While on a wildlife safari holiday in the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana, Alexander McCall Smith asked his guides to take him across a river to where two primatologists were researching baboon behaviour. Baboons are matriarchal and uniquely in common with humans, high status is inherited. McCall Smith considered this unusual, and the all-powerful females drew parallels with Lady Macbeth in the Scottish Play. Alexander McCall Smith contacted Scottish composer Tom Cunningham, who agreed that there was operatic potential and they worked together to produce The Okavango Macbeth.

Beth Mckay and Andrew McTaggart © Marc Marnie
Beth Mckay and Andrew McTaggart
© Marc Marnie

The first performance was given in October 2009 in the tiny No 1 Ladies Detective Opera House in Gaborone, with local forces directed by distinguished South African producer Nicholas Ellenbogen. The reception was ecstatic with musical director David Slater accompanying the mostly amateur singers from a piano, and it ran for thirteen sell-out shows.

McCall Smith’s home city of Edinburgh was chosen for the UK premiere, and the original director was summoned from Africa to work with the Scottish performers. Tom Cunningham’s music was orchestrated by Robert McFall and performed by the superbly innovative McFall’s Chamber. In keeping with the spirit of the piece, rather than handing over everything to a professional company, singers from the RSAMD Opera School took on the lead roles, and the chorus was from Edinburgh Studio Opera, all conducted by Michael Bawtree. This combination lent a fresh feel to the piece, and was a wonderful opportunity for all the young singers to be showcased in a big Edinburgh musical event.

Set on a stage, bare save for a couple of small rostra and a 6ft high scaffold platform, the story was conveyed through movement and very minimal animal masks with a hint of jungle make-up. Costumes were knee length khaki coloured safari trousers and black T shirts, with juvenile baboons wearing burnt orange shorts. The direction of the singers was highly effective and subtle, so that when the big dramatic moments came, they were all the more powerful.

The opera takes us into the world of the baboons, blamed by all the other animals after drought and famine destroyed a previously peaceful way of life. Primatologists visit, and vow to observe the animals but never interfere; the baboons see these strange human creatures as half-finished, and decide not to interfere with them. Lady Macbeth is due to marry dominant male Duncan, but she fancies Macbeth. A very reluctant Macbeth is browbeaten into murder with Lady Macbeth telling him that “Noble lines are established when somebody proves a bigger bully than the rest. A man who doesn’t know that is not destined for politics.” Nice lesson a fortnight away from the Scottish elections. The primatologists find Duncan, and note the order is changing in the colony. However, as in Shakespeare, it does not end happily with Lady Macbeth stalked and eaten by a leopard, leaving Macbeth alone and desperate. The primatologists could have disturbed the leopard, but didn’t, and have to live with that decision. But the colony support King Duncan’s son to take over the leadership: there is always change, yet love is never far away from human strife.

There was some very fine singing indeed in this production, with the chorus on top form, taking on muscle-challenging movements while getting the music across. The RSAMD opera students gave us a glimpse of some exciting voices to watch in the future: Beth Mackay’s Lady Macbeth was superbly sung with crystal clear diction, and Rónan Busfield as Macbeth gave us a memorable final lament on his fate. The trio of primatologists, Nicholas Morris, Jamie Rock and Jessica Leary worked well to provide commentary on the baboons, and although upset with the final outcome, finally accepted change and nature as inevitable.

Scored for a string quartet, double bass, soprano sax, whistles, horn, fortepiano, harmonium and percussion, the music was very tuneful. Although not African, there were plenty of infectious cyclical rhythms to drive the action along, yet allowing beauty to emerge in the slower sections.

To take this piece and judge it as one might a serious opera would be to miss the whole point, yet this was much more than musical theatre. Benjamin Britten worked with local musical groups in Let’s Make an Opera and Noye’s Fludde, and the Okavango Macbeth can follow that proud tradition.

This was a very enjoyable evening and a memorable one for Edinburgh.