Jan Tait and the Bear
Published by: New Music Scotland
About: Emily Doolittle
Jan Tait and the Bear is a new, 50-minute chamber opera based on a 15th century folktale from Fetlar, one of the North Isles of Shetland. At that time, Shetland belonged to Norway, and Shetlanders were required to pay tax to the Norwegian king in the form of barley, sheep, and butter. Jan Tait is accused of cheating on his butter payment, argues with and kills the tax officer, and is taken to Norway to be sentenced to death by the king. After performing an act of humorously grotesque bravery, Tait is granted a last minute reprieve if he can rid Norway of a ferocious brown bear that has been wreaking havoc in the mountain villages. I won’t give away the ending here, but will say that butter features prominently throughout this tale!
Jan Tait and the Bear has its origins in 2010, when I went to Shetland for the first time. I was there looking for killer whales with some biologist friends, and also doing some of my own musical research. While there I met pianist and illustrator Meilo So, who lives on the isle of Yell and organizes the amateur chamber ensemble ffancytunes (the northernmost ensemble in the UK!) She asked if I would write a piece for them, and we decided a chamber opera about Jan Tait would be perfect for the circumstances. I was fascinated by the story’s ancient origins and timeless appeal, its rough, earthy humour, its blending of truth and fiction, and the way it can be interpreted on multiple levels. I adapted long-time Shetland resident Peter Guy’s theatrical version of the same story for the narrated portion of the libretto, and though I had never previously written song lyrics, soon discovered that I loved doing so. I made several research trips to Shetland, and asked numerous questions of the director of the Shetland Museum, Ian Tait (possibly a relation?), to make sure I had the details of life in medieval Shetland right. ffancytunes workshopped sections of the opera as I completed it, and gave an in-progress concert performance of Jan Tait and the Bear at the Sellafirth Community Centre in Yell in July, 2015: this was an enormous help in figuring out how I wanted to finish the piece, and how it might eventually be staged. Due to the transitory membership of ffancytunes, we decided that the staged version would be best performed by a professional ensemble, and I was so thrilled when Ensemble Thingagreed to give Jan Tait’s public premiere, with Alan McHugh (narrator), Catherine Backhouse (mezzo-soprano), and Brian McBride (baritone), directed by Stasi Schaeffer. Come to the CCA on Oct. 6 (8PM) or Oct. 8 (1PM) to follow the adventures of Jan Tait and the Bear!
The development of Jan Tait and the Bear received funding from OPERA America’s Opera Grants for Female Composers program, supported by the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Hinrichsen Foundation. My heartfelt gratitude to these organizations for believing in this project and making it possible!
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