First published in the Guardian on 22 January, 2016
What makes a good story a potential good opera? It’s a question that writer Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae — about to premiere their latest co-commission for Music Theatre Wales and Scottish Opera in Glasgow this Saturday — have been pondering a lot lately. “We’re constantly sending ideas to each other,” says MacRae. “They look a bit like spam emails: ‘Hi! Look at this!’, then a link.” Welsh says it can take “ages” to figure out whether an idea is best destined as a short story or choral piece or a poem, “or just an anecdote you tell down the pub”.
Umpteen spam-like emails later, The Devil Inside is the pair’s third operatic collaboration. Their first (2009) was a macabre 15-minute miniature called Remembrance Day; their second (2012) was the fairly brutal Ghost Patrol, an hour-long chamber piece about two soldiers dealing (or not) with the trauma of committing wartime atrocity. MacRae’s music is taught and atmospheric; Welsh is deft at spinning out tense physiological thrillers. Together they are drawn to stories that tease out dark, troubled and supernatural sides of life as well as the tender.
It fits, then, that they have now turned to Robert Louis Stevenson for inspiration. The Devil Inside is based on an 1891 short story called The Bottle Imp: a Faustian tale about a creature contained within a bottle who will grant its owner any wish — success, riches, health, love — except there’s a catch, of course, in that whoever dies in possession of the bottle will go to hell for eternity. Oh, and it’s only possible to get rid of this bottle by selling it on for less than the price previously paid. Real coinage must be used for this devilish transaction so forget any plot loopholes involving bitcoin or hyperinflation.
Welsh had read The Bottle Imp as a girl then came back to it a couple of years ago when she was asked to record it for the Association for Scottish Literature Studies. (That recording is worth a listen: Welsh’s voice is close-miked and breathy and her delivery is deliciously deadpan.) As she was reading aloud, she became mesmerised by the circularity of Stevenson’s spare storytelling, its strange space and poise and eerie refrains. The next day she emailed a link to MacRae.
“I suppose the morality tale aspect appealed to me” she recalls. “It’s a kind of allegory, a dark fairy tale. And it’s a love story, which is always good for an opera, and there’s a strong female character. She’s just a cameo in Stevenson’s story, but I like that she is the clever one, the one who sorts out the mess and the one who makes the ultimate sacrifice.” What also sparked her interest was precisely what isn’t in the story — how Stevenson’s prose is so strikingly detached. There is scant judgement or commentary in the narrative, and characters respond to outlandish events with unnerving coolness. “Stevenson left us room to make the story our own,” says MacRae, “which was pretty tantalising.”
Step one was to update the setting (19th century colonial Hawaii) to the here and now, somewhere non-specific but close to home. Certain plot twists needed rejigging, too: Stevenson’s central character falls ill with leprosy but that didn’t seem a credible modern affliction so “we talked diseases for days!” Welsh laughs. She is reluctant to reveal how she updated the currency issue, but hints that “there was one day when Stuart and I became uncharacteristically depressed about the state of the Euro”.
They both grappled with long and hard with how to instil a credible threat of hell to a mainly secular 21st-century audience. Stevenson wasn’t particularly religious himself but his grandfather was a Church of Scotland minister and he was raised by strict Calvinist nurse; he knew how to fear the devil. He also knew that for his readers, the prospect of eternal damnation added serious implication to the characters’ pursuit of the bottle. How to translate that now?
Welsh became so preoccupied by the problem that she created a side project — a radio documentary called Hellfire Nation in which she interviews fellow Scottish authors including Richard Holloway and James Robertson about contemporary Scottish notions of hell. What emerged, and what she and MacRae have gone with in the opera, was a sense that hell can be a very real prospect in day-to-day life. “We discussed images of Hiroshima and the Holocaust,” she says. “We discussed abuse and addictions. Hellishness is quite believable for many people.”
And at the heart of the opera are themes that are unequivocally contemporary: the lure of a quick fix, the addiction of the bottle. Welsh and MacRae were keen to investigate how one vice might change its impact when applied to different people, “in the way some people can handle a drink or ten drinks but others can’t handle a single one”. So they fleshed out Stevenson’s peripheral characters and cast them, too, under the bottle’s spell.
Incidentally, don’t expect an imp theme — MacRae isn’t one for leitmotifs, and besides, he wanted the bottle to be free to shape-shift, musically speaking. But he does admit to “a tint” in the orchestration whenever the bottle is at play. It’s an idea borrowed from John Boorman’s 1981 film Excalibur, in which “every time the sword appears there’s a greenish glint to the edge,” MacRae describes. “Basically the cameraman shone a light and the blade was the only thing that caught it. You don’t really notice until someone points it out, but it looks cool: sort of otherworldly. That’s what I have tried to do in the music.”
He references Janacek operas and Bartok’s Bluebeard Castle as inspiration for how to conjure a sinister kind of fairy tale magic. He mentions high, uncanny sounds made by glockenspiels, bowed crotales, balloons. “Listen out for microtones and creeping chromatic gestures and sounds made by things you probably can’t identify,” he says. “Sounds that indicate a detuning, a disordering in the natural world. It needs to be spooky, but it also needs to be incredibly seductive”.
The Devil Inside is at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, January 23-26 and King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, January 29-30, then touring