Alexander McCall Smith: Why I turned Macbeth into a baboon opera

'By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes," says one baboon to the other (Picture: Dorothy Cheney, Science/AP)
'By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes," says one baboon to the other (Picture: Dorothy Cheney, Science/AP)
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Alexander McCall Smith reveals how he helped stage an operatic version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth – set among baboons – after a chance encounter with two American primatologists in the Okavango Delta.

In the world of opera – and music in general – nobody pays much attention to librettists, which is understandable enough: what counts in opera is not the plot so much as the music. Così fan tutte has an unlikely plot but the most sublime music. That spell-binding trio, Soave sia il vento, is exquisitely moving although it is sung against a background of deception and a silly scheme. The plot of Wagner’s Ring is similarly absurd, and yet is elevated by the power of the music to something extraordinary. But who amongst us knows much about Lorenzo da Ponte, who was Mozart’s librettist? I did not, until I chanced upon Anthony Holden’s The Man who Wrote Mozart, an account of the life of the librettist of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and, of course, Così. Few who see his name on the score of these operas will be aware of the fact that da Ponte ended up as a grocer in New York – amongst other things.

This is not to say that the librettist is unimportant – he or she may play a vital role in setting the emotional tone of the opera, or indeed inspiring it in the first place. Sometimes the spadework is done by a novelist – Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice would not have been written were it not for Thomas Mann’s novella. Or the librettist may play an important role in establishing the basic argument of the piece: Nixon in China by John Adams was the product of discussions between composer, director and librettist, out of which the fundamental moral position of the piece was forged – one that treated Nixon’s trip as a serious matter and not just a ploy.

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On occasions, the libretto may assert itself as a work of literary significance in its own right, and not just as an adjunct to a musical composition. Auden’s libretto for Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress is worth reading as a self-standing work. The same goes for his libretto for Britten’s Paul Bunyan.

Tolerance grows with age

I came to appreciate opera as a student. Like many, I benefited from the cheap tickets one could get for Scottish Opera’s performances at the King’s Theatre. My experience was broadened by the occasional treat elsewhere – including a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci in Rome, which I experienced, seated in the upper, upper circle next to an ancient musician – a retired conductor, perhaps – who had the score on his knee and vigorously conducted and hummed the music throughout. I was too young to go with the flow and share his transport of delight. For most of us, tolerance is something that grows with age. Today I would revel in such an experience.

When, many years later, I devoted my time to writing, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to write material for musicians to set to music. I had met Tom Cunningham, an Edinburgh choral composer, whose work has an immediate appeal to it. So, when I had the idea of writing an operatic libretto, it was to Tom that I turned.

The way it came about was highly peculiar. I was visiting the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana with my American agent, Robin Straus, and my New York editor, Edward Kastenmeier. I had long wanted to show them Botswana, since by then. they had been working on the Botswana books for some years.

We were in a small boat going upriver when I happened to see a few huts in thick vegetation on the river bank, some distance away. I asked our guide, Mighty, what the settlement was and he replied, “That’s the baboon people.”

The penny dropped. I have a very amateurish interest in primatology and I had just read a book by two American primatologists, Baboon Metaphysics. It must be the most obscure title published in recent years, but, as it happened, I had read it. I realised that this was the very camp at which the two primatologists in question – a husband and wife team from Pennsylvania – were living with their troop of baboons.

The No 1 Ladies’ Opera House

I managed to persuade Mighty to take us ashore. As we approached, I cupped my hands and shouted out across the water, “I’ve just read Baboon Metaphysics!”

The effect was immediate. Out of the huts there rushed the two primatologists, who then made us tea and told us all about their research. In the course of this they mentioned that female baboons could be very ambitious for their male partner. Lady Macbeth! That idea stuck in my mind, and there, on the banks of a river in the middle of Africa, the idea came of writing an operatic libretto setting the Macbeth story in a troop of baboons in Africa...

Tom wrote some magnificent music and we premiered The Okavango Macbeth in a tiny opera house (a converted mechanical depot) in the bush outside Gaborone.

This opera house, which we ran for five years, had 50 home-made seats and was called The No 1 Ladies’ Opera House. It gave great joy to the amateur groups who used it for concerts of various sorts. It was there that we mounted the first opera ever translated into the local language, Setswana. That was Cavalleria Rusticana.

The same team went on to do The Tumbling Lassie, a chamber opera based on the story of a young girl held in slavery in late 17th century Scotland, and, most recently Dandie Dinmont, an operatic version of Walter Scott’s Guy Mannering.

We are now doing a children’s opera for the Scotland-Malawi project, based on Livingstone’s travels in Africa. There is also a collaboration with Tom Hyde, a London-based composer. This is all about the disappearance of Lord Lucan. Now, there’s a subject for opera...