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Savitri and The Emperor of Atlantis

at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

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World-class opera from a world-class conservatoire

Image of Savitri and The Emperor of Atlantis

The Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow last year was rated number three in the world for music schools: number one was the Juilliard in New York; number two The Royal Academy in London. After the first night of the new double bill of the Opera School, I understand why. Here we had some of the finest young singers from all over the world accompanied by superb playing from the orchestra under the experienced baton of Lionel Friend, and very creative productions of very challenging operas. All of this in the little jewel of an opera house in the Conservatoire made it an evening to remember, indeed better than many an evening I have spent in international opera houses.

The operas chosen I and most other people had never seen before, but I have listened to in recordings. The new head of opera, Phillip White, wanted to choose new works the students were unfamiliar with “so they could go on a voyage of discovery”. The operas he chose were Savitri by Gustav Holst and The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullman, very different operas but unified by a common theme: death!

Savitri is a short Chamber Opera (half an hour) with 3 singers. It’s based on a story from the great Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, as Holst was apparently very interested in Eastern mysticism at the time (1916). Savitri is the wife of woodman Satyavan and is worried that she has heard the voice of death calling for her husband. In the end, she convinces Death that her love is stronger than death and he is saved. Savitri was beautifully sung and acted by Rebecca Godley, a first year student in the opera school, her husband Satyavan was very authoritatively sung by Thomas Kinch, one of the leading students of the opera school and tipped as a future star. Death was well sung by Mark Nathan already with an impressive CV in opera productions whilst still a student.The Orchestra were superbly conducted by Lionel Friend and the set and the lighting were excellent. My only reservation was that the words were sometimes difficult to hear and the production could have benefitted from subtitles – after all, even the English National Opera who sing all their operas in English use them.

The second work was The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullman with libretto by Pete Kien. They wrote it whilst awaiting death in the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt. It was never performed there; the guards thought it was probably a satire on Hitler. Almost certainly it was. The Opera is divided into 4 stories introduced by the Loudspeaker played by Pedro Ometto, a young Brazilian bass. The stories focussed on the interaction between Death, well sung by baritone Jerome Knox and other characters, particularly Harlequin, superbly sung and acted by Irish tenor David Lynn. Also Death challenged the Emperor, well sung by baritone Colin Murray, other parts were well performed by Nia Coleman, Seamus Begg and Joanna Harries, and thankfully the words were very clear. The sets, although simple, were very effective and the staging was excellent and the music superb.

One worrying note was that, on this the first night, the small opera house was half empty. Clearly the works were challenging not only for the singers but for the opera audience. Ironically, if people make the effort to go they will be well rewarded. The works although challenging are melodic, and the standards are impressively high. Scotland is very lucky to have one of the finest opera schools in the world. It’s a pity that we don’t have the funding in place to improve Scottish Opera the company. However if you can make it, do go to this great double bill, it’s on till Saturday 27th.


Hugh Kerr has written on music and cultural politics for the Scotsman, the Herald, the Guardian and Opera Magazine. With Nana Mouskouri he was in charge of music policy for the European Parliament from 1994-99. He has visited over 50 opera houses round the world and this is his 50th Edinburgh Festival

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