THE world premiere of a new opera is an event. When its creation has taken three years, and the creative team has been nurtured in Scotland for over a decade, doubly so. However, the premiere of Anthropocene at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal on Thursday goes some way beyond even that. It is composer Stuart MacRae’s fifth opera, a landmark few composers reach – certainly by their early 40s – and it is the fourth on which he has collaborated with writer Louise Welsh, which makes their partnership remarkable in the history of music-making in this neck of the woods.

Anthropocene is set in the tundra of Greenland, where a team of scientists become trapped in the ice, which itself has an identity that challenges our conception of the “age of humanity” of the title. Following on from The Devil Inside, which adapted Robert Louis Stevenson’s spooky story The Bottle Imp, the pair’s new original work is similarly set in in the here and now, but not entirely as we accept it to be.

Says MacRae: “It is set in the real world and in our time but there are things that happen in it that are magical or supernatural. It is how the characters react that is important, not whether the audience believes rationally that this could happen.”

Welsh adds: “The times we are living in are futuristic. Three years ago, no-one knew the title, whereas now people know the term ‘Anthropocene’. It is not a ‘climate change opera’, but it is set in the period where people have those concerns, and when we have been told there are just 12 years left to save planet. There is no message, but we are holding a mirror up to contemporary concerns.

“So although our timing has turned out to be good, in 12 years’ time there won’t be any revivals!”

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MacRae and Welsh are the great success story of Scottish Opera’s Five:15 initiative, which teamed composers and writers to create programmes of short new works. Alex Reedijk had just joined the company when MacRae’s debut opera The Assassin Tree was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, and he asked the composer to choose who he’d like to work with on a new piece for the project.

“I immediately said Louise Welsh, whom I’d met on a residency in Germany, where we’d got to know each other well. As it turned out, Louise had seen the first year of Five:15 operas and wished that she had been involved. She and I would meet weekly in a café in the West End of Glasgow and talk over ideas and approaches we might take, and the idea for Remembrance Day evolved out of that.”

“Basically it always starts off across a table,” says Welsh, “and for this one we often met in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, because they do a really good scone. We talked a lot about sci-fi movies, and that landscape of frozen wastes and the clothes that people wear. And that sense of isolation and the essentials of being human, and how you’d behave when the chips are down. I also thought a lot about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the end of that. We had so many visions and influences and thoughts and discussions. Then you boil it down to what it is about.”

Both claim not to be able to remember which of them came up with the story for Anthropocene. “I don’t know where original idea came from,” says Welsh, “and it is good that we can’t remember who initiated it. But I was quite worried about having a siege situation, so when we had the creature in the ice that moved things along.”

Although the location of their meetings has changed over the years, MacRae says that their working method has remained much the same since the start.

“The bigger the project gets, the more complicated the process, but the basic pattern is Louise and me sitting together and talking about ideas and building a synopsis of the piece. She then writes the libretto and gives it to me in chunks.

“As soon as I see something I know if I can set it or whether I need to ask for some changes. It is very collaborative, so I might ask for some dialogue to be made into an aria, or I’ll see an opportunity for a duet or a trio and suggest a re-ordering of the phrases to bring them together. And sometimes she’ll suggest these things herself.”

“We think about the narrative but about the characters too, because how they react is the story, and Stuart and I have to share a vision of who these people are,” says Welsh. “Then I have to go away and write it, and I send him chunks as they are done.”

“We’ve developed a method of working over ten years, where he’ll either set to work on what he gets, or he’ll come back and say ‘can we change this?’. It is rare I’ll say no, unless there is a very particular reason. And I mustn’t get stuck because it is like a little factory and if I stop, Stuart will be idle. There is a timetable and that is the wind beneath your wings.

“This is the most collaborative relationship I have in my working life and he is such a delight to work with. I feel very fortunate that he invited me to do this and that it worked out and we’re still doing it.”

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The Inverness-born composer was first encouraged in his writing by James MacMillan, who was conducting the Highland Region Schools Orchestra in which young Macrae played flute, piccolo and piano. From the youth orchestra debuting his first orchestral work, MacRae’s trajectory was swift, via Durham University and a masters at London’s Guildhall to a BBC Proms commissions and then the encouragement of Brian McMaster at Edinburgh.

“The Assassin Tree wasn’t as good as the operas I’ve written since because I really didn’t know what I was doing. What it didn’t do was communicate the drama to an audience. It was a difficult piece for people to get to grips with, but without it I’d never have learned how to do it better. Almost nobody’s first opera is good!”

Through the works since, in partnership with Welsh – Remembrance Day, Ghost Patrol, The Devil Inside and now Anthropocene – MacRae can trace a clear line of development in his understanding.

“The first opera that we did didn’t really have any duets, then Ghost Patrol had a couple but with just a few words. One of the key skills as an opera composer is being able to blend the different things the characters are saying into the same musical universe, and I only really learned to do that in The Devil Inside and now I’ve gone further with that in Anthropocene.

“That’s what’s happening all the time in Mozart as these different points of view somehow all collide. Opera is not a sung play, it is different beast. You have to look for those moments that can only happen in opera and that’s what I didn’t know how to do when I wrote my first opera.”

“This time we have eight principal characters and we wanted every character to have a crucial role to play. I don’t think Louise likes the idea of secondary characters at all, and that makes the work stronger in the end, but more difficult to write.

“The combinations I got to work with in Anthropocene hopefully will yield more richness in colour and dramatic expression. There’s a male vocal trio at one point and female vocal trio, and several short duets and a couple of long duets. I was looking for those opportunities in the piece because it is in those moments that the beauty of the sound carries you away and that’s what makes opera work. If you don’t allow for those moments then you are not getting the maximum potential out of the form.”

“Stuart has the whole paint box this time,” says Welsh, “and he’s very inventive with the orchestration. And there’s more complexity of emotions and range and story. I always think about people going home afterwards and discussing it, but my dream is that somebody forgets themselves while they are there.”

Anthropocene is at Theatre Royal, Glasgow on January 24 and 26, King's Theatre, Edinburgh on January 31 and February 2, and Hackney Empire, London on February 7 and 9.