Andrea Baker on Catriona and the Dragon: ‘I don’t often get the chance to play giggly, fun parts’

Ahead of the world premiere of Lliam Paterson and Laura Attridge’s new opera Catriona and the Dragon, mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker tells Ken Walton she’s looking forward to breaking the fourth wall

It’s only a couple of weeks since mezzo-soprano Andrea Baker was at the opening of the Glasgow Short Film Festival for a screening of OMOS, a film by production company Pollyanna celebrating historic black performance in Scotland, in which she plays a real-life black actor from the 16th century Scottish Court of James VI.

“There’s a potential link to Shakespeare in that story,” says the versatile Massachusetts-born singer, actor and broadcaster who, since 2005, has orchestrated her globetrotting career from East Lothian, where she lives with her Inverness-born husband.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“An event in Stirling Castle in 1594 was supposed to feature a live lion, but they decided it would scare the guests,” she expands. “One of the actors happened to be black, so they switched from the live lion to the actor pulling a cart on all-fours into the Grand Hall. There’s a lion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, relating to Puck, with similarities to that incident, so some scholars reckon Shakespeare may have known of this incident and adapted it.”

Andrea Baker at rehearsals for Catriona and the Dragon PIC: Rob McDougallAndrea Baker at rehearsals for Catriona and the Dragon PIC: Rob McDougall
Andrea Baker at rehearsals for Catriona and the Dragon PIC: Rob McDougall

The OMOS film project, fascinating though it is, is just one strand of Baker’s rich creative tapestry. When we spoke, she was fresh from singing in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Germany’s Theater Chemintz. Meanwhile, she’d found time to take her critically-acclaimed solo celebration of the African-American female voice, Sing Sistah Sing!, to Boston. She’s also a frequent presenter on BBC Radio.

Next up is a challenge right on her doorstep. Rooted in the opera world she originally trained for, and taking her into the heart of her adopted East Lothian community, Baker’s latest project is Catriona and the Dragon by Scots composer Lliam Paterson and librettist Laura Attridge, an ambitious environmentally-themed community opera initiated by the Lammermuir Festival and McOpera. Baker is part of its integrated cast of amateurs and professionals.

Over two performances on 5 April in Dunbar Parish Church, Sian Edwards conducts the world premiere, which features talented young local singer Nora Trew-Rae alongside former Scottish Opera Young Generation Artists – the now well-seasoned Catriona Hewitson and Arthur Bruce – and a combined adult and children’s chorus that includes chorus director Moira Morrison’s Dunbar Voices. Local youngsters from the East Lothian Council Instrumental Music Service also rank among an instrumental ensemble supported by the professionals of McOpera and National Youth Orchestra of Scotland alumni.

Amazingly, this is Baker’s first fully-immersed involvement with an opera production specifically created in Scotland. “I’ve sung it here quite a bit, but it’s been either semi-staged or imported through an international company. My one fully-staged performance was in Porgy and Bess for the Edinburgh International Festival, but that was with Opéra Lyon. I’ve sung a semi-staged Walküre and West Side Story, but this is the first actual opera from start to finish I’ve been hired to do here, so I’m pretty excited.”

So is its writer and director Attridge. Conceived by her in collaboration with Paterson, the tale centres on Catriona, the reluctant ruler of a kingdom threatened by a fearsome dragon. The queen (played by Trew-Rae) overcomes her apprehension in tackling the dragon only to realise that the real blight affecting her kingdom lies elsewhere.

“It contains both environmental and political messages that will affect the future of young people and communities directly, the questions they’re asking,” Attridge believes. “Yet it’s not just important for them to simply express these. An opera like this allows them to engage in the actual process – a journey through rehearsal, collaborative performance and the interaction with the audience. I think both process and product are really powerful ways for communities to engage.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Baker, who plays Carruthers, one of the two courtiers, would agree. “Mentorship is really important to me,” she says, which involves sharing that same joy and excitement of opera that obsessed her as a young girl. “My stage partner is sung by baritone Arthur Bruce. We break the fourth wall and interpret what’s happening in the story, so it’s very much like [comedic ice skating duo] Frick and Frack.”

“As a dramatic mezzo-soprano I don’t often get the chance to play giggly, fun parts,” she adds. Her infectious enthusiasm and charm will doubtless inspire everyone involved.

The world premiere of Catriona and the Dragon is at Dunbar Parish Church on 5 April,

Related topics: