x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Monkey business in Macbeth

Alexander McCall Smith discusses his operatic baboon version of Macbeth

The subjects of Alexander McCall Smith's latest work are ambitious and occasionally ruthless go-getters trying to improve their status in society. They will do whatever it takes to get ahead. They'll even commit murder. If you think they sound inhuman, you are right. The characters in The Okavango Macbeth, an opera written by the author of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, are not what you might expect. They are baboons.

Why baboons? "They're the only animals we know where status is conferred from one generation to the next," McCall Smith told The Guardian. "It's as if the baboon queen's offspring are regarded as princes just by virtue of who their mother is. Baboon society has some Lady Macbeth issues, in that ambitious individuals try to push others up the pecking order.'' The plot of The Okavango Macbeth is simple: two primatologists study baboons whose behaviour mirrors that of the characters in Macbeth. McCall Smith got the idea after reading Baboon Metaphysics by Dorothy L Cheney and Richard M Seyfarth, (which was shortlisted for the Diagram Prize this year, an award for the oddest title in publishing).

McCall Smith also visited Cheney and Seyfarth while on holiday in Botswana's Okavango delta. His opera opened last week and will run until October 17 at the No. 1 Ladies Opera House, which he established last year just outside Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. It has received some very encouraging early notices. The Guardian in Britain said McCall Smith's latest work "exudes the same charm as his lady detective," while the BBC described it as "completely unexpected".

This is especially impressive as the production, which was written with McCall Smith's friend, the Edinburgh-based composer Tom Cunningham, features an almost entirely amateur cast of about 20 and is staged in a disused garage. The tiny theatre, which opened a year ago, is in a tradition of unlikely opera houses, such as the massive one in Manaus, in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest, which was featured in the 1982 Werner Herzog film Fitzcarraldo.

The No. 1 Ladies Opera house is a more modest affair than the impressive Teatro Amazonas. It is a 70-seater community arts centre at night and a restaurant during the day, where, according to its website, meals "are well cooked by John and Alphonce, served by Smokey the waiter and with Vivian for backup". On the face of it, an opera house in a garage in Botswana sounds as crazy as anything dreamt up by Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, but its intention is perfectly serious.

"The idea is to provide a stage for the very many excellent singers in Botswana who want to try opera," McCall Smith told The Guardian. Gape Motswaledi is one such singer. He divides his time between working as a physics teacher at Gaborone Secondary School and being Botswana's leading baritone. "In Botswana, we really do not know about opera or solo singing," Motswaledi told reporters at last week's opening, "but there is a lot of talent here. The existence of this opera house offers a fantastic opportunity for this country.''

According to the London-based opera critic Simon Thomas at the theatre website What's On Stage, the Botswana opera is very much on-trend. "While The Okavango Macbeth hasn't yet rocked the opera world, there is more and more amateur and community-based opera happening these days," he said. "Similarly, operas that mix a fusion of styles, from African to traditional opera, are becoming more common. This production very much fits into that."

For McCall Smith, who lives in Edinburgh but was born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, the opera house is a product of his long love affair with the area. He first travelled to Botswana in 1982 to work with the legal department of the University of Botswana. Since then, the relatively stable sub-Saharan state has also provided the inspiration and setting for his celebrated series of detective books featuring the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, whose proprietor, Precious Ramotswe, was described by The New York Times as "the Miss Marple of Botswana".

With the help of the local musician David Slater, whose idea it was to start the opera house in the first place, McCall Smith, 61, hopes to produce two operas a year in Botswana. As for The Okavango Macbeth, there are plans for a tour of local schools, which are certain to relish this singular take on Shakespeare's Scottish play.