Authors pen 15-minute operas in effort to entice younger audience

It is enough to steam up the opera glasses of purists who spend their Saturday afternoons at La Scala and Covent Garden. For one of the most traditional of art forms is set for a makeover in coming weeks that will see well-known novelists take charge of 15-minute-long productions set against gritty urban backdrops.

Celebrated writers such as Ian Rankin, the creator of the Rebus series, and Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels, are just two of the literary stars who have signed up to Five:15, a Scottish Opera initiative aimed at reaching out to a new generation.

Out go the big budgets, lengthy run times and large venues. But in come the stars from the world of literature and music, who have been asked to produce 15-minute operas which will sit beside each other at sold-out shows in small theatres in Glasgow and Edinburgh early next month.

Also involved is the film composer Craig Armstrong, who has written music for movies including Moulin Rouge, Romeo and Juliet and Love Actually, and the novelists Ron Butlin and Bernard MacLaverty.

Their operas range from Rankin's Gesualdo, which tells the harrowing tale of the murderous composer Carlo Gesualdo, to Queens of Govan, the story of a 15-year-old girl who works in a kebab shop in Glasgow's gritty Govan area. And, should next month's shows be a success, there could be scope for the writers to produce more, perhaps full-length, shows in the future.

Describing his opera when it was commissioned last year, Rankin said: "It's a true story of a 16th-century Italian nobleman who killed his wife, his wife's lover, and his son. He repents but he is eventually killed by his second wife."

He added: "When I was in a punk band I used to write lyrics but that was 25 years ago. Everything I touch turns into a thriller."

McCall Smith's opera is based on his collection of Celtic myths, Dream Angus.

Alex Reedijk, the Scottish Opera's general director, said that the writing of the shows started in spring 2007. "The bite-sized operas could provide a blueprint – in terms of subject matter – for longer versions in coming months," he said.

"Five:15 is about questioning what opera could or should look like in the 21st century. I've been as interested in the process – how they get there – as I am in the outcome."

The shows, which feature all five 15-minute operas, will be staged on the first weekend of March at Glasgow's ÒranMòr and the following weekend in The Hub in Edinburgh. All are sold out.