12 poets for 12 months
In celebration of the new foyers at the Theatre Royal, Scottish Opera commissioned 12 writers to each create a poem. We received 12 wonderful pieces that capture the writer’s memories of being at the theatre.
We will release a different poem here each month. You can also pick up postcards at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow and the Scottish Poetry library in Edinburgh.
The poetry project was kindly supported by the Edwin Morgan Trust and Dr David Summers Charitable Trust.
In that moment when the operas you’ve been to
flash before your eyes: a maelstrom of maestros,
a diversity of divas, a concurrence of high Cs.
From the first one I saw, the shock of a dead girl
emerging from a sack, to sing like an angel;
decades later, after the thrill of the brass, Don
Carlos cloistered from the flesh-creeping Grand
Inquisitor; a profusion of Figaros and Giovannis
in their progress to marriage-bed or furnace roar;
a tender duet, then a little page twinkling back
for his new mistress’s handkerchief; the thunderous
downfall of the Gods and Valhalla in flames
a prelude to consoling wings and redemption;
or with Butterfly lying, transfixed, before us,
the release of heart-break, in a torrent of applause.
In Number One Dressing Room
on this, the last night of the run
before beginners and after her five-minute call
just time for one last time
to centre herself, apply one last scoosh
of that antique cologne she wears to
get in character with just this character,
bin the dregs of it, kiss
her lucky rabbit’s-foot mascot that
got her grandad through the war, drop it
in the maw of her packed carpetbag.
She’s counted the champagne corks,
chucked them, unpeeled from their blu-tack
the goodluck cards from friends,
stacked them on top of the drawings
from her children that sent their
lots and lots of love but gave her guilt.
The over-the-top flamboyant flowers
her agent sent are drooped and dying,
ditto the bonny bouquets from friends,
even the single rose from her secret lover.
She smears the lipsticked messages and kisses
on the merciless mirror, risks
a final check in it, bares her teeth.
God, but she’s glad of that nap under her wrap
before the half – one last night to get every last thing right!
There’s a plane ticket in her handbag.
Beginners, and out she goes along breezeblock corridors
to the wings, the wings
which give her flight.
On gratitude for Opera
Most operas are considerably less than possible:
All art is unrealistic, or parts of it are;
No real children would stray into an enchanted wood
To be seized by a witch; no ring nor real gold
Would confer such powers as opera allows;
But the gratitude we feel is real enough,
The tears we shed for Mimi or for Butterfly
Are not contrived; we cry buckets
At those endings where our hero or heroine
Falls to the floor in the dying moments
Before the curtain falls, just as our smiles
Are genuine enough on a less harrowing ending;
So when we leave the theatre we feel
Somehow better, more enriched than had we
Never gone in that welcoming door to hear
This most charming of arts, this most generous of gifts.
Alexander McCall Smith
I know a man whose burden is a beautiful
brown cello. He carries the instrument in
a cumbersome white case. The case is dented
and scratched, and has seen sunsets from
Santiago to Berlin. The man that carries
the case frowns at every hill. He grumbles
as he shoulders his way through busy streets.
He secretly envies the flautists. But the
case carrier and the musician are not the same.
They are separate in one body. One translates
the great composers through memories of
childhood. The other drinks whisky and spits
phlegm into his sink. They both remember
a visiting cellist who asked their class to raise
a hand. The hand was measured. The musician
says it was to test the strength of his fingers.
The case carrier will tell you that the cellist
never looked him in the eye.
Der Ring des Nibelungen
in the field
the harvest cycle:
to reaping blade
are our gold
our song sung loud
approaching like gods
could wreck all
our bale towers
our labours drowned
in rain’s theatre.
Job Centre: Opera Desk, Sopranos
Soprano. Let me see. Well, there’s a
crying need for Butterflies – kimono, sword and blood bag
all laid on. In Royalty, a bunch of Queens (per usual):
on top, one Scot, one not (a headless/barren choice of fates)?
One blond Germanic bombshell (good at self-defence,
but, frankly, dies on fire).
Not quite your thing? Ok? Let’s try
One seamstress, coughs to death (small frozen hands required)?
One gormless jester’s daughter (bring own sack)? Hm?
Slightly morbid, granted, still, they’re not the worst: this
smart one – Cunning Vixen – winds up skinned.
No, since you ask, no presidents, no judges,
no inventors – just no call.
No suicides, you say.
see? Over there?
The Glitter and be Gay desk? Worth a punt.
They’ve Sprites and Sexy Servant Girls, and
Tarts-with-Heart-of-Gold – there’s even Nuns.
Don’t mention it! You’re welcome. And if
those run dry, Contemporary.
Say I sent you.
They’ll know why.
Seat 13, Row F
Ticket stumps in wan han’ an’ programmes in the other
She guides us tae oor seat.
Just as six follows seven, twelve follows thirteen
An’ with dimmed lights follows –
Fu’ ae aw the hope ae Hope Street
Unwrapped like hard-biled sweets
Waiting… to be carried away on the backs ae lights too bright
Corsets too tight, seats wi’ restricted sight, weans oan sugar high as kites
Interval drinks that ur overpriced, ice cream tubs but never ony choc ice
Empty tubs stashed unnerneath hopin’ naebody will see
Downed pints ae lager, folk bursting fur a wee
Walls built wi’ laughter and a moat filled wi’ tears
Seat wi a number, a nicht tae forget whit we fear.
But no long noo til the big light comes oan
Wings clipped and snipped as we skulk oor way home.
You, in the chair
Memory takes an interval, jaws drop
like curtains as those loved for minutes take
a fall, fall in love, break a leg, break
apart. Words designed to draw emotion,
words etched on brains, heard anew: a rose is
a rose, and your smile and frown confirm you,
as muse who directs from the gallery,
the title you’ve re-scripted; your faces
act as storyboard; their mouths as puppets
strung by words and your reaction, Gulliver
until you applaud – if you choose to do so,
of course. Without an ear a song is just sound;
the eye which reads the page creates the words.
Plays are not for actors. Theatre is
a conversation led by those in chairs.
An Opera to Last a Lifetime
Before we’ve learned to say,
we sing. Before learning, only song.
Breathing song, seeing-hearing-smelling-tasting-
touching everything-and-everyone song.
Then words came. Words mean.
Words matter. Words weigh out what
it is we feel, what it is we do;
what we are, what they are.
Tearing apart what once was one –
into here and there, into now and then,
into theirs and yours and mine.
And so, if we would live again,
if we would share our lives again –
Let’s sing and sing and SING!
Second Date at the Theatre Royal
It was Wallace and Gromit, for God’s sake,
but I forgave you anything then;
laughed at your mock limp
ten minutes before curtain up.
Your sister recommended it –
she had kids and received wisdom
while we had only electricity,
sparks when our elbows touched.
It was almost too much,
not knowing we were all set,
me, nervous enough to leave half-way through,
so you could hug me at the underground,
and point me towards home.
Un Bel Di
(One fine day)
This time I tell myself I will not cry.
I will not let Puccini rip the heart
right out of me, won’t let poor Butterfly
undo me utterly. I’ll stay apart,
above it all, in this gilded circle
up in the gods, beyond the world of things,
enjoy the passing show, the spectacle,
and not be caught by it. But then she sings.
We all wait for the night to pass, the dawn
to break, we all stand watching on some shore,
looking for that ship on the horizon,
the plume of smoke that signals hope once more.
She sings it, Un bel dì… And it’s no use –
I weep for everything I love and lose.
The Theatre Royal’s gorgeous transformation to the Hall of a Thousand Lights
As fast as Glasgow burned its theatres to the ground
it built them back again – we couldn’t do
without our plays and tunes, we need a dance
and song to keep us going. This gaff’s given us
the lot: couthie comics, rude rhymes, romance,
camp and catchphrase, flicks (with music), Ali Baba’s
thieves, diverse monsters (Mary Shelley’s, Columba’s),
wafting Rhine Maidens, our very own Marie Loftus,
a masked ball, a harlequinade, a circus,
Dan Leno’s Orlando Dando, Henry Irving,
and Sarah Bernhardt for one matinée only –
not to mention the sensational telly
(One O’Clock Gang still daft in the memory).
Whatever walls come down, go up, go round,
this magic box holds all, swirling, birling
in the waiting darkness the works shine through.