Alexander McCall Smith: The opera

TWO weeks ago, a world away from the heat of the Edinburgh Festival, in the drawing room of a house in a quiet Merchiston street, a small audience sipped champagne as a brand new opera unfolded before them.

The house was that of author Alexander McCall Smith. The scene could easily have been a fictional one from his best-selling 44 Scotland Street novels. But the opera was real – The Okavango Macbeth – which McCall Smith and Edinburgh composer Tom Cunningham have created for performance later this year in Botswana.

The Edinburgh sing-through was not for public consumption. The world premiere takes place in The No 1 Ladies' Opera House near Gaborone on 3 October. "Opera House" might seem an overly grand title for a converted garage that holds an audience of only 60. But in the township locale of the fictional Mma Ramotswe (McCall Smith's famous No 1 lady detective) it is a palace of culture, operating as a restaurant by day, a Mma Ramotswe tea on the menu, such is the potency of McCall Smith's fictional progeny.

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The opera house was his brainchild. He suggested it a year or two ago to a locally based musician, David Slater, as a crazy but serious proposal. The idea, says the author, was to provide a performance outlet for amateur singers he had encountered in Botswana.

So among the soloists billed to appear in the October premiere are locals Tshenolo Segokgo, Gape Motswaledi and Boyce Batlang . In the private Edinburgh performance, though, the parts were sung by Scots singers to a grand piano accompaniment.

It was a key moment for the author. Would his allegorical libretto – a story of baboons and primatologists – come alive with Cunningham's musical notes attached?

Frequent meetings with the composer had given him cause for optimism. What eased the process was the fact the two have colluded before. Fairly recently and very successfully, in fact, as pointed out in these pages a few weeks ago. That was in relation to a new CD on the Delphian label, which features two major choral works by Cunningham – Scotland at Night and The Painter's Eye – to words by McCall Smith, the ripe creativeness of which reflect an empathetic meeting of minds.

McCall Smith's intelligent brevity – a poetic style more succinct than his prosaic novels, but every bit as finely crafted – inspires from Cunningham a stream of choral invention that is unpretentious and idiomatic, shot through with gentle prods of individuality that reflect the mild-mannered nature of the 63-year-old composer. As I said at the time, Cunningham's mastery of the choral idiom "is quintessentially British in its liquid harmonies, well-nourished textures, and frequent bouts of innocent wit".

But how does it work as a vehicle for opera? And to what extent could the music of this chamber opera (it has to use small forces to squeeze it into the minuscule opera house) match up to the "evil" undertones of McCall Smith's anthropological adaptation of the Macbeth theme?

For this is a tale that reshapes the evil doings of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth in terms of baboon behaviour. The main baboon characters even bear the names Lady Macbeth, Macbeth and Duncan.

"The idea came to me during a wildlife safari in Botswana's Okavango delta," says McCall Smith. "I had been reading Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, and was struck by two odd things – that baboons are matrilineal, and that they're the only animals we know where status is conferred from one generation to the next. It's as if the baboon queen's offspring are regarded as princes just by virtue of who their mother is. I discovered the authors were actually working across the river from where we were. So I got the guide to row us across, and I shouted to them 'I've read your book'. They twigged who I was. It was a real Dr Livingstone moment."

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From the jungle meeting came the germ for the opera, and a part in it for the primatologists, as observers and commentators – "watch but never interfere" is their creed – who lighten a final scenario with the words: "What might seem a harsh end is often the beginning of change for the better".

The first impression of Cunningham's score is that it plays to his known strengths. I doubt I was the only one to feel hairs rise on the back of my neck as the fourth and final scene erupted in an anthem-like paean to the "great Kalahari" and the "wide Okavango" – rather like Moon Over Alabama in Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.

It is these passionate choral moments that give potency to Cunningham's score. But it's hard to tell at this point how evocative the more narrative content will be as it requires an instrumental scoring to do it full justice – an aspect left unspecified as Botswana's instrumental resources are a moveable feast.

What is clear, though, is the potential of The Okavango Macbeth to appeal to amateur performers – a necessary prerequisite for the African premiere. It has the same fable-based, tuneful appeal of, say, Cecilia McDowall's King Leo that would perfectly suit school or youth theatre productions, and Cunningham already has a publisher showing interest.

Some tweaking is required to the fluidity of its musical thread, and an imaginative chamber-scaled orchestration could effectively provide that. But for the meantime, Botswana has a premiere to get excited about.

• The Okavango Macbeth is premiered at the No 1 Ladies Opera House in Botswana on 3 October, with further performances from 6-10 October and 13-17 October.

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