Thanks to Lisa Flynn and WFMT for doing a writeup on our production of The Gentle Shepherd! Below is a copy of the article, which you can find on their website here.
Scottish Opera “The Gentle Shepherd” Receives First U.S. Performances in Over Two Centuries
Tuesday, September 20, 2016 by Lisa Flynn
Think opera and folk music don’t mix? Think again. This weekend, Chicago will host what’s being billed as a folk opera and the first Scottish opera – The Gentle Shepherd – with a libretto by the 18th-century poet Allan Ramsay. Ramsay’s words, in the rich language of his homeland, tell the story of two shepherd couples in the Lowlands outside Edinburgh. The music in the opera is based on traditional Scottish tunes fused with an Italian Baroque style.
Brandi Berry is artistic director of the Bach and Beethoven Ensemble (BBE), which presents the first North American performances of The Gentle Shepherd in more than 200 years. Berry’s own musical background crosses classical and folk traditions, and while doing some online sleuthing for Scottish folk tunes, she came across facsimiles of this forgotten opera. “It just struck me as such a unique piece of art,” she said. “It really can’t be totally defined in any sort of genre. It says it’s an opera or a pastoral comedy, but I like to think of it even more as a musical play.”
Scholars believe Ramsay collaborated with a composer to write the music. Berry says the most likely culprit is Lorenzo Bocchi, an Italian cellist and composer who lived in Scotland. She explains that in the early 1700s, “the British Isles were a hotbed of collaboration between the Italians and the native musicians.” In the opera, Berry says you can observe the Italian and Scottish influences in The Gentle Shepherd. Hear an excerpt below.
With Berry at the helm, a 16-member ensemble of singers, instrumentalists and actors will bring the score to life, which sometimes means working with minimal information. Often the musicians are simply instructed to play a particular folk song, with no indication for instrumentation. Berry says BBE will use a variety of instrumental combinations, giving the musicians free reign. “We have so much opportunity to improvise, also to make arrangements of the songs. If there’s something in the script that allows us to extend a musical moment, then we can do that as well, because that’s such an inherent part of the Scottish fiddle style.”
Rehearsals for “The Gentle Shepherd,” performed by the Bach and Beethoven Ensemble
BBE’s Executive Director, Thomas Aláan, will sing the title role of Patie, the Gentle Shepherd. This is his first experience performing and improvising in a folk style. He says, “I’m purely classically trained, and this music has much more freedom beyond what you could do in a Handel or Vivaldi work. There’s a lot more leeway to do things with time, with maybe half speech, half singing, and inflection. It’s been a lot of fun!”
Another challenge for the singers is learning to speak Scots. Ramsay was a pioneer in using the language of his people in poetry and on stage. Berry and Aláan had to consult experts in Scotland because many of the words and pronunciations of Ramsay’s time have since become obsolete. Berry says she learned that “even being on the different side of a mountain can change a word or dialect, which is not entirely different from the Appalachian culture here in the United States. It used to be that you could tell a fiddler where they came from by the way they played.”
The Bach and Beethoven Ensemble presents two performances of The Gentle Shepherd, a unique celebration of Scottish culture in words and music. Saturday, September 24, at 8 p.m. at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL, and Sunday, September 25, at 7 p.m. at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago, IL. For more information, visit the BBE’s website.