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Opera Preview: Anthropocene at Hackney Empire

PUBLISHED: 16:03 29 January 2019

Benedict Nelson as Miles and Paul Whelan as Captain Ross in Anthropocene. Picture: James Glossop

Benedict Nelson as Miles and Paul Whelan as Captain Ross in Anthropocene. Picture: James Glossop

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Scottish Opera's production of Anthropocene is the fourth show pieced together by composer Stuart MacRae and librettist Louise Welsh.

Director Matthew Richardson, together with Jeni Bern and Jennifer France in rehearsals. Picture: Nadine Boyd.Director Matthew Richardson, together with Jeni Bern and Jennifer France in rehearsals. Picture: Nadine Boyd.

It arrives in Hackney next week – after brief stints in Glasgow and Edinburgh – ten years after the pair first combined for a 15-minute opera called Remembrance Day.

“We probably do a lot of blethering really,” explains MacRae, “about things that don’t end up being in the piece.

“But you just never know when the conversation is going to turn to something that’s really relevant to what we are doing.”

Out of this initial ‘blethering’ – this loose discussion of ideas over a cup of tea – the pair have created perhaps their most ambitious opera to date.

The cast of Anthropocene. Picture: James GlossopThe cast of Anthropocene. Picture: James Glossop

As snow begins to set in across the UK, MacRae and Welsh’s Anthropocene is set somewhere much colder, in the frozen Arctic wastelands. Their show follows the fortunes of an expeditionary team of scientists whose ship becomes trapped. As tensions rise and relationships crumble, something appears out of the ice.

Director Matthew Richardson says: “It’s a very contemporary story which deals with a lot of issues.

“It’s not an opera about climate change, but that is a context of the piece. When you have people trapped in the Arctic, a climate change theme is inevitably involved. Anthropocene appeals to both an opera audience but also those who are unfamiliar, because it tells such a strong story. You can come with no preconceptions and enjoy it.”

The opera takes its name from the term used to describe the current geological age – i.e the period in which humans have had a dominant influence on the general state of the planet.

It features an ensemble cast of eight, including appearances from Scottish soprano Jeni Bern and former Scottish Opera Emerging Artist Jennifer France. Stage design comes from Samal Blak, who linked up so effectively with Richardson, MacRae and Welsh while working on The Devil Inside in 2016.

“The group of people who are on the ship are a microcosm of society,” adds Richardson.

“In the course of the opera, there are events which make the cohesion of that society break down. The choices that people make come under scrutiny; you see whether the group can act collectively for the good of everybody, or whether they are just pursuing their own selfish interests.

“There’s also a theme of sacrifice: are people able to give up something that they hold valuable for the sake of others?”

Anthropocene is on at Hackney Empire on February 7 and 9. For more details and tickets, click here.

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