5:15 Zen Story and The Money Man

Two of the Five "New Operas Made in Scotland" use classic forms for original expressions

Article by Gareth K Vile | 17 May 2010

Although Western attempts to understand Buddhism are frequently problematic – the translation of the key ideas into Christian philosophy has led to a generation of mistaking a vibrant tradition with a vague self-satisfied quietism – Zen Story is fifteen minutes that reflects on a famous parable. Shoving a pithy slogan and allusions to other Zen stories into the mix, and a score that suggests Japan rather than orientalise the orchestra, librettist Alan Spence and composer Miriama Young match the simplicity of the myth with a gentle opera.

Naturally, the passions that drive opera are submerged beneath the Buddhist insistence on acceptance: in this subtle tension, the words are allowed to resonate and the monk-hero Hakuin's message of compassion for suffering is illuminated. Simple phrases become resonant. When Hakuin concludes "is that so?", the depth of his teaching is radiantly apparent.

The 5:15 format here becomes the ideal medium for expression of an idea, as the drama of opera recedes into the simple set and reflective commentary. Hakuin's antagonist, a young, pregnant girl, is given character – something lacking in most versions of the myth, thanks to Zen's frequently macho spirituality. Short and concise, this is elegant, contemporary performance that manipulates its traditons to moving effect.

The Money Man has far more fun with opera's conventions. An extract from a longer work-in-progress, it sends up financiers – especially through Martin Lamb's robust master of the universe – with a slapstick, flamboyant glee. Romantic, cynical and satirical by rapid turn, it relishes the chance to parody operatic emotions on the floor of the City, even if its portrayal of a journlist is bitterly unfair. Lyell Creswell is a contemporary composer, who has the fine disregard for convention that modernity implies. Yet alongside Ron Butlin's humorous libretto, he romps through the credit crunch, grinning wryly and exposing corruption, greed and the longing heart.

This pair of operas stand together to demonstrate that 5:15 is a serious attempt to wean opera audiences from the past, never sacrificing quality for novelty, and willing to mock its perceived seriousness. 5:15 does, indeed, update a classic form.

Traverse Theatre

20- 22 May, 7.30pm

Òran Mór

25- 27 May, 2.30pm


Various prices, contact venues for details