Hirda is a Shetland word meaning a serious mess or wreckage. Alasdair, a minor and fading film star returns to Shetland from his Holywood base, blown in to attend his brother Iain’s wedding, and is captivated by his new sister-in-law, Vaila. A stolen passionate kiss on the wedding night seals the forbidden relationship, unluckily witnessed by the feisty Elsa, the boys’ sister. A proper scandal then, especially in a small fishing and boat-building community, this tale of illicit liaison from Welsh writer Siân Evans is intertwined with an intriguing story of a 19th-century geographically separated couple whose appearances as ghosts whip up the mortals’ passion to a tense breaking point.

Laura Margaret Smith (Muireall) and Andrew Dickinson (Iain) © Davie Gardner
Laura Margaret Smith (Muireall) and Andrew Dickinson (Iain)
© Davie Gardner

Hirda is a brand new opera from New Opera in Scotland Events (NOISE), co-written by Gareth Williams and Shetland fiddler Chris Stout. Musically, it takes some traditional Shetland fiddle tunes and weaves them in and around a compelling minimalist and pulsing score played by a string quartet led by Chris Stout, piano, accordion and with a bass clarinet adding other-worldly eeriness. It was a mesmeric mixture which worked successfully, sometimes racing away with ever increasing layers of rhythmic loops, yet on a turn, moments of utter beauty emerged, tugging hard at the heartstrings. Williams with infectious arms-aloft gusto, conducted his onstage players with Stout lacing the sound with a Shetland earthiness and adding spice with occasional improvisation. The energetic music almost stood alone, but the addition of clear and simple singing lines made this a special piece of theatre.

With the band arranged at the back, the action played out on Alice Hebdon’s bare stage design with just a table and two wooden fold-up chairs, the tablecloth and props moving the scene from wedding day to croft and Vaila’s office at the island’s archives. Director James Robert Carson kept things simple, but used the whole of the Queens’ Hall to dramatic effect – the bride entered through the audience, scattering favours onto our cabaret-style tables as she went, and later Elsa and Vaila circled us urge us to stomp to a Shetland fiddle tune, a moment of joyous fun before the final moving showdown.  

Shuna Scott Sendall (Elsa), Douglas Nairne (Alastair) and Laura Margaret Smith (Muireall) © Davie Gardner
Shuna Scott Sendall (Elsa), Douglas Nairne (Alastair) and Laura Margaret Smith (Muireall)
© Davie Gardner

Sung in Shetland dialect, bringing laughs from the Islanders peppering this Edinburgh audience, the use of supertitles here would have helped to understand the story better and indeed, the helpful synopsis was a required read to provide the necessary background to the main action. In the generous acoustic of the Queen’s Hall, the players’ understandably enthusiastic attack sometimes swamped the voices, making it difficult to catch the detail at times.

The two ghosts, Sailor baritone Jonathan Best who has been away whaling for three years and Crofter Lass soprano Marie Claire Breen forever awaiting his return are brought into the story as their letters and Crofter Lass’ mitten are discovered in the wall of Iain’s house. Vaila, the bride and an archivist is understandably intrigued and haunted. Every time they appeared, in amongst yet unseen by the others, they somehow cranked up the passions, Best intoning sinuous lines an octave below tenor Douglas Nairne’s seduction, set to a simple open interval on the accordion. Breen’s soaring passionate appeal for the return of her lost mitten and the blend of the sextet of voices in the hiatus of the ensuing ensemble set against an energetic building repetitive motif was a special highlight. 

Laura Margaret Smith (Muireall) and Douglas Nairne (Alastair) © Davie Gardner
Laura Margaret Smith (Muireall) and Douglas Nairne (Alastair)
© Davie Gardner

As the spirited sister Elsa, soprano Shuna Scott Sendall was cast perfectly, with a wonderfully brusque no-nonsense approach. Andrew Dickinson and Douglas Nairne as the two feuding brothers gave strong richly sung performances. Laura Margaret Smith’s light mezzo brought a fragility to Vaila, who ultimately has to choose between the boys, but not before a moving and beautiful denouement where a lost mitten has to be returned to a lonely Crofter Lass across the generations.

I still remember being bowled over by Elephant Angel, and there is a strange magic too to Hirda, a beguiling adventure across classical and folk boundaries. The haunting blend of the voices and the music is still ringing in my head.