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  • Alistair Braidwood

Tokyo Storm Warning: A Review Of Scottish Opera’s Iris…

Updated: May 7, 2021

Scottish Opera’s Opera In Concert series is a musical highlight of any year, and their latest production at Glasgow’s City Halls was Mascagni’s Iris. These concerts are in many ways opera in the raw with the orchestra and chorus, conducted by Music Director Stuart Stratford, taking centre stage. This is an all too rare chance for the audience to see the dynamic of the orchestra in full effect, and it’s as fascinating as it is awesome.

It’s also a chance to witness the power and control of opera singers up close and personal, with the cast at the front of the stage, either sitting or standing, with literally no place to hide. As much as you may love the full theatre Scottish Opera experience, with the lavish sets, lighting, props, etc, there is something pure and immediate about seeing opera presented in such a straightforward way. You can concentrate intently on the music, and the plot. Which brings me to the heartbreaking tale of ‘Iris’ herself.

Set in Japan in the Edo period, Iris is a dark and disturbing tale which proves to have parallels with high-profile recent events. The titular character is tricked and kidnapped from the family home, where she lives a peaceful life with her blind father, and taken to a geisha house of ill-repute in the city. It is made abundantly clear that Iris is little more than a child, still playing with dolls and entranced by puppet shows, and while her story is shocking, as it should be, it doesn’t take much to bring to mind recent stories of child slavery, sex trafficking, and more examples of such exploitation in evidence today.

Across the board Iris’s innocence is lost at the hands of men, with even her father turning against her, but while it can feel at times as if she is being punished for simply being a woman you are left in no doubt as to where the blames lies. Masculinity has rarely been so obviously toxic, and the theme of the abuse of power runs throughout. If this sounds unremittingly bleak (it is opera after all, where happy endings are rare to say the least) it is saved by the humanity of Iris’s story, and the thought that this is theatre, and as with the puppet play which took place on stage, it is there to make us think as well as feel, and in this Iris ticks all the boxes.

Mention must be made of the music as well which marries east and west traditions in often subtle ways. Japan has long been used as a backdrop in opera, with Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly perhaps the most well-known. In Iris instruments are adapted to put you in mind of the traditional sounds of Japan, with the playing of the double bass particularly effective – a sort of ‘Kubo & the Four Strings’.

Iris is one of most powerful and moving operas I have seen, a real tour-de-force from everyone involved. Rarely staged today, this was another example of Scottish Opera resurrecting a lost classic and making it vital and relevant for a modern audience. It was directed by Scottish Opera’s Staff Director Roxana Haines and you can hear Roxana talking all about her life, work, and her role in the company on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast from earlier this year, which you’ll find here – The Scottish Opera Interviews #6: Staff Director, Roxana Haines.

Images from ‘Iris’, with thanks to Scottish Opera.

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