It’s an impossible and challenging time for the performing arts with the main venues closed, and a continuing five mile travel restriction for leisure. I can go to my local town seven miles away to shop, but cannot go for a walk there, or visit the concert hall, even if it were open. Culture has moved online where it can. In Scotland, there have been digital heroes, choirmasters and performers editing zoomed-in contributions to produce astonishing results, given the circumstances, and they are getting better at it. The RSNO has been running a Friday night season thanks to the recent squirrelling away of recordings of recent performances in Glasgow, individuals from the SCO have been performing interesting pieces, and now Scottish Opera launches The Narcissistic Fish, a short opera on film, shattering the gloom with a shining intensity.

Mark Nathan (Kai)
© Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera is no stranger to chamber opera through their well-received programmes of specially commissioned chamber operas in the Five:15 series. The company nurtures emerging artists as well as a composer-in-residence, so commissioning a film was an ideal use of talents. Antonia Bain, the company’s in-house film and digital producer directed the piece which was filmed in 2019, well before lockdown, taking the fresh approach of creating a film that is an opera, rather than filming an operatic performance.   

We are in a gleamingly smart hipster fish restaurant kitchen in the gentrified part of Leith. With two brothers and a talented but underpaid chef, the mood is as edgy as the razor-sharp chef knives used in percussive chopping and fish gutting. The poetic libretto from Jenni Fagan is in the earthy and sweary Leith vernacular, matched by Bain’s viscerally vivid visuals, a study in composition in their own right. Composer Samuel Bordoli had to create the final version of his score during lockdown, piecing the voices, kitchen sounds and processed instrumental sound into a digital score. The singers were recorded in the studio and filming was done to a basic click track, creating an intensely taut cinematic intimacy with the characters.

Arthur Bruce (Angus) and Charlie Drummond (Belle)
© Scottish Opera

Baritones Arthur Bruce and Mark Nathan as brothers Angus and Kai spark dangerously when a phone call gives them the bad news of their father’s expected death. Kitchens can’t just stop with a hungry and well-heeled clientele to look after, but tensions over the future are running raw. Belle, soprano Charlie Drummond, the under-acknowledged feisty brains behind the enterprise fights her corner with the boys, giving as good as she gets. Kai looms tall with gravitas, but Angus is darkly unpredictable and menacing. Cinematic close ups and the occasional bursting of the fourth wall add to the tense atmosphere. In the end, the kitchen polished, they all share a beer, but Belle is left alone to decide on her future.  

Musically, the score is filmic with some depth, and I enjoyed the lilting phrases to match the Scots inflections. Fagan’s story teases us with fragments, not quite joining up, leaving unanswered questions, or perhaps room for a sequel.

Arthur Bruce (Angus)
© Scottish Opera

The piece was not without its challenges as a team speaking film language, many of whom had never heard opera, had to engage with a team speaking musical language. Little problems had to be overcome such as shots of the right-handed professional food stylist Clair Irwin having to blend in with the shots of the left-handed Charlie Drummond.

Many lockdown online offerings have been beautiful and moving as they have been sombre and reflective. We can’t get near the excitement of live performance through the barrier of our screens but The Narcissistic Fish is a welcome antidote, a 12-minute dark tale bursting out, gleaming as brightly as the scales of the fish on the kitchen slab.