Page last updated at 17:45 GMT, Monday, 19 January 2009

Opera examines scientist's death

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The suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly is the unlikely subject of a new short opera.

Death of a Scientist is one of five 15-minute performances being staged by Scottish Opera as a way of bringing in new audiences.

BBC Scotland's arts correspondent, Pauline McLean, was at the first rehearsals in Glasgow on Monday.


Scottish opera's orchestra is in full flight. A soaring, clattering, sinister piece of music which ends in a noisy crescendo.

This is Remembrance Day, a chilling tale about a young girl cleaning her elderly neighbour's house who puts on an old record and rekindles memories which result in a horrific crime.

Written by novelist Louise Welsh and composer Stuart MacRae, it is one of five new operas commissioned by Scottish Opera in their Five:15 season.

The concept is simple - five 15-minute operas by teams which often have not dealt with opera before. And it has been hugely successful - last year's season at Oran Mor in Glasgow sold out; this year's season is close to sold out and extra dates have had to be added.

To have such talented Scottish-based artists so excited by the artform and creating this kind of work for us is fantastic
Alex Reedijk
Scottish Opera's general manager
Ms Welsh, a successful novelist, is used to dark subject matter but even she admits this project is grislier than most.

And although grand opera frequently deals with death, it's unusual to deal with as recent a death as that of Dr David Kelly.

The government scientist died in 2003 amid a furore that the government had exaggerated the weapons threat from Iraq.

For several days leading up to his death, he faced huge public pressure after being named as a possible source of media leaks.

A year later, the Hutton inquiry concluded that the 59-year-old had killed himself by cutting his wrist after taking painkillers.

A play, at London's Tricyle Theatre, later re-enacted the Hutton inquiry but this is the first time the story has been the subject of an opera.

'Hard-hitting'

In Death of a Scientist, Dr Kelly is portrayed by tenor Richard Rowe and the libretto, written by Zinnie Harris, explores his final thoughts.

Her husband, composer John Harris, wrote the score. Both used official documents about the case as their source material.

Scottish Opera follows in a tradition of taking hard-hitting news stories and turning them into operas.

In 2005, it staged American composer John Adams' controversial opera The Death of Klinghoffer at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Dr David Kelly
Dr David Kelly was found dead near his Oxfordshire home in July 2003
It tells the true story of the murder of an American hostage on the hijacked cruise ship, the Achille Lauro.

The opera began with singers, dressed as terrorists, running through the theatre with their hostages.

The other operas are Happy Story by David Fennessy and Nicholas Bone, The Lightning Rod Man by Martin Dixon and Amy Parker and White by Gareth Williams and Glasgow GP Margaret McCartney.

Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera's general manager, said he was delighted with the strand.

"I'm thrilled that Five:15 is again proving so popular and delighted that we have such a strong programme of new short operas for audiences to soak up," he said.

"To have such talented Scottish-based artists so excited by the art form and creating this kind of work for us is fantastic and I can't wait to see what audiences think of this year's programme."

This week is the first time all the opera creators have been brought together to hear their works performed by singers and orchestra.

They have until late February to finesse the 15-minute operas, with all five being premiered at Oran Mor in Glasgow on 20 February and at the Hub in Edinburgh on 7 March. An extra date has been added in Glasgow on 21 February.

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