Zoe Strachan on The Lady from the Sea - interview
The playwright is collaborating with Craig Armstrong on the production for Scottish Opera
This article is from 2012.
As Scotland’s national opera company unveils four new works exploring what opera might mean in the 21st century, Carol Main talks to librettist Zoë Strachan about her stripped-down adaptation of Ibsen’s The Lady from the Sea
Five years ago, Scottish Opera embarked on a brave new venture called Five:15. The plan was to put together contemporary Scottish writers and composers and commission them to come up with five new 15 minute long operas. Altogether, 15 short operas were created from this initiative. Always with a view to the longer term, the culmination of the project has now arrived and four new, longer works are brought to the Edinburgh International Festival stage in Scottish Opera’s 50th anniversary season.
Widely known for his award-winning film scores, such as Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge, Glasgow-born composer Craig Armstrong was keen to try his hand at opera, and so was Scottish novelist Zoë Strachan. Meeting with great success with their collaborators in the short pieces, they were both enthusiastic about doing more. The Lady from the Sea is the result.
Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 play of the same name, the libretto tells of Elida, trapped in marriage up a fiord and longing for the freedom of the sea where she grew up. ‘In some ways, it’s quite typical Ibsen,’ says Strachan. ‘It’s Nordic, darkly beautiful and surprisingly modern for its time. There’s a kind of love triangle, with Elida facing the human dilemma of staying with her husband, whom she loves, or running off with a past lover who arrives out of the blue.’
It would give the game away to tell the ending, but whichever route Elida chooses, there is much material ripe for retelling on the operatic stage. Too much, in some ways, as there are lengthy speeches, sub-plots and eight characters in total in Ibsen’s original. ‘We had to condense it,’ explains Strachan, ‘and try to get the essence of what the play is about and what the characters’ emotions are. I had to get that across to Craig, but not too much of it, so that he could write the music.’
In approaching the play together, Strachan and Armstrong, teamed up by Scottish Opera’s general director, Alex Reedijk, spent a lot of time talking, planning and working out what both of them liked about it. ‘I was attracted to Elida as a central character,’ says Strachan, ‘and wanted to get into her head and under her skin. Craig had liked the play for a while after seeing Vanessa Redgrave in the role. We both thought it would be good for an opera.’
As they got to know each other, composer and librettist built up a trust and common language that would allow them to take the play apart, put it together again and make it into an opera. ‘Working with Craig was great’, says Strachan. ‘We looked at lots of paintings, especially Munch, and discovered that we are both interested in modern photography.’
Firstly, the shape of the piece had to be agreed. A major task for Strachan was producing an initial draft that would fit into the time frame of just over one hour. ‘It is Ibsen,’ she says, ‘but an adaptation, with the libretto being closer to poetry as the words are so pared down.’
Currently preparing a new score for Baz Luhrmann’s screen version of The Great Gatsby, Armstrong’s extensive experience of film has been of added advantage to The Lady from the Sea, as the production uses video design. Strachan, meanwhile, is a total convert to opera. ‘It was incredibly useful to have done the Five:15 as a sort of apprenticeship,’ she says, ‘as opera is such a different ballgame, but I now have ideas for opera all the time. I’d really love to write more. All I need is to source another composer …’
The Lady from the Sea, King’s Theatre, 473 2000, 29 Aug, 8pm, 1 Sep, 9pm, £25 (£12.50); Clemency, King’s Theatre, 31 Aug, 8pm, 1 Sep, 4pm; In the Locked Room & Ghost Patrol, Traverse Theatre, 228 1404, 30 Aug, 8pm, 1 Sep, noon & 2 Sep, 3pm.