OPERA / Keeping the wolf from the door: The Wolf of Badenoch - Nairn, Scotland

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The Independent Culture
THERE is no doubt that community work represents the future for the classical music establishment. Most symphony orchestras and opera companies have known this for some years, and the most progressive colleges and universities are already running courses.

In Scotland, the special problems of a huge catchment area and a base - the city of Glasgow - which is a traditionally working-class industrial community, led to an early interest. Scottish Opera for Youth was the first British operatic venture of this type, founded in 1971 and now reconstituted as Scottish Opera for All. Its latest production is The Wolf of Badenoch, written for the people of the North-east and based on the story of a local celebrity, the notorious Earl of Buchan, who burnt down Elgin Cathedral in 1390.

This was a new work, with words by Alan Dunn and music by Karen MacIver. All the performers were people from the local area, except for two professional singers who had also worked with the cast as voice specialists. In the circumstances, the inventors had planned the project well. Telling the story of two of the wolf's illegitimate children, who meet and fall in love, followed by the boy's murder at the hand of his father, the libretto is written in Scots and framed largely in a style of rhyming verse that gave the work a kind of barnstorming theatricality. MacIver's music, accompanied by a small band that contained pipes and clarsach, was in a kind of Carla Bley-inspired big band style, drawing on Scots folk as well as hints of gospel, Carl Orff and Hollywood movie themes.

It made you compare this kind of thing with ordinary amateur opera and drama. The main difference was the presence of real professionals, who set standards and gave the show guts, not least in important areas like lighting; this was a bit random in the performance at Nairn Community Centre, though the best effects were pretty eye-opening. With an unpredictable cast, Dunn and his producer, Rowan Tolley, had set up a mixture of speech, dance, symbolism, chorus and song, the title role being taken with relish and swagger by Peter Thomson.

Some of it came off well; it was hard to believe that the group of women whose sweet little choruses provided continuity had not had their parts specially written for them. But MacIver's music easily fell into bathos, and often her inexperienced singers could not redeem it. The big scene with the juvenile lead - Prince Robert Stewart, the wolf's son - was only rescued by the entry of Iain Paton, the other professional, whose vivid tenor voice gripped the music as it fell apart.

But The Wolf was real theatre and it brought its protagonist thrillingly to life. Community opera will not replace the international variety, but it opens up lines of communication that can only enrich our operatic world.

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