A YOUNG man stands on a bleak Glasgow tenement street and begins to moan. The moan rises to a cry, which rises to a scream, which rises to an amassed holler from a chorus of blindfolded singers. This is the audacious opening image of Uhte: a new 13-minute screen opera that premieres tonight at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and kicks off the 10th annual Plug festival of contemporary music.

Uhte is already a trailblazer in logistical terms. It was composed by RCS student Harry McPherson, sung and acted by students from the RCS Opera School, accompanied by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and RCS instrumentalists under Martyn Brabbins and filmed on the set of the BBC’s River City by the Digital, Film and TV department of the RCS. In other words, this little film is the result of an almighty cross-departmental, cross-institutional and cross-student-professional collaboration. It’s the first time the RCS has produced such a film opera, but then that isn’t so surprising when you consider how few works — student or professional — are conceived in the genre. Which is a missed opportunity, as Uhte proves.

I’ve seen a preview of the piece but don’t want to give too much away. I will say that it’s a taught and gritty music drama, that it’s a psychological horror featuring a dentist chair, some impressive prosthetics and an evil Mary Poppins character who delivers blistering sprechtstimme while bleeding from the eyes. It’s creepy stuff, made only creepier by the slickness of the filming and the weird familiarity of those ashen Glasgow skies and the River City set. Oh, and the name Uhte is pronounced oo-ta and is the Cornish word for the quality of light just before it dies. Sufficiently spooked yet?

“We wanted to make something really menacing and stylised,” says McPherson, a third-year undergraduate who currently studies with composer Rory Boyle and who wrote the opera’s libretto as well as the music. “Something dark and fantastical. Because there aren’t a lot of film operas it was a bit of an open slate, but that was exciting. I’ve always loved fables and fairy stories and in preparation I reread Shakespeare’s The Tempest and a collection of British folk tales.” He notes the challenges of filming opera up-close: how seeing the singers so clearly can make it tricky for an audience to suspend disbelief in the same way that happens more instinctively in the theatre. “So our setting plays around with that sense of the uncanny, somewhere between familiar everyday locations and a scary supernatural world. The costumes, the prosthetics — all that helped to make the uncanniness come together.”

Not to mention the music, which convincingly rides that disarming line between familiar and skewed. McPherson’s writing is confident, vivid and rich in atmosphere. He isn’t shy to declare his influences: the dark psychological operas of Janacek and Bartok — think Bluebeard’s Castle, especially — plus background sounds ranging from Rautavaara to Copland, Bernstein to Ives, maybe even a little Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald. While working on the score he marvelled at Peter Maxwell Davies’s landmark music-theatre piece Eight Songs for a Mad King: “I was totally gripped by its portrayal of madness,” he says, and that shows in his own unflinching handling of the subject.

Uhte makes two clear statements as the opening event of Plug, part of a concert that also features Red Note Ensemble and MusicLab with new works by four young composers including the winner of the Craig Armstrong Prize. First, it spearheads the sort of inventive multimedia co-commissioning that could and should happen more often between BBC Scotland and various Scottish musical institutions. Second, it demonstrates the impressive scope of new student work that is Plug’s raison d’etre. Over the past decade the festival has tallied up 475 world premieres; this year’s four-day edition features no fewer than 37 new works across ten concerts.

Crucially, much of the festival programme is student-led. Look out for surprise programmes from composers working under the moniker The Composers Collective; for nocturnal electroacoustic offings via a new strand called Late Night Plug. The year-old Glasgow New Music Expedition under conductor Jessica Cottis makes its second appearance at the festival with works inspired by the SCP Foundation — a fictional X-files-style organisation that writes collaborative creative fiction. A music theatre piece called The Poetess by Lucy Hollingworth, currently completing a PhD in composition, looks at issues of gender bias around a mid-20th century female poet. It was written in 1983 but gets its first public outing on Thursday.

The Hebrides Ensemble was Plug’s first-ever ensemble-in-residence and on Friday at lunchtime that group is back this year to play music by students Matthew Grouse Mortise and Lisa Robertson — winners of the Walter and Dinah Wolfe Memorial Award — alongside older works by James MacMillan: his First Cello Sonata (1999) and the solo clarinet miniature From Galloway (2000).

And the festival closes with a visit from one of the world’s great contemporary music groups, the Frankfurt-based Ensemble Modern, which gives two evening concerts and a series of daytime workshops and masterclasses. On Friday we get a classic Ensemble Modern international showcase of obscurities, new music and core 20th century chamber repertoire: the Quartet No. 1 by early 20th-century Greek composer Nikos Skalkottas; the Duet for Percussion and French Horn by Palestinian-Israeli composer Samir Odeh-Tamimi; Ligeti’s ravishing Mysteries of the Macabre for Trumpet and Piano; Heinz Holliger’s Piano Quintet; a Sonatina for Oboe, Clarinet and Bassoon by the Swiss-Hungarian Sándor Veress; the Ode for Clarinet, Piano and Percussion by Siberia-born Edison Denisov and a 2012 wind quintet piece called Contour by the Slovenian composer Vito Zuraj.

Since its founding in 1980 the Ensemble Modern has worked with the likes of Ligeti and Stockhausen, Kurtag and Frank Zappa, but at the RCS on Thursday it will perform student works by Robert Allan, Aran Browning, Henry McPherson and Nicholas Olsen. Apparently when the RCS suggested the student programme, the response from Frankfurt was unequivocally enthusiastic: “playing work by young composers is crucial for us,” came the email. “Thank you for introducing us to new voices.”

Plug 2016 opens tonight and runs until Friday at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. For more info visit www.rcs.ac.uk/box-office