Rowena Smith talks to the creators of The Martyrdom of St Magnus

How could a chamber opera set in the Orkneys about an ancient saint also serve as a protest against Austrian neo-Nazis? Rowena Smith talks to its creators

In the summer of 1970, a young English composer on holiday in Orkney came across a collection of essays by a native writer. He was so entranced that he found himself reading the night away, unable to put the book down. The very next day, by force of either fate or mere coincidence, he was introduced to the writer himself.

The composer was Peter Maxwell Davies, and that meeting with the poet and novelist George Mackay Brown was to have an immense influence on the path his career has taken. "From the start, I was captivated by George's writing, particularly by the way he makes a very few ordinary words do quite a huge amount of work," Davies recalls. "Those words stand for a lot and set your imagination buzzing. I thought, 'You can use fewer notes than you've been using and make them work harder and perhaps - if you're lucky - you can set people's imagination buzzing.'"

It was the beginning of the transition from "Mad Max" - the firebrand darling of the British avant garde - to the rather more benevolent figure of the present day, who in 2004 was considered enough of an establishment figure to be appointed Master of the Queen's Music.

If Orkney and that meeting with Brown had a profound effect on Davies - the islands have been his home for the past three decades - it's fair to say that he, in turn, has made his mark on his adopted home, namely with the arts festival he established three decades ago, an annual event that has put Orkney firmly on the worldwide cultural map. The influence of Brown, who died in 1996, can also be felt on the beginnings of the festival: it was upon his novel Magnus that Davies based his chamber opera The Martyrdom of St Magnus, the piece that opened the first festival in 1977 and that will be revisited at this year's festival by the Edinburgh-based Hebrides Ensemble.

That the festival would be named after St Magnus seemed as inevitable as its opening work being based on the life of Orkney's most revered figure. St Magnus looms over the history and culture of the islands just as much as the magnificent sandstone cathedral built in his honour dominates the skyline of Kirkwall.

There are varying accounts of the saint's life, but the one recorded in the 12th-century Orkneyinga Saga tells how the saintly and peace-loving Magnus was joint ruler of Orkney with his cousin Hakon, an arrangement that proved satisfactory until troublemakers sewed the seeds of discord. The two agreed to a peace parley on the island of Egilsay, but while Magnus adhered to the conditions of the meeting, bringing only two ships, Hakon, planning treachery, arrived with his army, and had Magnus murdered. Shortly after his death there were reports of miracles occurring at the site of his grave; soon he was canonised, and his nephew Rognvald instigated the building of the cathedral in Kirkwall.

Though it is described as a chamber opera in nine continuous scenes, The Martyrdom of St Magnus feels more like a work of music theatre. The cast of five all play multiple roles, even the tenor as Magnus; the 11-strong instrumental ensemble plays an integral part, too, in the drama. Davies prepared his own libretto, adhering closely to Brown's retelling of the story. At the climax of the novel, the point where Magnus arrives for the ill-fated peace parley, the narrative breaks off abruptly, and the story moves into the modern age via a transition scene in which the happenings on the island are reported in impersonal terms by a group of journalists. Instead of portraying the murder of Magnus himself, the climactic scene, the Sacrifice, portrays the execution of an unnamed political prisoner.

This dislocation, controversial when the novel was first published, emphasises the universal nature of the sacrifice Magnus makes. For the deeply Catholic Brown, this was the focus of religious meditation, though it wasn't a theme he ever discussed with Davies. "I think religion was something George didn't like to talk about," he says. "For him it was a matter of conviction. I'm not anti-religious; I just don't believe certain things you're supposed to believe. It was something on which we very politely differed."

Davies instead views the Magnus story from a more humanistic viewpoint. "The Military Officer orders Lifolf the butcher to execute the Political Prisoner," he writes in the scene synopsis in the opera score. "The time is the present, and the execution that of any prisoner who sets his face against oppression and is prepared to die for his convictions."

To reinforce the dislocation of these scenes from the rest of the opera, Davies alters his musical language. "Most of Magnus is primarily lyrical with a lot of references to plainsong, but for the scene set in the prison it becomes incredibly abrasive and modern," he explains. The scene with the reporters acts as a musical transition; underneath the spoken lines of the cast, the ensemble moves musically from the middle ages to the present day, opening the scene with references to plainchant, and progressing rapidly through various stylistic eras: Baroque dances, classicism, romanticism, even some jazzy 1930s pop, into the harsh modernism of the execution scene.

Whatever your understanding of the Magnus story, it is the transition that will make the most impact on the audience. "It's the key moment of the opera," says Ben Twist, who is directing the new production at this year's festival. "It's when the audience gets jolted and made to see that this story is not just about the past, it's also about the present and the future."

Davies cites a production at the Carinthia Summer festival in Austria three or so years ago, at which he found himself sitting next to the far-right Austrian politician (and current governor of Carinthia) Jörg Haider. "The execution scene was staged with the singers wearing contemporary Austrian police and army uniforms, and the political point came across very, very strongly," he recalls. "The audience, which was, I think, quite liberal, applauded for a full half hour, I think in appreciation of the political point as much as the music. I don't know if George intended that Magnus have a political element, or whether he was just dwelling on the universality of that kind of sacrifice, but in Austria, because of the neo-Nazi movement, the message seemed very powerful."

It is more than 20 years since The Martyrdom of St Magnus was last staged at the festival, and Twist is aware that there has been a huge shift in the political context in which the work is being performed, something he is keen to address in the new production. "Of course tyranny still exists in the late-20th and early-21st century," he says. "But the main focus of atrocities today is where religion is on the side of evil, whereas I think even 30 years ago religion would have been seen as more of a force for good. The context in which one stages this piece is certainly different: now we have suicide bombers calling themselves martyrs. In this production we're hoping to open up that debate about what martyrdom is - whether it's good or bad. I think the issues are all addressed in the opera."

Though the work has proved popular abroad, particularly in Germany and Scandinavia, The Martyrdom of St Magnus is performed far less often in UK. For Davies, the forthcoming production feels like something of a homecoming. "Whenever I see a performance of Magnus, I immediately feel homesick," he says. "For me it breathes the way that Orkney breathes."

· The Martyrdom of St Magnus closes the 2008 St Magnus festival, St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall, Orkney on June 28. Details:


Rowena Smith

The GuardianTramp

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