from this inability to communicate.
Both women’s life experience comes into its own and it’s their refusal to be overlooked and ignored which gives Runaway a vitality and verve which is rare. MacLeary uses who they are and how others may perceive them as a strength rather than suggesting any weakness, turning people’s prejudices against them. Being underestimated and patronised becomes one of the greatest weapons in their armour.
What is often asked when you review a novel in a running series is, “Do you need to have read the earlier books?”. With Runaway the answer is two-fold – “No you don’t”, but also, “You should anyway”. Runaway stands on its own as a great crime novel, but I’ll bet that once you have made Maggie and Wilma’s acquaintance you’ll want to get to know more. In just three novels they have become two of Scottish fiction’s most engaging characters, who, as suggested at the top of the page, you’ll want to spend more time with. I can’t wait to find out what they, and Claire MacLeary, do next.
It felt apt that the Scottish Opera Young Company‘s production of Gluck’s Orfeo & Euridice was staged in Greenock as the journey down the River Styx towards the Underworld is how many locals view the similar journey towards Glasgow up the River Clyde. Certainly the backdrop used in the first act looked suspiciously familiar to those who know that part of the world.
This allusion, deliberate or otherwise, was only one of the impressive and inspired aspects in this production. If any theatre company wanted a lesson in how to make their work look spectacular, while making a little go a long way, then they need look no further. The use of colours, costume, and even cloth, were all used to tell the story simply yet effectively.
The stage was alive with blues, reds, and silver – all indicating who was who and what they signified. White veils for the wedding party, black for mourners, silver masks to hide identities, and simple ropes and drapes used as shrouds, shackles, and more. With reflective surfaces coming and going, and an ingenious use of lighting, the attention of the audience was kept throughout. You couldn’t look away for fear of missing something.
And this was apt as ‘looking’ or ‘the gaze’ is a key theme to the story of Orfeo & Euridice. As with the myths of Narcissus, Medusa, Diana and Acteon, or even the fate of Lot’s wife in the Book of Genesis, forbidden glances, and defying deities, can only end badly. The inventive staging used this to full advantage, breaking the fourth wall by forcing the audience to become part of the performance, made aware of their own presence as blurred faces on the stage.
The other key to audience engagement was the pace that the story unfolds. There was little scene setting as wedding day quickly turns to tragedy before Orfeo begins his heroic journey to rescue Euridice. Although there were nominally three acts the storytelling felt seamless – told as concisely and precisely as possible.
Daniel Keating-Roberts’ Orfeo, (centre stage for the majority of the time), had to hold his own despite so much going on but he did so with aplomb, and the three Cupids stood out not only because of their silver suits, but because each brought a distinct personality to the role. However to single out individuals seems wrong as the whole cast, from Cupids to Chorus (and dancer Kay Davis) came together to deliver a true ensemble performance.
It was easy to forget, and indeed I didn’t give it a thought throughout, that this was the Scottish Opera Young Company on stage, and that tells you all you need to know. Suffice to say, it appears that the future of Scottish Opera is in safe hands
Further details can be found on the Company’s home page, and the most recent SWH! podcast is an interview with SOYC artistic director Jonathon Swinard where he talks about the company and his role. You can find the podcast here, or listen to below:
There are a couple of books which came out last year which have remained on the SWH! ‘must-read’ pile, and which will be reviewed on these pages in due course. One of them is Henry Bell’s biography of John McLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside, which looks behind the mythology to reveal the man, his life, and offer comment not only on that time and place, but also on the politics of today.
Chapter One begins, perhaps surprisingly, with the subject’s death, and goes on to detail MacLean’s funeral and how widespread the mourning was. It’s an arresting opening which sets the tone for what follows with Bell’s ability to set a scene matched by his clear and concise way with a statistic. More than any other section in the book it shows just how important and iconic John MacLean had become to the people of Glasgow, and beyond. You are immediately made aware that this story is important and it encourages you to read on and learn more about the life which led to this.
Most of us will only know John MacLean, if at all, by his reputation as “Scotland’s Greatest Revolutionary Socialist” without having given too much thought as to who, how, and why. To some that description will immediately make him a hero, to others a villain. As always the story is more complex than that and, as with the the best biographers, Bell goes on to unpick that complexity and makes things more clear and balanced. John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside is a profile of a man whose story demands to be read and understood more widely. It’s a thoroughly researched and engaging read which walks that fine line between giving the reader the facts and telling the story in an involving way.
It looks at MacLean’s Highland heritage and Calvinist upbringing, his life as a teacher (the belief in the importance of education for all arguably at the heart of everything he fought for), his incredible relationship with Communist Russia and the Kremlin, and his links to those involved with the struggle for an independent Ireland. It is little wonder that the UK government, and other western countries, took such a keen interest in this man – a skilled and charismatic orator who could command large audiences for his speeches. Some of the most powerful sections in the book are where Bell details MacLean’s time spent in jail as a result and the toll it took, especially on his health and family.
What is of particular interest is MacLean’s move from his belief in Marxist internationalism to socialist independence, at least where Scotland was concerned. He wasn’t the only Scottish figure to hold these apparently opposing beliefs – years later Hugh MacDiarmid would become a member of the Communist Party and the National Party of Scotland (and be expelled from both), and there are echoes of this complex political and idealistic view evident in Scottish politics to this day. If you want to understand better Scotland’s current political landscape it helps to know your history, and Bell’s book is an excellent place to fill in many of those gaps.
I’m not a great reader of political biographies, but I have read many concerning the lives of philosophers and John MacLean: Hero Of Red Clydeside works in a manner similar to Rudiger Safranski’s biography of Nietzsche, Ray Monk’s on Wittgenstein, Bernard-Henri Levy’s Sartre and, most appropriately, Francis Wheen’s biography of Karl Marx. As with all of those Bell strikes a balance between the subject’s life-story and their ideology – the personal, the political, and also, (as important for MacLean as any of the others), the philosophical.
Henry Bell makes it clear that while McLean was a man of action, prepared to suffer and even die for his cause, he was also a man of ideas – an intellectual who often placed those ideas above all else. Radical, yes – but only in a society where individuals and groups were, and are, too willing to compromise what they believe. Now, perhaps more than at any time in the last 100 years, John MacLean has lessons for us all. Here begins the lesson.