Anthropocene, an operatic metaphor for our current geologic epoch, explores the primitive motivations behind human behaviours. Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh reunite to present a contemporary opera and Camille Lapaix reviews:

Anthropocene – an airy word for an eerie opera. It represents both the Earth’s most recent geologic era, substantially impacted by human activity and resulting in recent climate and geological changes, as well as Stuart MacRae and Louise Welsh’s newest collaboration.

The Scottish Opera production is a psychological thriller set in the midst of Greenland’s frozen sea. Winter is settling in around Anthropocene, the eponymous and mightiest research ship of Harry King, a wealthy entrepreneur and the expedition’s staker. In the crew, we find his impulsive and well-intended daughter, a married team of scientists seeking the discovery of the millenium, an egotistical scoop-seeker and the vessel’s crew. When the crew favours – not exactly unanimously – to wait for a colleague to come back to the ship, they doom themselves: the crew is entrapped, the ship icebound and the team cohesion ruptured.

Anthropocene Scottish Opera

Image courtesy of James Glossop

But then, their colleague brings back a groundbreaking discovery, a lifelike creature in the ice (an ethereal Jennifer France). As Matthew Richardson‘s marvellous melee of Northern Lights dance around the crew, France shows signs of life and quickly emerges from the ice. Chaos ensues, framed by MacRae’s relentlessly modernist orchestration, his score depicting icy, biting sceneries and raw, cutthroat emotions. In the world of synesthesia, the score would unmistakingly be a frosty white, poetic during France’s haunting soprano and urgent as the stakes get higher and higher.

Anthropocene Scottish Opera

Jennifer France (image courtesy of James Glossop)

The Anthropocene orchestration of high strings puts the sopranos at an advantage and subsequently overshadows the male singers in voice and presence. It swiftly becomes imbalanced.

And this continues both structurally and rhythmically, even more marked between Acts one and two. The first act stretches for hours, dragging the audience for miles through an immaculate desert. The narrative moves oh so slowly, introducing the story and the characters, making their roles and motivations known, all setting up the scene. It is act two that mesmerises and grips; the story suddenly unfolds and explodes, with all of the characters’ motivations lade bare onto a rococo Hackney Empire stage. The white of Greenland is suddenly streaked red by blood and emotion.


In the end, what truly condemns these characters is no climate catastrophe, mysterious entity or magical intervention, but the nature mankind itself. And what condemns Anthropocene is its attempt to condense a million-year phenomenon into a two and a half hour opera. The tale of humanity’s direct responsibility for its own downfall becomes a brutally accurate metaphor.


Anthropocene played at Hackney Empire until 9 February 2019. For more information, please visit the company website.