Keith Bruce

AS he died over half a century before their birthdays, composer Henry Purcell was unable to follow up his opera Dido and Aeneas with a celebration of the genius of Mozart and Robert Burns under the euphonious title, Amadeus and The Bard. But that hasn’t stopped director Mary McCluskey from creating her own sequel to her production of Dido for Scottish Opera’s Young Company at Greenock’s Beacon in 2017.

“Meticulous, thrillingly nuanced and, above all, invigoratingly fresh” was how The Herald’s Mary Brennan found that show, which was the first time the youth wing of the opera company, then still flying under the “Connect” banner, had tackled a piece of established opera repertoire.

It was Mary McCluskey’s first tilt at opera, too, as she prepared to step down from the artistic directorship of Scottish Youth Theatre, after the best part of three decades.

The success of Dido and Aeneas, which teamed the young singers with three professional soloists in the lead roles, led to an immediate return invitation from Scottish Opera to the director, which in turn produced a further extension to the ways in which the company works with young talent.

“After Dido, I was asked to pitch a couple of ideas for what was at first going to be an Opera Highlights tour,” explains McCluskey. But when she suggested the combination of two geniuses of the second half of the 18th century, her proposal moved from being one of the regular tours for four singers and a piano to rural, Highland and island Scotland to the entirely new venture that is launching the company’s new season.

“I’ve always had a love of the work of both Burns and Mozart,” she continues, “and a few years ago I discovered that their birthdays were only two days apart, Mozart on the 27th of January and Burns on the 25th. Geek that I am, I thought that was interesting, especially when they were such close contemporaries, just three years apart. So I started investigating the themes that they used that are similar and things that were the same in their lives, as well as things that were very different in their backgrounds.”

Knowing the work that McCluskey had done with graduates of Scottish Youth Theatre in SYT Productions, Scottish Opera’s director of outreach and education Jane Davidson thought it might be good to create a further step for young singers between the Young Company and the young professionals the opera company works with each year.

“So we came up with the idea that we’d have four promising singers from the Young Company working with two of the main company’s professional Emerging Artists and a professional actor. Because of the use of Burns’ poetry I wanted to make sure there was an actor in there who could deliver that, and we’ve got the lovely Andy Clark.”

“This is a whole new venture to allow the young people to progress in their experience and to get a feel of what it is like out in the professional world and be on tour. That was the ethos.

“It was open to everybody in the Young Company to audition and the nature of the piece is that it is giving the young people the opportunity to sing pieces that they wouldn’t normally get a chance to sing.”

The company that has come together achieves both that aim and the needs of the piece, with musical director Karen McIvor having two violinists, one of them from the Young Company, to add to her keyboard playing, and Clark and one of the Emerging Artists playing guitars, with others adding percussion.

When her pitch was accepted, McCluskey sat down to write a new show that made the most of some of the best of the work of the precocious composer and the ploughman poet. “It is Karen McIvor who had come up with the musical arrangements and ingenious ways of making my ideas work,” she says.

“The dilemma for me was that I was overwhelmed by the amount of information and the amount of material that they both created. It was about finding a way of giving a flavour of the types of music and poetry that they had written, knowing that we were only going to have just over an hour. It has been a wee challenge, and it is developing as we go – the script is still changing.

“But I think we’ve probably got the right balance. I looked at themes, and the supernatural gave us Tam O’Shanter and the Address to the Devil in Burns, and with Mozart it’s The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni. And both of them wrote endlessly about love, so we are using those pieces to tell the story of Amadeus and Constanze and Jean Armour and Burns.”

McCluskey also notes that both men had dominant fathers, and that their mutual love of storytelling was accompanied by an enthusiasm for experimentation with established forms.

“We’re playing to schools audiences during the day, and to the public in the evening, so I hope there will be something interesting enough to engage the young people, but also controversial enough for the public audience.

“It’s making opera more accessible, because people will come because of the Burns side of things that will know nothing about Mozart. And people who come because it is a Scottish Opera show might be outraged at the way we are playing with Mozart’s music.”

The piece is set as a night in Burns' Mauchline pub, Poosie Nancie’s, with Clark as the landlord. But he also has to sing the role of Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, so Scottish Opera has been giving him tuition in opera singing technique.

McCluskey last worked with Clark in the most recent production from the Jezebel Company she established with designer/director Kenny Miller. A Steady Rain brought a hard-boiled Chicago-set script by Mad Men writer Keith Huff to Glasgow’s Tron Theatre with Clark and Robbie Jack playing two cynical embittered cops. A lack of funding is currently stalling Jezebel’s planned next project, adapted from a book about Gloucester killers Fred and Rose West.

The search for money for their art was also a crucial part of the lives of both Mozart and Burns. McCluskey points out that Leopold and his young son Amadeus toured Europe looking for patronage, and a painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery records that quest leading them to a salon of the Scottish nobility, some of whom also championed the work of Robert Burns.

“And both Mozart and Burns were masons, so we have a section about that and The Magic Flute. Burns become a mason before Mozart did, so the show includes some discussion about that and its place in the Age of Enlightenment, asking why they joined. Of course it gave them a certain status in society and opened doors to those salons.”

There is a metaphor there, perhaps, for what Scottish Opera and McCluskey are trying to do with this new project in the company’s season of work, which will hopefully attract new audiences as it gives new opportunities to everyone involved in the production.

Amadeus & The Bard opens at Earlston in the Borders on Monday and tours across Southern Scotland and Ayrshire before dates in Edinburgh, Paisley and Glasgow.