Features / Hirda – a unique opera in Shetland dialect

A scene from Hirda (left to right): Chris Stout (Violin), standing - Laura Smith (Vaila); lying down Marie Clair Breen (Ghost) and Martin Wiggins (Viola) - all photos: Davie Gardner

OPERA isn’t something that Shetland gets a lot of. Opera premieres even less so. So, when NOISE (New Opera In Scotland Events) decided to produce a brand-new opera, set in Shetland and sung in Shetland dialect, with the world premiere in Mareel, it’s definitely something to sit up and take notice of, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.


Hirda, (meaning chaos, confusion or extreme iuntidiness) is a new opera from NOISE, composed by classical composer Gareth Williams, Shetland fiddler Chris Stout and librettist Sian Evans, set in – and heavily inspired by – Shetland, telling the story of a once-successful actor returning home to the isles after years away to attend his brother’s wedding.

NOISE was established in 2011 by James Robert Carson with the aim of representing and fuelling the Scottish opera scene, and to help define its identity in the artistic world.

Andrew Dickenson (Iain) is carried by Douglas Nairn (Alasdair) with soprano Shuna Sendall (Elsa) in the background.

Shetland News spoke to NOISE’s artistic director James Carson and composer Gareth Williams about this unique new venture, and what it means for Shetland.

The pair said that the main part of NOISE’s work is to make opera more accessible to a modern audience, and that means adapting to fit.


“You can’t just expect the audience to come to opera anymore. A large part of it is trying to find your audience, and the nature of the work has to change to suit,” Carson said.

That means expanding the horizons of ‘traditional’ opera; Williams particularly dislikes the way that operas in English are generally sung in received pronunciation – “the worst way to use the language”.

Instead, Hirda promises to utilise the Shetland dialect in order to tell its very local story.


The team heavily researched the dialect in order to do it justice, and with both a Shetlander as part of the core creative team and Shetland dialect expert Mary Blance as a consultant, they feel they have done just that. Perhaps rather bravely, Carson and Williams both said that they would encourage feedback from the audience on how they have used and pronounced the local lingo, to make sure they’re as accurate as possible.

However, Williams pointed out that singing in another language is perfectly normal for opera singers who frequently sing in continental languages such as German and Italian, so learning to sing the words is a lot easier than writing them.

The attraction of Shetland as a setting is that it “still has a distinct identity”, Carson said.

“So many big, international cities are too bland and interchangeable… Shetland’s unlike anywhere else, and that’s interesting from a creative perspective.”

Chris Stout took the creative team on a tour of Shetland and Fair Isle, and Willams noted that many of the characters and anecdotes they came across made it into the finished work.

Mezzo-soprano Laura Margaret Smith (Vaila) and Andrew Dickenson (Iain).

While some of the cast and musicians have Shetland ancestry, others have visited before, and some are total newcomers to the isles – so plenty of research was required, both by talking to locals and trips to the Shetland Museum and Archives, to make sure they were getting the local culture right, and treating it with due respect.

Williams and Carson were good enough to allow a sneak-peek at the rehearsals in Mareel’s auditorium. How does it sound?


The music, as one might imagine for a Shetland opera written by Chris Stout, is very much fiddle-based, a sort of musical fusion that leans more towards Bonnie Tammie Scolla than La Traviata, providing a rich and very lush backing to the singers.

And what of the dialect-based singing itself? Trying to write an opera in such a unique regional tongue is a bold move, (and asking for feedback from locals on how well you did it even more so) but in this case it looks like it’s paid off.

The opera opens on Thursday night in Mareel, followed by shows in Baltasound, Vidlin, Sandwick, Edinburgh and Glasgow. The original run of 100 tickets for the Mareel premiere have long since sold you, but more are being made available – and won’t last long.

While there are still tickets for the Unst, Vidlin Sandwick shows these are selling fast; tickets can be bought on www.ShetlandBoxOffice.org  

If you only go to one opera premiere this year- make it this.