CORRECT me if I’m wrong, but there can’t be many librettos that include the words “total fud”?

But poet and author Jenni Fagan has worked the phrase into her new libretto for Scottish Opera’s latest production, The Narcissistic Fish. Oh, and “sleekit bastard” sneaks in there, too. Never in the field of opera have singers sworn so Scottishly.

That’s not the only reason to pay attention to The Narcissistic Fish, a short film that is something of a new venture for Scottish Opera to be unveiled online on Friday. But it’s a good place to begin. Fagan, best known for her award-winning novel The Panopticon, has written a libretto in Scots that, the opera’s composer Samuel Bordoli suggests, offers something “incredibly visceral” and novel.

“The Scots gave a whole new opportunity to set the words differently,” he explains. “It comes down to the technicalities of different vowel sounds basically, and different vowels and consonants put together, and inflections you wouldn’t get in English.

“And what was really exciting was it almost removed itself from that RP Benjamin Britten English setting that you might normally associate with the artform, which is exactly what we wanted to achieve really.”

Presumably, Benjamin Britten never had the words “total fud” in his head when he was composing Billy Budd, Samuel? “I don’t think so and I’m sure he never said it in private either. Who knows?”

As well as the swearing, The Narcissistic Fish is notable for being Scottish Opera’s “first ever purely digital opera.” In short, with theatres dark, the company is unveiling a short film. Directed by Antonia Bain, it is an original work both musically, visually and in terms of presentation, too.

Set in a kitchen, it is a 12-minute-long three-hander that takes on the themes of male narcissism and gender bias in the workplace, with a bit of cooking thrown in for good measure. Baritones Arthur Bruce and Mark Nathan play two brothers in conflict, while soprano Charlie Drummond is the woman in the middle, but one who has her own priorities.

The film, which will have its online world premiere at 7pm on June 18, offers an intimate, naturalistic take on opera, a world away from the proscenium.

“For me,” Bain says, in between juggling work and children under lockdown in her Glasgow home, “it’s about trying to tell people opera really is just drama. It’s just drama with singing in it. And I wanted to give it that naturalist approach you would give any drama.

“Also, it was very much about being able to see the singers. That’s why you’re close in in the film. You’re so used to seeing opera singers so far back. It’s nice to get that intimacy by being closer to them.”

Bain, who joined Scottish Opera in 2015 to make films for social media promotion, has long wanted to expand the parameters of the use of film in the company and she found a collaborator in Bordoli who has been composer-in-residence at Scottish Opera for the last three years.

“We just got to talking one day,” Bain explains, “and spent a lot of time chatting, and trying to figure out what it could be. And eventually came up with the idea of a short opera film.”

“We had a vague brief which was to do something technological, something involving film and video and opera,” Bordoli adds. “I wanted it to be a film rather than a video installation or something like that.

“We went through various concepts and then we settled on this concept of setting it in a kitchen. It suddenly felt like a very interesting and intense space to set an opera, an incredibly fiery working environment in every sense of the word.

“And to focus on that relationship between the chefs as they’re working; the undertones and undercurrents of what they are actually doing as they are chopping and frying, and all that kind of thing seemed fascinating.”

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Fagan was then approached to write the libretto and Bordoli wrote the vocal lines with the full music added later. The final film even incorporates found sound. “I wasn’t sure at the beginning how,” admits Bordoli, “but I certainly wanted to use kitchen sounds percussively. And, actually, they came to take on a huge role as it developed because they set the various tempos as the piece evolved. There are three or four kitchen sounds that become the beat and then kind of fade into the background, whereas all the other ones are processed so they become more instrumental and they’re not always obvious. You don’t necessarily know where they come from.”

Filming took place at Parkhouse Business Park in Glasgow, formerly home to Scottish Water. In the kitchen, naturally.

“It was very cold,” Bain recalls, laughing. “I remember that. The singers had hot water bottles. We designed it a little bit more to make it look a bit like a hipster kitchen. But, yeah, it’s an actual kitchen.”

That must have been a health and safety nightmare. “Absolutely. We had a lovely food stylist to help us do all the add-ins for the chopping. Interestingly, Charlie, the singer who plays Belle, used to work in kitchens as well so that was quite handy. She didn’t do any chopping, but she was very much at home there.”

How did the singers all take to working for the camera? “I think they were a little bit nervous, but they did fantastically well. The one thing I’ve found with opera singers is that they are very much actors.”

That said, she adds, “I think the early starts were a bit of a shock to them.”

The whole process was a bit of a shock to Bordoli too. It meant a completely different way of composing, he explains.

“I wrote the vocal lines first. Once that had been done, they recorded those and the tempo was completely locked down, so we had to edit to that and I had to write the score to that, which meant that, as I was working, I could hear the real singers singing. Which never happens. Normally, that has to be imagined. It had a really big impact on the process. We always want to know who we’re writing for as composers, but to actually hear their voices as the writing was going in underneath was fantastic. I’d love to do it again like that.”

The Narcissistic Fish may be a new venture for Scottish Opera, but it’s the use of Scots language and the timeliness of the story that will catch the attention as much as the platform, one suspects.

Bain loves Fagan’s libretto and sees it as a chance to reach a new demographic.

“It’s interesting that a lot of the operas I like the more modern ones that do have a lot of swearing in them; things like [Mark-Anthony Turnage’s] Greek. This will be quite different. I really hope new audiences will get to see this.”

As for the themes and subtexts, she says, there’s no shortage of male narcissism and gender bias in most workplaces.

How does Scottish Opera measure up? “It would be nice to see more female directors,” Bain admits. “But I think they’re definitely working towards that. We have an amazing in-house director called Roxana Haines who did Fox-Tot, and so there are definitely more women working at the higher end. But it would be nice to see more and more women doing it. And not just women, but people from all kinds of different backgrounds.”

Before that, of course, it would just be good to see a return to live performance in the wake of coronavirus. The Narcissistic Fish is a new strand for Scottish Opera and both Bain and Bordoli hope it is the first of many. But it was not meant to be a replacement for opera under the proscenium.

“When we started making this film we never intended that it would replace anything or become the only way of doing things,” notes Bordoli, “because obviously we didn’t see this thing coming.

“It’s an incredibly worrying time for everyone in the arts as you know. But there’s no replacement for live art. It has to come back. It has to. We need it.”

The Narcissistic Fish will have its online unveiling on June 18 at 7pm at