‘Showing us how we are by inventing who we were’: John Fulljames on Walter Scott
Ahead of La donna del lago and BBC Radio 4’s Scott Season, the director on the author’s appeal.
Walter Scott’s work was the inspiration for more than eighty operas, most written in the first half of the 19th century. The first of these was Rossini’s La donna del lago, which I will direct in a new Royal Opera production this spring. Opera was a key medium for the spread of Scott’s popularity through Europe and it is interesting to think about why his work was taken up so enthusiastically by operatic composers.
I believe that it’s the mix of romanticism and nationalism, often with a heady dose of the supernatural thrown in, which so inspired composers. Opera has always been concerned with building a case for what philosopher Mladen Dolar calls the ‘myth of community’; either as court opera in the 18th century or as state opera later in the 19th century. Writing at a time when nations were being born, Scott offers a view of a community that had its roots in customs, value and culture. This is romantic nationalism. Scott tries to help us see who we are, by inventing who we were.
Getting to know La donna del lago, I’ve found that this particular opera comes to life when we view it as ‘national myth making’ and read the story in the context of Scott’s own life: his stage-management of King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh, his claimed discovery of the regalia of Scotland, and his raising of a private militia when he feared that a revolution might be coming from across the Channel all feel like events which are in the same world as opera’s story.
For me, Scott’s work lives on most vividly through adaptation rather than through the original prose or poetry. His work is at its most engaging and powerful to modern eyes and ears when his ideas, fantasy and invention are revealed through adaptation and biography.
We’re very excited then that our stage adaptation coincides with a season of programmes about, and adapted from the work of, the author on BBC Radio 4.
The series will include ‘The Man who made Scotland’, a documentary about Scott presented by James Naughtie; radio adaptations of his works, beginning with The Fair Maid of Perth; and an Open Book special to be recorded live at the Royal Opera House.
Over one hundred and eighty years on from his birth, Scott continues to inspire and I hope that, when the curtain rises on La donna del lago on 17 May, you will enjoy seeing how this giant of Scottish literature has inspired The Royal Opera.
La donna del lago runs from 17 May – 11 June 2013.
The production is sponsored by the Peter Moores Foundation and the Friends of Covent Garden with generous philanthropic support from Celia Blakey, Hélène and Jean Peters, Judith Portrait and Susan and John Singer. The Production Director generously supported by Hamish and Sophie Forsyth.