James MacMillan

The Scottish composer discusses his opera The Sacrifice, set 70 years in the future when oil has become scarce and society is divided into feudal factions

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How did you and your librettist, Michael Symmons Roberts, choose the subject for your opera?

It was a story that Michael had been aware of, partly because of his work in Wales and he also has some kind of Welsh lineage in his family. The Mabinogion [from which the story is taken] is a very important collection of medieval tales, written in Welsh; it really should be known all over the British Isles because it’s a story of these islands, but it’s the Welsh who have kept the myths alive. The heart of it is some sort of conflict between two tribes.

Meaning between Britain and Ireland?

I think so, yes, from a long while ago. Anyway when Welsh National Opera approached us to write an opera it seemed a very natural choice to take this Welsh story, although our treatment of it is much more ambiguous about its period; [the director] Katie Mitchell’s take on it was to set it in the near future.

How important was Katie Mitchell to developing the opera’s final form? I notice there are not-so-timeless details like photographs being taken.

Well she didn’t work with Michael directly on the libretto, but certainly she had been involved in discussions right from the beginning so, as a dramaturge, she had a huge impact on how we thought about it.

And were there contemporary events you had in mind when writing the opera?

The opera wasn’t meant to be specifically about [tensions between] the British and the Irish – though certainly the Irish dimension is there right at the beginning of The Mabinogion, and it certainly cropped up a lot in our discussions earlier on. But that particular conflict in recent times hasn’t deteriorated into the kind of chaos that we’ve seen in other European countries, such as in the Balkans and Chechnya which is probably a lot more like our scenario. So we’re quite indistinct who the different tribes are, or even whether it’s in this country.

I understand that you specifically asked for soprano Lisa Milne and baritone Christopher Purves to be in your cast. Can you recall how you first heard these singers and what qualities persuaded you that you wanted them in your opera?

Christopher sang in my first opera, Inés de Castro; he was the executioner – quite a small role, but it’s a black comedic scene and he stole the show. Although the role of the General [in The Sacrifice] is very different he is a great actor, with a great on-stage presence. Katie, who needs good actors for what she does, was delighted that we chose him because she’s worked with him a lot before and he’s very malleable and actorly in his approach to his various roles; you can’t say that about every singer! And then both he and Lisa were my singers in Parthenogenesis, a smaller music theatre piece first performed in 2000. I’ve known Lisa since she was a young student up here in Scotland – I’ve listened to her voice develop and even in those early days I had in mind that she would be a great principal soprano for this piece. So incorporating her into the Parthenogenesis performances was a way of building up that relationship and getting her to work with Chris.

Interview by Daniel Jaffé

Audio clip: MacMillan: The Sacrifice – 'I thought my hands were heaven-blessed'

The Sacrifice is released on CD by Chandos (CHAN 10572(2)) and will be reviewed in the February issue.

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