Friday, 23 November 2012


The first of two compositions for Hear the Drum, the community music project commissioned by The National Trust for Scotland is now finished. The music will debut on Saturday 1 December at another musical community event. The community are invited to come along and play their part in bringing the newly-written music to life for the first time. Drum tells the story of the first Laird of Drum's arrival in the Royal Forest of Drum. Here is the libretto and music.

King Robert the Bruce:
William de Irwyn, clerk in the Royal Chancellory,
On behalf of my kingdom,
I appoint you my representative in the Royal Forest of Drum.
The tower will be yours,
The power of life and death.

William de Irwyn:
An honour,
The King has granted me his land.
The tower, the forest, the law, the law.

I, I represent the King!
They'll open the door, guiard the tower.
Deer will roam the woods.
Life and death be in my hands. 

The people:
Open the door, open the door,
Open the door for the first Laird of Drum.

William de Irwyn:
The King sent me,
To serve the King you shall serve me.
The Royal Forest of Drum is my kingdom.
I shall order, I shall reign,
Open the door.

The people:
Open the door, open the door,
Open the door for the first Laird of Drum.

Copyright text, image, libretto and music Petra Vergunst

Friday, 16 November 2012

Opera out of the box

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of being part of Out of the Box, a weekend of small-scale site-specific opera that is part of Sound 2012, North East Scotland’s Festival of New Music. Alex Reedijk, Scottish Opera’s General Director, concluded a panel discussion at the end of the weekend with the observation that the future of opera lies in shorter productions as new audiences are more likely to try out something new when it is not a sit of several hours. A recent survey by Tete-a-Tete: The Opera Festival for Arts Council England shows that there are around 200 opera companies in England, mostly outwith the subsidised sector. One in five of their productions are 21st century works. One can now genuinely say that opera is as vibrant as ever.

Yet, opera seems to have unleashed itself from conventions and out of the box productions are becoming increasingly common.  Earlier this week I heard Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director of The National Theatre of Scotland explain how her organisation had performed within a 20 mile radius from most of Scotland’s population. In order to bring theatre to people, the theatre had performed in village halls, pubs, car parks. Opera has taken inspiration from site specific theatre. Site specific opera lets concrete settings inspire the drama, and performs in situ by making the site the stage. If anything, the opera weekend of Sound 2012 revealed that site-specific opera plays around with many of our expectations of what opera is and should be.

In Out of the Box, operas were performed in pubs, hotel rooms, stables, on a bus and in a lighthouse. Many of the spaces were small and performers were physically close to the audience. In many cases the audience were even an essential element in the production. The Sloan’s Project by composer Gareth Williams and librettist David Brock, was an opera that took place in a pub. The acts took place in different parts of the pub, and in one act I was that close to the singer that I had to be careful not let her trip over my feet when she moved around the piano. This being a pub scene, the audience gathered around tables or hang about at the bar. The audience was surrounding –even mingling with -the performers from all sites. The audience had become pub-goers and thereby part of the staging of the opera production. Being within reach of the performers meant that their facial expressions, gestures and movements were watched closely, and from all sides.

The site-specific operas during the opera weekend were all small-scale productions of an hour at most. To fit in the lighthouse keeper’s bedroom at the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh, composer Gareth Williams had scaled down his number of performers for Last One Out to a baritone and string trio. On a bus tour to visit this opera, there was even an one-man opera performed by actor, baritone and cellist Matthew Sharp. Being small-scale productions the operas also revealed a new take on the role of musicians in opera. Traditionally, musicians take their hiding in the pit from where they provide the necessary instrumental scenery. In Out of the Box operas the musicians were on stage, and playing an active role in the drama.  The most interesting example of this was in Bolted by composer Pippa Murphy and librettist Ben Nicholson, a work for countertenor, soprano and cello. At times, the cellist took on the role of horse through acting a horse with his whole body. In a scene in which the soprano expressed her love for the horse, the cello had became the voice of the horse with the singer and cellist basically entering a duet.

To me there was one opera that epitomised site-specific opera in all its facets: Faustus by composer Stephen Deazley and librettist Martin Riley. At one moment during the bus tour the bus stopped alongside a woodland. From between the trees a rather tatty looking man emerged, cello in hand (actor, baritone and cellist Matthew Sharp). The bus driver opened the door for him after which the man greeted us passengers with an aria before telling his story whilst the bus continued its journey. In a rather confused state of mind the man gave away his cello, bow, his wallet and passport, and his jumper before jumping off the bus and walking away in the fading afternoon light into another woodland.  Whereas in grand opera the start and conclusion of an opera is marked by the opening and closure of the curtains, Faustus, like many of the other operas in Out of the Box, had fluid openings and endings. Applause at the end of performances were fluid as the audience wasn’t sure when the opera had actually finished. Faustus ended with the librettist (who nobody expected to be part of the plot) running behind the tatty looking man, putting his long black coat over the performer’s shoulders and walking off into the fading afternoon light next to him. The conclusion of this opera was a strong image, an eerie silence in the bus, and no one to hear the applause as the performer was outwith hearing distance.

There was a real buzz around the opera-weekend with audience members actively discussing the merits of the site-specific operas performed. Opera is as vibrant as it has ever been, be it out of the box. It is up to us composers to engage with it. 

Copyright text Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Celebrating Dundee's weaving trade

Last Saturday, around 30 singers celebrated the 500th anniversary of the weaving trade in Dundee in a singing event at Verdant Works. This was the final event of Warp and Weft, a community music project  commissioned by Dundee Heritage Trust with money from Dundee’ Weaver Craft. This project started last August with a memories weekend in which people who worked in the mills or who had family who did so shared their experiences of the jute industry. Together with the exhibition at Verdant Works this provided the inspiration for community musician Petra Vergunst to write We Can Dance, We Can Swing.

In composing We Can Dance, We Can Swing Petra Vergunst took inspiration from opera in more than one way. The storyline unfolds in the first three scenes after which in an epilogue the singers are held up a mirror to reflect on their own experiences. This contrast between an involved and detached stance is expressed musically through the contrast between singing and narration. We Can Dance, We Can Swing also contains many of the usual ingredients of opera: solos, duets, choruses, and instrumental passages.

Highlights of last Saturday’s singing event at Verdant Works were the duet between the millgirl (Annie Hunter) and flute (Brooke Mackenzie) in Still a Young Girl, the poem (Brian Kelly) and flute solo in Among Them, and the clapping and speech choir in Higher Wages. 

The rehearsal was followed by an informal performance of We Can Dance, We Can Swing for family and friends. The Dundee Free Voice Singers, led by Margaret Mathers, rounded off the afternoon by singing some traditional Dundee weaving songs.

A big thank you to all who contributed to making this afternoon a success.

Copyright text and images Petra Vergunst

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Raise your voice

Registration for a singing workshop at Drum Castle on Saturday 1 December is now open.

In this singing workshop, the first of two compositions composed for the community music project Hear the Drum will be rehearsed in the Drawing Room of Drum Castle. Open the Door, about the arrival of the first laird at the Tower of Drum, has been written by community musician Petra Vergunst after the project’s participative storyline development activities in October. The music has been inspired by opera and the interface between drama and music. Workshop participants will be invited to raise their voice and explore speech-like and lyrical singing, and other ways in which the voice can be used musically.

The community music project Hear The Drum was commissioned by the National Trust for Scotland to engage more people with the work of the trust. In addition to the public workshop on 1 December, singing workshops will be offered to local primary schools and women’s group in March, followed by a second public singing workshop on Saturday 16 March. In these workshops the music rehearsed will be a second composition inspired by Mary Irvine's (the sister of the 17th laird) reflections on the Old Woods of Drum. 

The composition for the workshop on 1 December will be uploaded on this blog around the middle of November.

The hour-long workshop on Saturday 1 December starts at 11.30 am and is open to singers of all abilities. For more information and to register your interest in participating in this singing workshop, please contact Drum Castle, Garden and Estate’s senior assistant Laura Paterson at 0844 493 2161 or The workshop costs £4 (£2 for concessions).  

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Earn a wage

Earn a wage is the fifth and last scene of We Can Dance, We Can Swing. In the fourth scene a narrator reflected on the legacy of Mary Brooksbank. In the fifth scene the millgirls reflect on the legacy of the jute industry for their own lives.

We earn a wage,
Feed girls and boys,
Pay the rent, 
Raise our voice,
We are girls,
Girls of the mills.

We can dance,
We can swing,
Stay out late,
Loudly sing,
We are girls,
Girls of the mills.

Copyright text, words and music Petra Vergunst

Among them

Among them is the fourth scene of We Can Dance, We Can Swing. Thus far millgirls have had a night out in town, celebrating their independence and gossiping merrily. From the crowds one millgirl stepped forward to remind the others of the other side of their lives, the difficulties in feeding their families and unhealthy conditions in the mills. In the third scene this millgirl, supported by a crowd of millgirls, spoke up to the mill manager, asking him for higher wages. Scene four provides an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of Mary Brooksbank, one of the millgirls who was confident enough to speak up to the mill management about wages and other working conditions. To reflect the reflective rather than involved mood of this scene, it is narrated rather than sung.

Low pay, 
Not organised,
No voice.


Among them Mary Brooksbank,
Fearless woman 
Whose voice could not be silenced.

Campaigning relentlessly for higher pay,
One with the thousands of millgirls.

Copyright text, image and words Petra Vergunst

Higher wages

Higher Wages is the third scene of We Can Dance, We Can Swing. In scene 2 one of the millgirls spoke about how her own experiences of work in the jute industry gave her the strength to speak up and make her voice heard.  In the third scene she raises her voice and relates the millgirls' demands for higher wages to the mill management. This scene opens with a speech choir demanding higher wages, after which the millgirl raises her voice in recitative (this is where the recording starts). The speech choir returns briefly, before the millgirl and mill manager assert their standpoints in a duet.

Speech choir:
Higher wages!
Higher wages!
We are after higher wages.

In your smart suit
You eat salmon 
While you pour yourself another glass of wine.
Your workers
Live five, six in a room
The clothes the Parish gave them full of dust
Eating bread
Neighbours gave them.

Speech choir:
Higher wages!
Higher wages!
We are after higher wages!

We millgirls need better pay
To feed our children
And our husbands
We need, we need better pay.

Mill manager:
Higher wages? Higher wages?
I won't give you higher wages
Payrise? Gates closed!
Remember that.

Copyright text, words and music Petra Vergunst

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Contribute creatively

The community music project Hear the Drum will start in October with three days of participative storyline development at Drum Castle,Garden and Estate. On the 6th, 7th and 13th of October I will spent time in the castle, tower and woodlands of Drum to write the storylines for three opera-inspired musical compositions. Visitors will be invited to contribute to this process creatively through drawing and writing, thereby pointing at aspects of the story they want to illuminate and filling in conversations, thoughts and feelings. I will then use this material to compose the music for three hour-long voice workshops that will be held in the Drawing Room of Drum Castle on the 1st of December.

On Saturday 6 October you can find me in the Drawing Room of Drum Castle, conjuring up a scene of music making. I’ll be imagining a situation in which residents of Drum Castle are playing piano and singing together. The library at Drum Castle contains volumes of Scottish minstrelsy and songs by Burns. Depending on the conversations and other creative contributions of visitors this storyline may well explore the sociality of music making or how already in the 19th century the singing of Scottish songs was, in part, an expression of being Scottish.

On Sunday 7 October I’ll take residence in the Great Hall of the Tower of Drum. Here, I will imagine what the actual conversation between King Robert the Bruce and William de Irwyn might have been like when the former handed over the rights of Drum to the latter, what may have gone through William de Irwyn’s mind when he approached Drum, and what a ceremonial arrival at Drum might have sounded like. 

On Saturday 13 October I’ll hold up near the entrance of the Old Woods of Drum, inviting people to help me develop a storyline based on a line by Mary Irvine: ‘I lang wish my brother to be at more pains to propagate trees about Drum as I think they might be profitable as well as pretty.’ Mary Irvine was the sister of the 17th laird. She ran the estate for periods during the mid-1700s while her brother pursued the Jacobite cause and fought at Culloden. One possible way to develop this storyline is by imagining Mary’s thoughts and reflections about the woods. This flow of thoughts and reflections can at times be interspersed as Mary gets distracted by thoughts of her brother and the Jacobite cause. Here, visitors may help to fill in the thoughts, reflections and feelings that occupy Mary’s mind.

On each of the three above-mentioned days I’ll be resident in the locations from 11 am to 3 pm. For more information about the project, please contact The National Trust of Scotland's senior assistant Laura Paterson at 0844 493 2161 or or myself, community musician Petra Vergunst, at

Copyright text and image Petra Vergunst

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Still a young girl

Still a Young Girl is the second scene of We Can Dance, We Can Swing. This music has been written and composed as part of the community music project Warp and Weft that celebrates the 500th anniversary of the weaving trade in Dundee. Scene 1 can be listened to on the blog Friday Night. In the second scene, one of the millgirls steps forward to remind her friends of the unhealthy conditions in the mills and the difficulties many of them face in feeding their families. The scene consists of a duet between a mezzo soprano and violin, with the chorus, cello and flute joining in towards to end. The words and music of the second scene are:

I started, still a young girl
As shifter at Dudhope
Left my education
Got ten and nine to cope.

My mother had five children
Two are among the dead
The Parish gave us dresses
Our neighbours gave us bread.

Megan was a spinner
A big sister, My Lord
Jute gave us fever
A doctor, we could not afford.

I know that I must speak
Make my voice be heard
For the sake of Megan
Fear I will not avert.

We know that we must speak
Make our voice be heard
For the sake of Megan
Fear we will not avert.

Copyright text, words and music Petra Vergunst