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Reviews / Hirda: a warm and delightful ode to Shetland

A scene from Thursday night's performance of Hirda: Mezzosoprano Laura Smith (as Vaila) with Marie Breen (as the Ghost) - Photo: Davie Gardner

THERE exists in this world an opera, set in Shetland and sung entirely in local dialect; its name is Hirda and it is wonderful, writes Alex Garrick-Wright.

There is no way to do justice to something as unusual and enjoyable as Hirda in so short a space; the amount that could be written dwarfs the amount allowed, so consider this very much a glowing review-in-brief.

On Thursday night, NOISE (New Opera In Scotland Events) presented the world premiere of Hirda, composed by Gareth Williams and Shetlander Chris Stout, with libretto by Sian Evans, and directed by James Robert Carson.

NOISE promised an entirely new experience; that of an opera sung in the Shetland language. While many companies might have settled for a long night of sitting with the Shetland dictionary and translating an existing opera, calling it something like ‘Da Traviata’, and calling it a day, the creators have chosen to write an entirely new piece with a great deal of research and care given to the culture and, most importantly, the lingo.

Given how unique the dialect is, and the notorious difficulty non-Shetlanders have in speaking it properly, this was a daunting challenge.

The story is dripping with local flavour; a down-on-his-luck actor returns to the isles for his brother’s wedding, falls for his brother’s new wife, and finds the attraction is mutual. The new wife, however, is captivated by love letters found in the walls of the crofthouse, that tell the story of a young lass and her whaler fiancé – their ghosts wandering in and out of the contemporary story.

Nothing about Hirda is conventional, not even the layout. The stage, a small raised platform in the centre of the hall, was surrounded by cabaret-style tables and chairs, within arm’s reach of the closest audience members – a deliberate choice on NOISE’s part to try to break down the barrier between stage and audience; for the opera to be in amongst the audience.

Thanks to the fiddle-and-accordion based ‘orchestra’, the score wandered a musical spectrum from the Royal Opera House to the Lounge; deep, sonorous and stirring classical tones one minute – and a toe-tapping reel the next.

The singers were superb: tenor Jamie MacDougal and baritone Douglas Nairne both have incredibly, rich voices, and real emotional weight as the two conflicted brothers.

Bass Jonathan Best’s deep, throaty notes suited his spectral whaler perfectly, and soprano Marie Breen was spellbinding as his crofter lass, whose haunting voice was both glass-shatteringly powerful and spine chillingly ethereal.

Shuna Sendall, soprano, looked like she was having a fantastic time as sister Elsa, caught in the middle of it all, and along with Chris Stout, performed a memorable rendition of Bonnie Tammie Scolla.

Mezzosoprano Laura Smith delighted as the conflicted bride Vaila, and packed her singing with, at times, heartbreaking emotion.

From an operatic standpoint Hirda passes with flying colours; but what about the theme? No matter how good the singing or the music, this opera was always going to live or die on whether it got the essence of Shetland right.

Joyously, Hirda delivers on the promises. The lyrics ooze with lingo; and we’re not talking about the odd “Du kens?” thrown in for a bit of authenticity. This production will need full-on subtitles down south!

Douglas Nairne and Andrew Dickson could pass for locals, while James Best and Marie Breen’s characters, appropriately, use an even thicker vernacular as ghosts of 19th century islanders.

You know you’re watching something special when you hear someone sing the line “Yon tart fae Whalsay” (you don’t see that in the Barber of Seville, now do you?).

The one issue anyone could have with it is that it is so ‘Shetlandy’ that it’s difficult to tell how it’ll work when the production moves to Edinburgh and Glasgow – the short glossary in the programme will be a lost cause.

Hirda is a warm, affectionate and delightful ode to Shetland that enraptured the audience, nearly brought the house down from the immense and sustained applause, and deserves a place in the cultural pantheon of the isles.

Hirda could have gone horribly wrong. It could have been a half-hearted ‘Hamefarin of Figaro’, but it wasn’t. It went gloriously right – go and see it while you can.

Thursday night’s sold out premiere at Mareel is followed by shows in Baltasound (Friday 27 Nov – tickets at the door), in Vidlin of Saturday, and Sandwick on Sunday, with tickets available at www.shetlandboxoffice.org