Opera Scotland

Sally Beamish and her new opera

Posted 11 Oct

Sally Beamish is a remarkably talented and versatile composer, her output including symphonies, concertos for violin, viola, cello, oboe, saxophone, trumpet percussion, flute and accordion. She has composed film scores, theatre music and music for amateurs.  Fans of Scottish Opera will remember her for her opera. In 1996, she composed Monster! to a libretto by Janice Galloway. This was a first opera for them both, based on the life of Mary Shelley, and first performed by our national company at the Theatre Royal. 

She has written much for the voice since, and with Hagar in the Wilderness, to a libretto by Clara Glynn, Sally returns to work in the operatic form.  On the afternoon of the Scottish premiere (part of the St Andrews Voices festival), Sally spared some time from her hugely busy schedule to speak to OperaScotland.

What was your first experience of opera?

My first experience of opera was going to Sadler's Wells with my mother, who was playing in the orchestra in Peter Grimes.  I went to the dress rehearsal.  She asked me to meet her back stage. I must have been eight years old at the time. As I went back stage I bumped into Peter Pears in a corridor in full costume - that made a lasting impression!  Apparently I went home afterwards and started writing my own storm music!

What are you working on now?

I'm writing a string trio for the Britten Sinfonia and I'm in the middle of the premiere tour of new music for the SCO commemorating the battle of Flodden Field 1513.  It's called Flodden, with soprano and orchestra. It's not a million miles away from opera, but writing for voice in rather a different way.  Shuna Scott Sendall (who is singing) has very much an operatic soprano voice.  As with Hagar, the themes are of motherhood and loss.  I'm looking at it very much through the eyes of the women left behind.

Are there any plans to bring back Monster, your first opera?

I don't know of any plans.  It's a big piece and it would be wonderful if it was revisited.  There are lots of things I'd like to change.  A first opera is quite a fundamental step.  I'd like the chance to look at it again ten years on.  I'd tweak it and make it more concise perhaps. I'd like the chance to do that.

What do you think of the operatic scene these days?

I think it's very interesting the number of small scale operas that have been commissioned. Maybe that's budget driven, but it's very positive. There are lots of small operas in different genres. I went to the opera festival Tête à Tête and saw three operas end to end. They were all completely different: one was for singing actors.  There are so many types of singers - music theatre, traditional, amateurs, children - and each produce a different sound with different characteristics and so as a composer you have to be careful about different things. In opera, with trained classical voices, you have to be aware of the need for clarity which is often a problem, particularly high up.  It is very difficult to hear the vowel sounds at that pitch.  If you want something to be heard you don't set it right at the top of the voice, whereas with music theatre, the voice moves smoothly from speech into song and so you get very much the same personality. I love that.

What did you think of Scottish Opera's Five:15?

Five:15 was a fantastic achievement. It is very difficult to use a fifteen minute slot, you have to be very clever to make it work. It's one reason I chose Clara to do the libretto for Hagar in the Wilderness - the commission was for a thirty minute piece. She's often had to write for the forty-five minute slot after the Archers on Radio 4!

Thanks very much, and all the best tonight and for the future.

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