McCall Smith makes monkey out of Macbeth

Author's first foray into opera recasts Shakespearean characters as baboons

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Monday 19 October 2009 00:00
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It was a shoe-string opera that re-cast the main players in Shakespeare's Macbeth as singing baboons, and enlisted amateurs to perform the drama in a tin-roofed garage in Botswana before an audience of 56 people.

Not a trusted recipe for success. Yet Alexander McCall Smith's first foray into writing an opera with a difference has proved such a runaway success in Africa that Scottish Opera is now considering it for a far bigger stage at home.

The Okavango Macbeth – a joint venture between writer McCall Smith and the Scottish composer Tom Cunningham – has just finished its original two-week run in a small town just outside the African nation's capital, Gaborone. The opera, which is based on an encounter McCall Smith had with two primatologists in the Okavango Delta, attracted a far bigger audience than the garage could accommodate. A tour of the opera is imminent, with the original cast heading to schools around the country.

McCall Smith was approached by Scottish Opera even before the premiere in Botswana, a source said, adding that he would be "delighted" if the opera was performed here.

In August, shortly before it was staged in Botswana – the setting for McCall Smith's best-selling fiction series, The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency – the writer hosted a singalong of the opera at his home in Edinburgh.

Alex Reedijk, the general director of Scottish Opera, was at the gathering and was struck by the performance. "He wanted to discuss it further, after hearing it," said Mr Cunningham, who composed the music to go with McCall Smith's libretto a year ago. Mr Reedijk is due to meet the opera's producer, Nicholas Ellenbogen, this week

The Okavango Macbeth transfers the plot of Shakespeare's tragedy to a troupe of baboons; their hierarchical tussling transfers well to the opera. Three primatologists observe but cannot intervene as the baboon version of Lady Macbeth encourages her mate to kill the troupe leader and take power for himself.

McCall Smith said: "The idea came to me during a wildlife safari in Botswana's Okavango Delta. I had been reading Baboon Metaphysics [byDorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth] and I was struck by two odd things – that baboons are matrilineal and they're the only animals we know where status is conferred from one generation to the next."

Thirteen sell-out shows were performed in the garage-turned-theatre. "News spread and it was completely sold out," said Mr Cunningham. "There were only 56 chairs but some days there were nearly 70 people in the garage, sitting on steps, hanging off the rafters. A total of 740 people saw the show in a country which has never had an opera performed in the European tradition."

The original cast from Botswana is unlikely to perform in a production in Britain, as almost every singer has a day job. Only one in the original cast had received professional training.

This is not the first time McCall Smith's foray into music has been successful. His Really Terrible Orchestra – so named because of its unapologetic "commitment to lower standards" – developed a cult following last year. It has performed at Cadogan Hall, London, and in New York's City Hall.

His musical interests were sparked 10 years ago by his two teenage daughters' joy at learning music at school. He dusted down his bassoon and began rehearsals with 12 others at a girls' school in Edinburgh.

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