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‘Listen what the earth is telling us’

An interview with The Opera Story’s Artistic Director Hamish Mackay

There is no doubt that Hamish Mackay is passionate about opera. He has worked with ENO and Nevill Holt Opera as a producer and co-founded The Opera Story, a young opera company dedicated to creating new opera, to contribute to ensuring the future of the genre. We caught him while he was travelling to Inverness by sleeper train to ask him about Episodes, a digital series of short songs he commissioned in the midst of lockdown.

Can you tell us more about the specific context in which Episodes was born?

We were just about to go to stage for our most recent commission Pandora’s Box when lockdown came upon us. We quickly moved within 24 hours to capture the whole opera as a film, and then spent the next month editing. During those first few days of lockdown whilst editing, I looked ahead at a very uncertain period, and my first thought was to keep on creating. Doing what I do best, and what I love doing.

You commissioned the songs during confinement. How did you choose the collaborating artists? Did you approach them with a precise pitch or give them free rein? And how did you make sure that the series maintains a sense of unity despite its musically and thematically diverse contributions?

I arranged a Skype call (before zoom got popular) with a group of writers and composers who I’d worked with over the last wee while and asked them if they’d be interested in creating a song series together. I explained that I wanted to achieve two things: To make people smile, and to make people think or reflect on this time. I came up with about a dozen ideas, some comedic and some about more serious issues with the environment. We then discussed these ideas and the writers and composers picked which ones they wanted to take on. Later on in the series a few artists came to me with ideas too. 

As you say, they are quite diverse in style and subject. There are two things that keep them unified in my eyes, one is the musical language with which we commission, the composers all sharing a base in tonality. The second being, the overriding theme: commentating on ‘this period in time’.

How can we expect people to listen or to get new people to listen if we’re telling the same stories?

Hamish Mackay

In this project, your stated aim was to ‘get people to listen and not to rush straight back into old bad habits which may be harmful for us all, mainly environmentally.’ What role should art play in raising awareness of environmental issues? How can this paradigm shift be reflected in sustainable action? 

Yes 100%. Our instinct as animals is to learn, and as humans we have a huge capacity, but we also turn a blind eye to many things. One of these things (that is also very dear to my heart) is the environment. In this series, amongst the smiles, I wanted to create a few songs with quite a strong but positive message. To get people to listen to what the earth is trying to tell us. We act like we own the planet and can abuse it in whatever way we like, however, we need to respect it and look after it, as it does us.

Art is most effective when either taking us away from reality, or making a comment on something relevant. It has the power to say so much, and opera in particular has the ability to tell these contemporary stories that need to be told. However, I think this diversity of repertoire needs to happen on all scales, big and small to make a real difference. How can we expect people to listen or to get new people to listen if we’re telling the same stories.

With this experience in mind, what is your dream for the future of opera? How can it become braver and more inclusive of neglected voices?

What we present on stage says a huge amount about who we want to see. So my dream for the future of opera would be that we have an extensive range of repertoire on all stages, big, medium and small. Telling many more contemporary and relevant stories with the utmost quality.

Episodes – Watch the 12 mini digital operas on OperaVision