Thursday, November 20, 2014

More Shakespearean Monkeys—Baboons, to be Precise

The Okavango Macbeth: A Chamber Opera. Libretto by Alexander McCall Smith. Comp. Tom Cunningham. Dir. Nicholas Ellenbogen. Perf. Mr. McFall's Chamber Orchestra and Edinburgh Studio Opera Chorus. 22-23 April 2011. Delphian, 2011. CD.

No, I'm not on about the infinite monkeys alluded to in Douglas Adams (for which, q.v.). Nor do I refer to the Monkeys that did Romeo and Juliet (for which, q.v.). No, I'm talking about The Okavango Macbeth.

"What's The Okavango Macbeth?" I hear you asking. Ah, well, there's the rub. I chanced upon our library's holdings of an audio recording of this opera (for it is an opera) while teaching the English majors at my institution the finer points of research. Why I was trying the search term "baboon" (for it is about baboons) escapes me for a moment, but it may have had something to do with Romeo and Juliet: A Monkey's Tale, about which we had just been talking. How Macbeth got in there (for it is about Macbeth) is also something of a mystery, but I had Macbeth on my mind and was showing the class how to use some of the Boolean operators to reduce a result list of thousands down to a manageable few dozen.

In any case, we chanced upon a title that seemed to have to do with Macbeth even though the Library of Congress subject heading was "Baboons -- Songs and Music." My jaw dropped as I realized that I had once heard of this show and that I could (if I wished) listen to it right then and there with my entire class.

I didn't, of course, but I did manage to put in on later. In fact, it’s quite good—both the libretto and the music are fairly deep and haunting. The author of the Libretto is Alexander McCall Smith—he of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency. The work is set in Botswana—that of the Okavango River Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve.

Here are the program notes' summary of the first three acts (there are four in all):
Act One
The animals recall the time when all lived together in peace but then came drought and famine—greed was born.  The animals blame the baboons.
Act Two
The primatologists set up camp in the delta and agree that they will watch the baboons but never interfere.  The baboons then emerge and observe the humans–such strange, unfinished creatures–and agree that they will watch but never interfere.  Two of them, Lady Macbeth and her friend, complain about the males and start scheming.  When Macbeth arrives, she flatters him, but he reminds her she must marry Duncan according to Baboon Law.  She urges Macbeth to kill Duncan.
Act Three
As evening approaches, the primatologist reflect on the nature of animal behavior.  Lady Macbeth consoles Duncan whose kingly responsibilities fall on his weary shoulders.  She lulls him to sleep.  With some difficulty, she encourages Macbeth to kill him.  The following morning, the primatologists come across the body of Duncan and discern evil in nature’s paradise.
There are a few scattered videos of pieces of performances available on YouTube. Here's one of an Act Four song entitled "Grubs First, then Ethics."


"Grubs First, then Ethics"

Affairs of state
And love and hate,
That keep the great
Awake at night,
Are from our sight
Grubs first, then ethics.
Beneath the ground

All fat and round
The grubs are found;
Prepare to eat
This lucious treat
Grubs first, then ethics.
The primate way
Can give no sway
To those who say
A leader strong
Will last for long
Grubs first, then ethics.
That's great, and it gives a good sense of the production. There's quite a bit of good humor there—and some particularly good voices.

A more serious scene (and one for which I can't find a video counterpart) involves an exchange between Lady Macbeth and Macbeth.
Macbeth arrives.  Lady Macbeth’s friend withdraws discreetly.
Lady Macbeth:
My lord Macbeth is come,
The one who is all glorious,
In my eyes, O georgeous one,
My lover bright, in courage spun;
Who sends the leopard to his cave;
And in whose presence weak are brave,
Who takes the sun from out the sky,
And plucks the eagles as they fly
With talons drawn, and dashes them,
And dashes them, and dashes them.
Is that me whom you describe?
Am I so brave who once was . . .
Lady Macbeth:
Brave, and always was.
A man may think he’s
Something other
In the generous praise
Of a lover.
Lady Macbeth:
A woman sees the best in men,
A woman finds those depths often
Unseen by man himself.
Still, I am only . . .
Lady Macbeth:
Only one; you are the one and
Only one I think of
When I’m lonely.
I cannot be your suitor,
No matter how much
I love you;
No matter how much
I want you.
You cannot bear my children
Against baboon law.
Lady Macbeth:
Baboon law?  What is the law
But the way people have done things
They could have done
Otherwise if they had thought?
It is the law;
there is no more
to be said about it.
We cannot break
Nor lightly take it
Another way.
It is the law.
And the law says
Duncan, it is Duncan
Who will be your mate;
Duncan, the powerful,
Duncan, your destined
Lady Macbeth:
But I want you.
Me will kill a rival:
Do not ask me
To put my head upon a block.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him first, my lovely,
He will kill me.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him now, my honey,
I cannot do it.
Lady Macbeth:
Then kill him now, my darling.
He will kill me.
Lady Macbeth:
But he must sleep, all creatures sleep,
The mighty lion must also sleep
The leopards may by moonlight creep,
But they, too, sleep; but they, too, sleep.
And in this sleep where is his strength,
If in his sleep through night-time’s length,
He cannot see, he cannot hear?
And one who strikes need never fear
The strength of one who isn’t there.
I am not sure.
Lady Macbeth:
But I am sure, and you are strong;
This thing is not the act of one,
But that of two, of me, and you.
(Repeat as a duet)but he must sleep, etc.
and he must sleep, and they must sleep, and we must sleep.
I would really like to see a production in its entirety. And, with my preoccupation with Shakespeare in Africa, I'd like to explore any particularly African resonance that might be there (if any). In the meantime, it's astonishing to know that this exists and that, for at least some university libraries, a recording of the entire opera is only a click away. 

Click below to purchase the CD from
(and to support Bardfilm as you do so).

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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