As Scotland adjusts to its own parliament, a new opera traces the extraordinary life of a little-known political activist. Words: Carol Main
‘1 condemn this pest of Scotland, this wicked demon of Scotland!’ So saying, Lord Braxfield, presiding over a corrupt 18th century law court, condemns Thomas Muir of Huntershill to transportation and inevitable death. It is a central scene in the new opera, Friend Of The People, written by 29-year-old Stirling born composer David Horne and distinguished parliamentarian Robert Maclennan. An important, but shamefully little-known figure in Scottish history, Thomas Muir lived during the French Revolution and was indeed a friend of the people, who struggled as a champion of democracy to bring political reform to the Scottish nation in the face of an oppressive government. As 1999 marks the bi- centenary of his death and the birth of Scotland’s new parliament, this people’s hero is a fitting subject for Scottish Opera’s final commission of the century.
‘Robert and I had collaborated before on smaller scale work through Northlands Festival,’ explains Horne, who currently lectures in music at Harvard University. ‘After some spirited discussion in a sushi bar one thing led to another. Scottish Opera were taken with the subject and this new idea became full scale.’ It is important for Home that the opera evolved from an artistic point of view; but, he says, ‘it took a certain amount of time before I was convinced that this was something I could do. It was an immense labour.’ Luckily, Harvard was supportive of a six- month sabbatical.
Although miles apart, working together was never a problem for Home and Maclennan. ‘I really wanted a hands-on approach,’ says Horne. ‘Things I changed were quite unpredictable and often the smallest details. I had to ask “Will it be understood?” This was vital, especially as the opera is in English.’
Most of the narrative is true, some more extraordinary than any fiction. ‘But,’ says Horne, ‘sometimes, to make a story interesting, you have to make it up. I thought that you can’t have an opera without some love interest. So we fleshed out the character of Annie, the maidservant. Tom cavorts with her, but it is an uncomfortable relationship. Later on she testifies against him.’ In real life, Muir’s father
'Although we're cautious about saying we're sending a message, there are human elements which affect everyone! David Horne
Revolutionary ﬁgure: Peter Savidge and Fraser McNicol in Friend Of The People
was an influential figure. That role is transferred to the mother, providing another significant female part in what was otherwise a male-dominated story.
Horne’s determination for clear narrative is reﬂected in his music. ‘The kind of music I write is, on the surface, quite complex. I had to marry that musical language with something that is compelling,’ he says. ‘There are a lot of rests in the vocal lines so that the words can be heard. There are also some large scale musical ideas which pervade the whole work. There is a series of chords which sends shivers up your spine.’
The drama opens with Muir, nearing death after an exciting and turbulent life, telling his life-story to a young boy for Bastille Day. ‘It begins at the end and ends at the end,’ Horne observes. ‘Muir is now an unattractive character, who is sick of the world. We want the conclusion to be taken two ways. He’s either fantastic, or a delusional alcoholic. It’s the confusion of triumph or tragedy. Although we’re both very cautious about saying we’re sending a message, these are human elements which affect everyone.’
Friend Of The People opens at Glasgow: Theatre Royal, Sat 6 Nov. Further dates are Wed 17 Nov and Fri 19 Nov at Edinburgh: Festival Theatre; Tue 7 Dec and Sat 11 Dec at Glasgow: Theatre Royal.
Upcoming events, news and gossip
THE WORLD’S JOLLIEST band, sprawling Glasgow ska collective The Amphetameanies, will be spreading the love at The Bedsit in Glasgow on Sat 13 Nov in aid of Big Issue Scotland. Support comes from The Vanity Witch Hunt (flamboyant goths and winners of this issue's Most Culturally Relevant Band Name award) and ska/northern soul 015. The fun starts at 9pm, the tickets cost £4 in advance and £5 on the door, and even though it’s a union, note that you won't need a matric card to get in.
SENTIMENTAL TYPES STILL sold on vinyl will welcome the latest release by Edinburgh's Human Condition Records. Danny Holland’s debut 'Hey Hallowe'en' is the label's first 7in only release since Idlewild's first outing, 'Hope Is lmportant'. It's described as 'living in the same street as Stuart Murdoch but with Thom Yorke banging about in the attic.’ Which, frankly, is scarier than any mythic forest-dwelling stick- bending witch beast you might care to mention.
JAZZ DIVAS IN SPANGLY frocks are ten a penny, but smooth-voiced jazz gentlemen are a rarer commodity. Perhaps that's why 28 year old Glasgow singer Stephen Duffy lists Ella Fitzgerald and Carmen McRae amongst his influences. He’ll be performing his centenary tribute to Duke Ellington, Love You Madly, with the Ronnie Rae Trio at the Tron Theatre Restaurant on Tue 9 Nov.
HELENSBURGH: SLEEPY SEASIDE hamlet or cheatin' hearts and rhinestone cowboys terrain? Paul Shields, DJ and promoter, is pushing for the latter. His Stateside Sounds events at Helensburgh's Clyde Bar have tempted alt-country acts from as far away as Nashville, Tennessee and as acclaimed as The Handsome Family and The Willard Grant Conspiracy. Next up are Jolene, on Fri 12 Nov, with support from Scott Macdonald. Call 01436 671789/673205/673257 for tickets.
ska culture: The Amphetameanies
4-18 Nov 1999 THE U814}