Louise Welsh on Scottish Opera's Anthropocene

Ahead of the premiere of Anthropocene, author Louise Welsh discusses her fourth opera, collaborating with composer Stuart MacRae, and traditional opera’s “women problem”

Feature by Amy Taylor | 22 Jan 2019

“I’m always very busy, partly because I worry about what happens when it stops?” That's the response of author Louise Welsh when asked about her incredible output. In fact, it sometimes seems like she never does stop; over her career, Welsh’s output has included eight critically acclaimed novels, including Saltire Award-winning debut The Cutting Room and the Plague Times Trilogy. But over recent years, as well as books, she’s turned her hand to writing opera, with the help of composer, friend, and now frequent collaborator, Stuart MacRae.

Their latest opera, Anthropocene, which is set for its world premiere at the Theatre Royal Glasgow later this month, also marks the fourth collaboration between the two artists. The new piece was born from an earlier Scottish Opera programme, Five:15, which saw five contemporary writers in Scotland create five new 15-minute operas.

For Welsh, her first experience of opera was during her teenage years, when Channel 4 commissioned and broadcast a series of so-called “Gateway Operas” – new films of well-known operas, such as Carmen, La Traviata and Rigoletto. Welsh remembers recording them on VHS and watching them repeatedly, but she couldn’t help but notice something about the women in every one of these operas.

“I think it’s not an accident that those are the ones that I remember,” she muses. “They’re very dramatic operas, they are all hugely high stakes, have passionate relationships; all of those things. Unfortunately, in all of those operas, the woman gets bumped off!”

The fact that the lead female character in traditional operas never seems to survive to the curtain call has informed her work with MacRae and is also something that they’re both keen to tackle and challenge with their new work. Welsh says: “This is something that Stuart and I have engaged with as well, because this [female characters dying] is pretty typical of traditional form. The form is changing, the form is alive, we don’t do that! But that’s how it started with operas; the drama, the passion, the music, the story and the characters, and I was away with it.”

Anthropocene is their first collaboration since 2016’s hugely successful opera, The Devil Inside. The title alludes to the time period that we live in, known as the Anthropocene period; the time in which humans have been responsible for most of the impact on the environment, climate and the planet. Set in the Arctic Circle, a group of scientists on an expedition realise that they are trapped in the frozen wastelands. Cut off from the outside world, and amid rising tensions, they realise that they are not alone; something from the ice has joined them.

“It’s a story where something strange is found, but it’s not a grotesque thing," says Welsh. "There’s still fear of the unknown, and that’s perennial."

Indeed, as Welsh points out, the story of humans encountering the unknown and the fear and chaos that creates is universal. As humans, we fear what we don’t understand. After all, what we understand is familiar, so what we don’t understand is unpredictable, uncontrollable and even monstrous.

Welsh continues: “I think that story of finding somebody or something within a place of nature, a wild place that we can’t control, is really a perennial story, isn’t it? You think of the very first stories... Beowulf, what’s that? A monster story. And I guess this, in a way, isn’t a monster story because the person on the ice is not grotesque. There’s not that grotesque element, but there’s certainly a strangeness, and that kind of strangeness works very well in a musical setting.”

The musical setting, alongside the direction and design (from Matthew Richardson and Samal Blak, respectively) is, according to Welsh, responsible for much of the opera’s tension and suspense. But without a good story and characterisation, there would be no opera.

It’s clear from the beginning that Anthropocene is the result of not only years of friendship with MacRae, but also working closely together to create the work. “We do it in tandem," Welsh tells us, "so I have to write the words before Stuart writes the music, so if I stall, then he stalls as well, so there’s that responsibility too.”

Their working practice, which often sees them meeting either in Glasgow or Edinburgh (MacRae lives in the east, while Welsh resides in Glasgow) in cafes, sometimes a museum, or another public place to discuss ideas. Then they go home and work alone, before sharing their work with each other at the next meeting. We ask Welsh how she finds working with a collaborator, since it’s so different to the work of creating a novel alone. “It makes some things faster, so maybe, putting the plot together might be faster, but then you really have to go off and think about the characterisation and all of that. I really like it.

“An opera requires work that’s different from a novel. But the same thing that comes through it is story. Story and narrative has to be strong, and it has to be underpinned, and really, as you know, has to rely on characters.”

Once the opera has been written, Welsh tends to be involved in the first few rehearsals, to make sure that the script suits the actors and to work with them to make any changes.

“The text is a text until it comes to rehearsal, and, with an opera, because it’s all set to music you can’t change huge chunks [and] say, ‘You know what, we’re gonna take out 15 minutes of this’ or whatever. That would really not work. But there might be bits where there’s a word that doesn’t work; the singer would find they can’t get their mouth around a particular word, or they might just want to ask about their character, all those things.”

With opening night fast approaching, Welsh is looking forward to seeing the opera performed for the first time. But the thought of seeing the piece in the flesh has caused her to reflect on the process of creating Anthropocene; from first idea, to discussing ideas and collaborating on it with MacRae, to the piece coming to fruition several years later.

She says: “Something that’s just in your head, me and Stuart in a cafe talking, and then a couple of years down the line, you’re in this big theatre and hundreds of people have worked on something you’ve made. They’ve all come together, all these people that are at the top of their game, and they’ve moved themselves to Glasgow to work on this piece.

“And then people have got in their cars and on buses in January, they’ve come through bad weather and come to the theatre for an evening. I think that’s really thrilling.”

But will the female characters survive the opera this time? Welsh pauses but decides to remain tight-lipped. “I can’t say, I can’t possibly say. If they go, it’ll be for a good reason, you know?”

Anthropocene, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, 24-26 Jan; King's Theatre, Edinburgh, 31 Jan-2 Feb