Feast on drama with Scottish Opera’s new film, The Narcissistic Fish

We all know that behind the prim, pretentious efficiency of the poshest restaurants are kitchens where egos are over-cooked, tempers are flaming hot and the air is cordon bleu with bad language. Or, at least, that would appear to be the case in any gaff owned by the F-bombing Gordon Ramsay. So let me invite you to The Narcissistic Fish, a fictional hipster chophouse in Leith, where, true to form, the backstage badinage is a casserole of pent-up vitriol, and where guests out front, if they really knew what hostility was manifest in the making of their meals, might well decide to check their scollops for remnants of human digits.

Arthur Bruce, Mark Nathan and Charlie Drummond in The Narcissistic Fish PIC: Julie Broadfoot

Thankfully, it’s all just opera. Well, opera created through film. Or is it the other way round? Whichever way you define it, The Narcissistic Fish – the first instalment in Scottish Opera’s brand new Opera Shorts initiative – is a hybrid that brings together both genres, each aiming to refresh the other without diluting their respective charms.

The story captures the toxic relationship of kitchen trio Angus, Kai and Belle, played by Scottish Opera emerging artists Arthur Bruce, Charlie Drummond and Mark Nathan. The instantly accelerating narrative – played out over a bracing 12 minutes – exposés the nastiness of class and gender bias and the narcissism of the title against a percussive symphony of potato slicing, herb chopping and massacred fish, which seem to be in endless supply.

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It might seem inevitable that Scottish Opera would turn to such mixed-genre work when live theatre performance is off-limits. But in truth, says Narcissistic Fish director Antonia Bain, the film was already in the can before social distancing started. As for the gory scenes with the fish, she admits to this not always being “the most vegan friendly film,” although apparently a “food stylist” was on call throughout “to ensure culinary authenticity.”Bain joined Scottish Opera as in-house filmmaker and digital content producer in 2015, creating promotional footage for the marketing department, but has dreamed ever since of creating “a brand new piece of digital operatic work that would appeal to new audiences.”

It wasn’t until she teamed up with Scottish Opera composer-in-residence Samuel Bordoli that the dream edged towards reality. “I’d never seen an opera before I joined, but soon got to love it,” she says.“Sam and I spoke about the possibilities of doing something for digital and filmed format. It turned out we were on the same wavelength. We settled on the idea of creating a short opera film.”

They were advised to recruit a writer. “We found Jenni Fagan [whose gritty 2012 debut novel The Panoptican was more recently adapted for stage by the National Theatre of Scotland] and asked her to come up with something that avoided the typical opera setting.” Her libretto, written in punchy Scots vernacular, adds a tart realism to the traditional operatic underlay.

With the piece written and ready to film, the next challenge was to help opera singers adapt to unfamiliar cinematic procedures. Youth played its part.

“They were completely open-minded”, says Bain. “In pre-recording the singing they had to get used to working to a click track. Initially they freaked out a bit, but very quickly got used to it.” Even when having to lip sync at the filming stage, which took place in a Glasgow business park.

For everyone, says Bain, it was a constantly evolving and enriching experience. “It was especially fascinating to watch Sam’s soundtrack develop from the original vocal score used at the recording stage, to the fuller computerised version that supported the filming, then a post-production version that incorporated the everyday kitchen sounds.” Thus the pounding Psycho shower moment as Angus takes his chopper to a tray of fish.Is there a future for this hybrid art form? It certainly suits the mood of the moment. “With film you can free yourself from the shackles of the traditional theatre and there’s that ability to see the singers up close without losing the magic of the music. I wonder why it’s not done more often,” says Bain.

“What I really hope, though, is that those interested in film in general might come across something like this and think, ‘I didn’t know opera could be like this.’”

The Narcissistic Fish is available to view from 7pm on 18 June on the Scottish Opera website, www.scottishopera.org.uk

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