Assassin Tree, The

  • 25 July 2006

This article is from 2006.

The Assassin Tree brings together three individuals who are highly acclaimed in their fields, but have little experience of opera. Kelly Apter asks them what possessed them to accept the commission

Simon Armitage, librettist

With a plethora of poetry anthologies and novels under his belt, Armitage is no stranger to the written word. But The Assassin Tree was the 43-year-old Yorkshireman's first foray into the world of opera. Approached by MacRae to write a libretto, Armitage suggested Frazer's The King of the Woods, a tension-filled myth ripe for adaptation.

Despite his reputation for capturing modern life and all its foibles, Armitage felt his words should act as a counterbalance to MacRae's contemporary music. 'I said to Stuart right from the start that I didn't want to write something modern and conversational,' he says, 'because when I've seen contemporary operas where people sing things like "can you plug the computer in Johnny", it just doesn't do it for me.'

High school students across Britain have to decipher the hidden layers in Armitage's poetry. But when it came to writing the libretto, he was forced to dumb down a little. 'There is a pattern and structure there which is not dissimilar to my poetry,' he says. 'But you have to bear in mind that people are only going to hear it once and then move on, so I tried not to get bogged down in complex metaphors. Even if there's a profundity going on underneath, it's about trying to make the text work on a surface level.'

The original myth is set in a land where in order to become King of the Wood you must murder the existing king. The new king then spends the rest of his reign awaiting the same terrifying fate, as Armitage explains: 'He transfers from being the hunter to the hunted in one flash of the sword. And when the opera starts he has occupied that position for years and is absolutely worn out with anxiety. He's can't really function anymore, either as a priest or as a lover. The character who eventually comes along to try and kill him is his son - so there's drama for you.'

Stuart MacRae, composer

For 30-year-old Stuart MacRae, the invitation to write his first opera was a bolt from the blue. 'Brian McMaster took me to one side at a concert and said "have you ever thought about writing an opera?",' explains the Inverness-born composer. In fact, he had, and despite slight reservations, it was, as he says, 'too big an opportunity to miss.' Three years later, the finished article is about to hit the stage.

Excelling at composition from an early age, MacRae was just 25 when his Violin Concerto was performed at the BBC Proms. Writing The Assassin Tree, however, was quite a different proposition. 'I'd written some vocal pieces in the past but never where people are inhabiting characters in such a real sense,' he says. 'It took a bit of getting used to, but in the end I really loved writing it because you start to sympathise with the characters. The whole thing has been a big development for me, and one which I've really enjoyed.'

Given the love/hate reaction to Greco's Orfeo ed Euridice, MacRae is realistic about how the opera might be received. And of course, contemporary music doesn't push everyone's button, regardless of how good he is. 'I'm pretty sure there's going to be a mixture of opinion because we're all trying to do something a little bit different from the traditional norm,' he says. 'But working with a new opera means people won't be justified in having pre-conceptions. And the last thing we should be aiming for as artists is to placate everybody and excite nobody.'

Emio Greco, director

Festival director Brian McMaster clearly has a soft spot for Emio Greco. The Italian dancer/choreographer first played Edinburgh in 2000, filling a late-night slot at the Festival Theatre with Extra Dry. A year later he was back, performing the incredible Double Points: 1 and 2 at the Playhouse. In 2002 he was promoted to two slots, delivering Conjunto di Nero and Rimasto Orfano to an increasingly loyal crowd. Finally McMaster gave him a year off, but in 2004 Greco returned with Opera North's re-working of Orfeo ed Euridice. It was Greco's first taste of opera, and despite mixed reports, was enough to prompt McMaster to bring him onboard The Assassin Tree train.

The word unique is often over-used in the arts, but no other adjective can describe Greco's performance style. Displaying a passion and urgency which compels you to watch, the 41-year-old inhabits a musical score the way other dancers inhabit clothes. Sadly, Greco will remain resolutely behind the scenes for The Assassin Tree, though, if Orfeo ed Euridice is anything to go by, the singers will be imbued with Greco's fluid style.

Together with long-term artistic partner Pieter C Scholten, Greco will be responsible for the direction, set and lighting design. The duo are renowned for thinking outside of the box, and their treatment of Frazer's original tale via Armitage's libretto will no doubt bring a few surprises. 'In some ways it's a very concrete story,' says Greco. 'But looking deeper inside, you find a very simple line which allows multiple interpretations. And that freedom to rediscover the story was the most appealing part for us.'

With his number one fan McMaster about to leave the Festival, future invitations hang in the balance. For the moment, though, Greco is as thrilled as ever to be playing his fifth Festival in seven years. 'It's different from the first time,' he says. 'But somehow it's even more exciting. We carry a sense of responsibility and have to justify our presence.'

What do you get if you cross a Scottish composer, a Yorkshire poet and an Italian dancer? The answer has yet to be revealed, but
at a rough guess, an opera which nudges the envelope more than most. Premiering at this year's Edinburgh International Festival, The Assassin Tree brings together three men known for innovation in their own fields, but with little or no experience of opera. Navigating the steepest of learning curves, composer Stuart MacRae, poet Simon Armitage and director/choreographer Emio Greco will see their opera debuting at the Festival, before heading for the Royal Opera House.

Inspired by a mythological tale by 19th century Scottish anthropologist, James George Frazer, The Assassin Tree features all the vital components of a good opera - sex, death and violence. One thing it won't have, however is length. Sitting through five hours of Wagner's Ring Cycle has its appeal, but the prospect of a 60 minute opera will be music to many an ear.

With Garry Walker at the baton, players from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in the pit, and four rising opera stars on the stage, The Assassin Tree has talent oozing from every pore. By the end of its run, the three men below will either be the toast of the opera world, or go back to their day jobs . . . One of these options is considerably more likely than the other.

Royal Lyceum, Grindlay Street, 0131 473 2000, 25-27 Aug, 8pm, £10-£32

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