I have always loved the Scottish Highlands. When glancing excitedly through the broad-ranging and varied programme for this year’s Tête à Tête Opera Festival, the world’s largest festival of operatic new writing, The Fisherman's Brides immediately caught my eye. It is a small opera set in a Highland fishing village, giving voice to the thoughts and fears of the women left behind as their men go off to sea. Aged only 19, composer and librettist Lucie Treacher has drawn inspiration from her own community to create this work, which is not so much a narrative opera as a series of linked character vignettes, as we meet young girls, gossiping fishwives, the village policeman and Mairi, an old woman almost mad with desperate longing for her husband, who has still not returned to shore.

Emily Philips in <i>The Fisherman's Brides</i> © Claire Shovelton
Emily Philips in The Fisherman's Brides
© Claire Shovelton

There is much to admire in Treacher's achievement. Her music encompasses many different textures and moods, weaving in recorded Sutherland soundscapes (waves crashing, the crunch of foot on pebbled shoreline and sandy beach, the cries of seabirds) with instrumental sound, played by a comparatively large ensemble of 12 musicians, led by James Albany Hoyle. Her finest moments are undoubtedly those inspired directly by Scottish folk music: whether it's the half-mournful, half-playful air a young girl sings to herself as she picks up stones on the beach, imagining they are her lovers' hearts, or the strong and rolling rhythm of a fisherman's song ("My hands are my anchors, they hold the stern tight", sings John Mackay), the timeless lilt of Treacher's phrasing and harmonies all seem Celtic to the core. A lively dancing tune is full of exhilaratingly wild freshness; elsewhere, some gloriously gossipy ladies bring humour, as well as some structurally impressive ensemble writing. We also have a magnificent bagpipe solo (played by the Minister, Martin Treacher), some beautiful writing for the clarsach (Celtic harp, played by Caolan Walpot), and creative use of percussion (Emma Arden), especially the use of bells. 

Treacher not only invokes the magical atmosphere of Sutherland, but has brought some of it literally into her production, which she has directed as well as designed, with a set created exclusively from flotsam and jetsam she has scoured from Scottish beaches. Before you imagine a large heap of driftwood, let me hasten to add that this includes an entire white-framed window, as well as the shells, bones and stones you would expect. It makes an arrestingly pretty, faintly surreal backdrop for her characters. The beach scavengings also feature in the poetic libretto (“My hands have turned to driftwood”), and even in some of the costumes by Claudia Treacher: Mairi’s hair is caught up with dried seaweed. There is also a subtler point here, implying a determination to cherish what others have wasted, giving old things a new purpose. 

This is the point at which, however, The Fisherman’s Brides does not quite reach all its goals. We do have a lot of old things, in the sense that these characters are all very familiar: our first young girl is strongly reminiscent of Polly Garter in her inclusively indiscriminate loving; a sheep farmer’s wife appears with a black eye, because Angus’ sheep are lost and he takes out his frustration on her, which does not come as a surprise or a shock; other women gossip with gusto, but without much individuality; a policeman (Austin Gunn) tries to be sensible; Mairi (Linda Hirst) goes steadily, but not interestingly, mad. While these characters are all distinctly characterised by their music, the net result does not produce anything new, or indeed anything compelling for the audience. The surreal incursion into the sound world of a herd of bleating sheep (partly recorded, and partly voiced) only feels irrelevant, even irreverent, defeating any nascent observations about the tougher side of Highland life. In short, this opera has a great deal of promise, but in its current form it never quite gets off the ground as a dramatic experience, though it often sounds lovely - and its tunes sit in the mind for days afterwards.

Given that Lucie Treacher is at such an early stage in life, The Fisherman's Brides signals the arrival of a young composer with exciting talent, a keen sense of characterisation, and plenty of vision in terms of themes she wants to grapple with, and ideas she wants to explore. The slight conceptual stutters in this early piece can be easily forgiven, as she clearly has insight and talent which promise much. Following her future progress will be fascinating.

**111