Knit your own opera


Downstairs in the basement rehearsal room, sumptuous Wagnerian sounds are drifting into the hallway. Bergen National Opera is rehearsing a new The Flying Dutchman production. Senta is staring enraptured at the Dutchman´s portrait. Daland is greedily fingering a sack of jewels. Director John Ramster, glasses deep in his spiky hair, is brooding over the score. And almost everyone has a cold.

One floor up, tubas and trombones crowd the corridors, shiny-buttoned uniforms abound and band-masters are talking importantly into mobile phones about flugelhorn solos and how the band from Odda had just robbed them of third place in the mid-junior league. February, don´t forget, means the NMS National Championships, when Bergen swells with chest-busting brassy pride and the streets around Grieghallen bristle with the curious self-importance of navy suits and peaked caps.

But on the third floor, a gentle rhythmic clicking floats from the doors as though some dreamy animal is tapping its teeth. Outside on a long rail, hang dresses for the Dutchman chorus – the sort of between-the-wars rather fetching tea dresses with nipped-in waists, covered buttons over the bosom and swirly skirts. Such dresses need cardigans, and the BNO staff knitters are busy. They seem to be everywhere. In the wardrobe room, our costume chief is pulling a fluff of blue wool from a satchel. In Artistic Administration, there´s a shawl in process. I go, a little bewildered, into the communications office, to enquire… and Ida Marie, temporary assistant, whips a half-jumper from her bag. BNO, it must be said, has a staff team with initiative… and a chorus who now won´t catch a chill.

Dutchman´s designer, Bridget Kimak, has been committed to rooting Wagner´s version of the story in its Norwegian setting – Sandvika, on the southern coast. The set is an abstract marvel of stark coastline and a ‘ship’ which looks as commanding as a Richard Serra sculpture. On stage, the chorus ladies will knit for their menfolk, rather than sew. First we´ll see the start of jumpers, and as the opera progresses, the garments will grow. The yarn is local – beautiful oiled wool from Hillesvåg Ullvarefabrikk*, a fourth generation family business begun in the late 20th century – from fierce Norwegian sheep grazing close by. There are no fancy patterns here – these Nordic sailors wear a clear navy or cream.


Knitting and opera, however is not a first. As part of Stavanger2008, European Capital of Culture, we presented Odysseus Unwound, composer Julian Grant´s wonderful opera which, improbably, brought together a team of knitters from Shetland – formidable ladies who could click at virtuosic speed – with opera singers from London, all masterminded by Bill Bankes-Jones´s tirelessly inventive company Tete-a-Tete. While Stavanger2008 came into the process relatively late-on, Tete-a-Tete´s initiative was astounding. Flying Englishmen, they sailed to Shetland with Julian Grant and a clutch of singers. Imagine the scene, in a far Northern village hall – ladies who have never left the island confronted with artists distinctly Southern and urban; needles and arias at the ready; an operatic score of sounds curious, strange-coloured and fantastical to folk-tuned ears.

Julian remembers: “My personal epiphany notwithstanding, it struck us all that the Odyssey is rife with references to the crafts we were investigating, most obviously Penelope at her loom; then there was Odysseus’s island hopping, which resonated most naturally with life in the Shetlands. Yet there was still trepidation… Would this improbable cocktail of talent work at all? Starting with a simple skills-sharing session (knitting singers and singing knitters) within days what had seemed improbable became inevitable.”

His version of the story, with librettist Hattie Naylor, somewhat bucked our sloppy thinking – they had no truck with a glamourous swash-buckling Odysseus “to whom” Julian says “we are introduced in our childhood is first as a hero of brightly coloured children’s books, a victim of superior forces who has fabulous Boys’ Own adventures, outwitting monsters and treacherous ladies of dubious repute”  For a more realistic story, he suggested, we should read, The Iliad about the terrible carnage of Troy, and the needless destruction of Cicones. Julian took a sober view: “Odysseus is a flawed con man, a smooth and suave psychopath, whose tales of his own adventures conjure up a nightmare of blood-letting, which ultimately does him in.”

The opera, for six singers, five craftspeople and seven instrumentalists, in fact premiered in timely fashion at the National Knitting Show at Alexandra Palace before its journey to Norway. We staged it in Sandnes, home – until the 1980s – to a vast knitting industry; today the sheds are a shopping mall. In Sandnes Culture House, I´m not quite sure who was the more startled – the Shetland knitters or the audience. But the musical language was arresting – touching, fierce and luscious.

Meanwhile in Bergen, the knitting continues. Edvard Grieg Kor´s first soprano – the ensemble is the hub of BNO´s chorus – is hard at work, and so, she says, is her mother. If there is rigour in the rehearsal room, it is matched by tension of a different sort as yarn is tweaked and stretched, sleeves emerge and hemlines achieve a woolly frill.

For sure, every premiere has its own glorious personality. On March 10th, Wagner´s opera will triumph and will deliver new truths in John Ramster´s vision, sung by stupendous voices. But there´s a certain pride in the design. In amongst Bridget´s dramatic set are costumes truly, veritably home-made. Now, pass me my pins….

Mary Miller

More info: The Flying Dutchman

*Hillesvåg Ullvarfabrikk :

Future sounds from Bergen

Oslo, minus several degrees, the landscape monochrome with luminous streaky skies. Bergen National Opera is in the capital at Operaen with a fine mix of nationalities and three Nordic composers to develop new operas for premiere in March.

This morning we slither over hard-packed ice to the rehearsal room to work on Øyvind Mæland´s new opera – one of three short works which Bergen National Opera has commissioned for Borealis Festival. The violinist is missing, the bass player is deep in discussion with conductor Steffen Kammler, and the singers are practising small swooping sounds and spitting consonants. Øyvind´s little opera is about tiny emotions – twitchy moments of apprehension, compassion, embarrassment – and the music is lucid, varied, and wonderfully eccentric.

Yesterday, Rebecka Sofia Ahvenniemi´s opera – a ‘trailer’ involving Beyoncé and female power – provoked fierce conversation. Ahvenniemi herself, an animated elf of fizzing energy, has a way with words: “Guitar” she says “you have an important role in creating confusion at this point.” The guitarist plucks with enthusiasm. Rebecka´s music here is full of collisions. Baroque vocal lines underline splintering string sounds, and Beyoncé song quotes croon over Straussian harmony. “Let´s go into this late-Romantic porridge a little earlier” she says briskly, adjusting her score.

In the canteen, singers from Operaen´s in-process production of Bellini´s Norma – the director is upcoming young Norwegian star – are noisily at lunch. A large baritone in fur, cape, Tolkien-like garb, is munching salad and barking on his phone. Long straggly hair, large boots and facial hair abound, along with Hollywood blondes and some startling make-up. Meanwhile the ballet corps are fiddling with their feet and giggling – other than a tiny ballerina who is crying quietly in the corner. Our guest BNO director, Sjaron Minailo, is wrangling cheerfully with dramaturg Gaea Schoeters. “How can you ask the composers about their ‘point of urgency’” says Gaea, rolling her eyes “it´s such a nineties question”. Sjaron mimes indignation “Really? Well how do we put it for our new cool age? Where´s the edge? I want to know their critical message.”

He had asked this of all of the writers at yesterday´s session. Our third composer, the quiet, thoughtful Lars Skoglund, had talked about how his opera – which takes place in a library where three people, an awkward triangle, converse in fractured whispers – reflected his fascination about how conversations chose words in a space where texts line the walls. Rebecka had talked about female assertiveness – a line in her opera talks about Beyoncé wanting to ‘wear a suit, go to meetings’. Our only male singer present, Halvor Melien, a proud recent attendee at a Beyoncé concert, spoke up fiercely ‘What! I don´t recognise the male sexuality you´re talking about!’ and we hastily moved on to how new violin bowing might produce white noise, and how to scream elegantly “without sounding like a horse” says Halvor helpfully, recovering tranquillity.

On Day Two, Annelies Van Parys – award-winning Belgian composer whose Private View Bergen National Opera co-produced with seven European partners in 2016/17 and is now with us here as a mentor – is discussing microphone techniques with singers Elisabeth Holmertz  and Lore Lixenberg, Lars Skoglund is handing out revisions and Øyvind Mæland is doubling as rehearsal pianist. Ahvenniemi is in the canteen writing furiously.

Exciting times – to have three new works in development, each one brilliantly individual in its sound world, each one topical, each one visually distinctive, is remarkable. Don´t let´s worry about our future opera. It´s all in good hands.

Mary Miller

January 9, 2018

Otello the Outsider


Downstairs in Grieghallen, we have just started rehearsing Verdi´s Otello for later this month. We´ve celebrated with cake and coffee, sympathised with singers who have just stepped off red-eye ‘planes. Now director Peter Mumford is delicately picking at Shakespeare´s characters: the tortured Moor general, the growling, prowling adjutant passed over for promotion, the newly elevated Cassio.

If Otello´s agonies begin some pages into the opera, Iago is wracked with fury from the very opening chords. Iago, the soldier, the opportunist, the man with the bleak heart, has emerged from the ultimate world of trust: man together with man in the face of the enemy. He and Otello have soldiered together, faced death together, trusted their being to each other. Together, they have killed, smashed cities and broken lives. Now Otello has betrayed him. Iago is stuck in the hot-house of barracks with no plan other than revenge. And into this turmoil, Shakespeare introduces sex: the fragrant Desdemona, the Moor and mighty general´s young wife. It´s a terrible, provocative story. Nicholas Hytner, chief at the UK´s National Theatre, about to direct Shakespeare´s play and feeling alien to the world of the military, consulted a senior figure recently returned from Basra. Sex and the violence of war do not march well together, he learned. The hot-house will boil.

Centuries of performance have insisted that the play, and consequently the opera, are about race – that Otello is defined by his African roots, that the fact of his black skin makes inevitable his actions. As late as the 1960s, productions aligned his native ‘barbarism’ with his raging, uncontrollable jealousy. In the noughties, white actors still strutted obscenely with painted brown faces. And forget not that in recent memory, a good deal of pretentious babble preceded Jonas Kaufman´s Otello at the Royal Opera – would he be black, white, or merely tanned?

In Bergen, we´ve taken a fierce and deliberate line with a tacit agreement that we will concentrate fully on exploring identity and character – and of course, on presenting sounds which seize the heart. We have a white Australian Otello, and African-American singers as Desdemona and Iago.

Why, we´ve asked, presume that Shakespeare is writing about race? Far more, he is writing about the other, the outsider, the man alone in a writhing web of strangers. Otello is given his lofty position by the Venetian Court, who routinely appointed foreigners to command so as to avoid vicious muttering within their own elite. And in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock, defined as mean and an abuser, is referred to simply as ‘the Jew’. We call Otello ‘the Moor’ in much the same careless way as Hamlet is deemed ‘the Dane’ – it is a means of definition. Otello, paranoia apart, is aware that he is different – but his colour is only a part of his head-banging insecurity. He worries about not having ‘those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have’; about being a generation older than his wife; about being a military man amongst ordinary people. He´s not a murderer because of colour, but because he is a complex, frail human taunted by the perfection of his highly-born child-wife, driven to utter despair by his conniving peers, and given to feeling before he thinks.

The rehearsal begins. Poison is lapping round the rim of Iago´s being. Desdemona, a trembling teenager with a violent, volatile husband, is bewildered. Cassio is drinking heavily. Verdi is knitting stupendous swerving lines into a furor of dissonance. The drama is social realism at its most acute and distasteful, set to music which inflames the soul.

This is Verdi from two centuries past, but opera at its most raw and modern. Past, present future. Emotions never change.

Mary Miller

1st December 2017  /  Otello at Bergen National Opera


Photos from rehearsals in Grieghallen: 1) Stuart Skelton (Otello) and Lester Lynch (Iago)  2) Lester Lynch vents fury in the role of Iago

Witches and Wonderland

In Os´s spectacular fjord-side culture house, a witch with a long silver tail is dancing with a bloody saw and cackling horribly. Hansel is trapped on top of a hospital trolley and Gretel is hiding behind lurid pink boxes. Welcome to the opera!

Bergen National Opera is rehearsing Humperdinck´s wonderful work for all ages, a new production with a singular lack of sugar and gingerbread but with all kinds of spookery and gruesome effects guaranteed to delight fiendish young minds and thoroughly unnerve their parents.

Right now we´re watching video of skeletal hands flickering on the front of a particularly grimy oven, and working out how Gretel will stuff the witch, her tail and her massive bouffant wig into the cooker without dislocating a limb. As it is, one hand is dangling limply out of the door. “Don´t light the legs too much; it´s confusing” says director James Bonas to lighting designer Martin Pettersen, who sits behind a jittering computer screen and a battery of switches. In the gloom just before her demise, the witch has sharpened an unsavoury looking spike, Gretel has snatched the magic wand and is singing ‘hocus-pocus’. So the siblings will defeat evil, kill their horrid captor, find their hapless parents and live happily after…

The brief from BNO to Bonas, designer Tom Paris and music director Stephen Higgins was to create a ‘suitcase’ opera, to be taken on tour from north Hordaland down to the southern Rogaland town of Bryne, performing in eight venues and scooping up school class 7 as participants in the show. We have five wonderful young Norwegian singers in the principal roles (the witch doubles as Hansel and Gretel’s somewhat despairing mother). Then, a school class local to each of the venues will have a walk-on role and a glorious chorus to sing – all accompanied by a virtuosic piano version of the orchestra score. Along the way, we invited a couple of school classes in to evaluate the process as the opera grows through rehearsal – Bergen´s Montessori school had plenty to say on their visit last week: ”Can´t hear the words; why does she (the witch) do that? We want more scary bits!”

But by now, the suitcase has become a truck, the production has grown from a few flat-pack boxes into a set resplendent with huge, albeit gorgeously painted, boxes, and the props list bulges with oversized blood-bags, grotesque stripy candy sticks, brooms and glittery shoes. The painted floor – a critical part of the decoration – coming by van from Poland, is currently AWOL somewhere north on E16. It might arrive this evening, but … The driver´s voice is lost in a tunnel.

The video, created by Siren Halvorsen and Fredrik Rysjedal, is fantastic – as we watch, birds flock across walls, trees grow spindling branches, and beetles creep over sleeping bodies in the forest. Lit by flickering, trembling skeletons, the boxes transform into eerie nightscape as Hansel and Gretel shiver and whimper.

Tomorrow, Class 7, Os Barneskole is coming for their first rehearsal. They´ve had workshops with BNO´s Ann-Terese Aasen, but now they´ll put on their hoodies-with-wings and become angels. Next, they don orange boiler suits to emerge as the lost children who find freedom at the opera´s end – a moment as tear-jerking as any in music.

The magic of Humperdinck´s story is of course the astonishing score itself – rich with melody, beautiful, surprising and evocative. But no other opera story so utterly grips, bewitches and touches the specialist listener and the youthful beginner alike.

So, parents, grand-parents, aunts and uncles bring a child. Or just come. Come, and be one yourself.

Mary Miller

18 November, 2017
More info and tickets:

Hans_Grete_Oseana181017-46 nett



Händel and Humanity


In Grieghallen´s basement rehearsal room, figures in tattered grey sing Händel as they shuffle towards a table where soup is ladled from a vast battered pot. The scene is bleak. We are in Ireland – or it could be Norway – in some kind of timeless misery with freezing weather and famine, where the country´s distant officials have long ceased to care, and where the church is struggling between old-school hell-fire authority and its need to offer succour.

So, here at Bergen National Opera we are creating a staged version of The Messiah for Festspillene i Bergen in a special edition by Malcolm Bruno, created from the original material which Händel took to Dublin for the oratorio´s premiere. The director, Netia Jones, acclaimed for her layering of stage direction, film and live video, is talking with passion and extraordinary clarity about the circumstances in which the oratorio was first performed: about the text – its writer, Charles Jennens was a devout Anglican and unflinching believer in scriptural authenticity – and about 18th century English snootiness towards a religious work being intended for the theatre. She talks about hypocrisy, about rural communities where a fundamentalist priest thunders about divine retribution as his congregation sickens and starves, about political representatives turning their backs and returning to warm well-fed firesides, about Godly but kind folk with a belief in hope tending the needy. She muses on Händel, newly settled in London, writing music of genius at furious speed as public opinion turned against showy Italian opera towards a near-craze for English-text oratorios.

But in creating the Messiah, Händel swerved from what had become his norm. For this new work, there were to be no highly dramatic roles for the singers; no individual narrator and no quoted speech. Though Jennens didn´t intend his text to be a dramatization of Jesus´s life and teachings, he did want to present (as opposed to explore) what he described as the “Mystery of Godliness” through extracts from the Authorized (King James) Version of the Bible, and from the Psalms in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

For Netia Jones, the Messiah tells a deeply human story. The four soloists can hardly be said to have theatrical roles as such, but their characters are distinctly drawn. Soprano Kateryna Kasper is an angelic voice, a figure of innocence and purity. Mezzo Renata Pokupic is a mother – a shy, little known member of the community with a very sick child for whom she is seeking help; urgent help, as he is stricken with typhus. Our tenor is a curate – a young, naïve, idealistic priest in his first parish, struggling with the seeming brutality of his Lord and the flickering questions which torture the basis of his faith. Meanwhile, fire, brimstone, Godliness and prejudice define our bass, an old fundamentalist priest with the Old Testament emblazoned on his brow, and anger surging in his heart at the sin of his parishioners who have brought such devastation upon themselves. The chorus personifies the village, a mix of kindness, lost hope, burning zeal and raw survival. We see them in church, in icy limb-freezing weather, and, at the soup kitchen.

So the atmosphere, in rehearsal, is extraordinary. It seems that we hear Händel´s music unfold for the first time. Freed from the bulging choral extravaganza of the British concert hall, the music seems at once extremely intimate and frighteningly spacious. We are working with Bjarte Eike´s Barokksolistene and the gut-stringed mewing sound with chittering harpsichord is acutely human. The compact chorus – a mix of our own fine Edvard Grieg Kor and Washington Cathedra´s elite Cathedra vocal ensemble – produces fantastic sounds: blazing, glowing, gasping, and what seems, at times, like an end of life breath.

There are tough questions both to Bjarte – for the singers, it´s not straightforward to follow a skittering violin bow, as opposed to a conductor´s baton – and to Cathedra´s Michael McCarthy whose beat leads the most complex, contrapuntal material. For this is chamber music on the move – hard lines to sing in ensemble while navigating all kinds of instructions on stage.

In the weeks to come, we move to Den Nationale Scene as the work takes shape for performance; from the Great Music Hall in Dublin 1742 premiere for charitable causes – prisoner debt and aid to hospitals – where because of over-crowding, the audience were requested to wear neither swords or hooped skirts – to London´s Covent Garden Theatre, where the reception was chilly (such exalted outpourings should surely be heard in a church) to a small, beautiful Norwegian theatre.

There, after weeks in a grey airless room, Handel will take the stage. And why his masterpiece has endured, through theological questioning, public adulation and disenchantment, multiple editions and orchestrations, overcharged performance and countless Christmas bawlings, will become gleamingly, movingly clear.

To Jennens´ words, Händel will spell out his own glory. In some way, we shall all be changed – by great music shown to us as humans, and by a staging of consummate humanity.

Mary Miller

5th May 2017

Il turco in Norwegia


“Wow” says Pietro Spagnoli, great Rossinian buffo baritone “we´re talking Rossini to Broadway!”

At Bergen National Opera, everyone is breathless from high kicks, razzle-dazzle, fancy moves and footwork. The dancers are sweating lightly, stretching their lycra-clad legs and fiddling with their feet. The chorus is gasping quietly and practising jerky movements as though searching for a wasp lost in their clothing – dance director Sean Curran´s routines are not, for sure, in their usual repertoire. The soloists are beaming and chattering in Italian by the coffee machine.

Welcome to Il Turco in Italia directed by American opera supremo Mark Lamos – a riotous combination of highly sophisticated ensemble, fabulous arias, touching moments and carefully choreographed mayhem.

Mark, along with designer George Souglides, last illuminated BNO in 2014 with Rimsky-Korsakov´s The Golden Cockerel – a Norwegian premiere which put Russian opera firmly on the Bergen map – and which created pictures never to be erased from memory: a golden cage shimmering above the stage with a jittering boy/bird as the eponymous cockerel; a wicked Eastern queen in a dazzling scarlet feather coat singing seductive lines to bewitch a foolish, doddering Tsar; a blasted landscape under a blood-red moon with ruined trees and a scattered, broken army. Unforgettable.

But Turco! It couldn´t be more different. Now, listen carefully – like most Italian opera, the plot is tortuous. We are at the seaside – maybe even in Pesaro, Rossini´s eccentric, enchanting home town. A poet, Prosdocimo, is looking for a story for his next libretto and in front of him, an interesting tale begins to unfold. Old Geronio (Spagnoli´s role) has a tiresomely flirtatious young wife Fiorilla, a girl troubled by a voracious need for male attention, preferably not from her husband. A Turkish ship sails in captained by the glamorous Selim – do not look to this opera for political correctness – and Fiorilla wastes no time. Meanwhile, Selim´s old girlfriend and a pack of gypsies are in hot pursuit. In the end, after a domestic ruction, a masked ball, a critical letter, it all resolves… How? You will just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, upstairs on Grieghallen´s third floor, a mix of Hungarian, Norwegian and German costume makers are draping bling onto delighted extra cast members. The clothes are outrageous, all froth, silk turbans, shocking pink trousers and bosomy dresses. There are harlequins in primary colours and pom-poms, crazy hats, and skirts the size of Victorian overmantels.

Along the corridor, Øystein is working with his puppets, little gesturing, weaving miniatures of the principal characters, clad in matching extravagant silks. Little Fiorilla is learning to stretch her wooden hand to slap mini Geronio. He is organising his dangling feet to swerve smartly away.

But right now, we have a half hour break. Spagnoli has taken his dog for a walk – he never travels without her – and our office has adopted her with somewhat soppy adoration. The dancers are outside smoking, and Fiorilla, Spanish soprano Sylvia Schwartz is on the phone to Rome, to her children´s nanny.

Mark is composing an email to the Metropolitan Opera, New York – they´ll revive one of his Verdi productions next year – and we are trying to catch our breath. We´ve just had cake for Mark´s birthday, and the sugar high compounds the atmosphere of overall exhilaration. In ten minutes, Rossini will swirl gloriously back on stage, the music will bewitch us and our toes will start to tap.

Broadway, Pesaro, Italy, Bergen – here we come, with the Norwegian premiere of an opera like no other. Bring your dancing shoes – isn´t that what the aisles are for? – and settle in for a night on the town, at the seaside, in the company of our cast of sparkling stars.

Mary Miller


Burns in Bergen


The Immortal Memory

“Then, all unknown,
I´ll lay me with the inglorious dead
Forgot and gone…”

So wrote Robert Burns, far from forgotten this January 2016, close to 260 years from his birth.

How might he have reacted to us celebrating his life at a Burns Supper? – he´d be – I suspect – bewildered, but just a little intrigued.

As a child I went to many Burns suppers – my grandfather, who was an academic but also a Church of Scotland minister, had a very beautiful singing voice, and he was always asked to sing. I was about nine or ten and a violinist, and he had very lovely arrangements of Burns songs with violin obligato. So I would be dragged along scowling (I was not a willing performer, although I loved it once my Grandfather started to sing) and we would weave the tunes between us. Wonderful tunes – the tough calls to arms and the dreamy ones that Burns´s mother had taught him. She couldn´t read or write, but she had a treasury of words and music in her head. That – the music – is part of our Immortal Memory too – that we sing Burns perhaps even more than we speak him. Beyond all the sepia tinted pictures, the shortbread tins and the bagpipes and haggis, it’s hard to think of another poet who commands the love and respect of generations: his poetry just has so much to say to us, that we cannot contain it without celebration.

As we lurch home tonight, our mouths still powdery with haggis, our knees sore from reels, our heads still nodding with Auld Lang Syne and maybe a wisp of Ae Fond Kiss, in some far country, another speech will be beginning. Another knife will plunge into the haggis “Oh what a glorious sight! Warm-reeking, rich!” (those from the West, forgive my Scots; I come from Edinburgh). In Australia, the ex-pats are done with this year´s feasting and singing, in America they haven´t yet begun (in a whole number of senses….)

Burns started life in a rough cottage. He always knew that his life held possibilities. He wrote to his mentor Dr John Moore “My social disposition was without bounds or limits”. It´s dismal business, tonight, to consider inauguration speeches – in fact I´ll fine anyone 100 krone if they mention a certain T-word this evening – but think, say, what Burns would have made of OBAMA´s inauguration speech – remember what he said about social needs, about greed and about political irresponsibility?

“Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune. 

(We Americans) have never relinquished our scepticism of central authority, nor have we succumbed to the fiction that all society’s ills can be cured through government alone.”

Burns always was always responding to society. His poetry even now always responds to today´s world. He even wrote about banks:

“Had I to guid advice but harkit
I might, by this, hae led a market
Or struttit in a bank and clarkit
my cash account.
While here, half-mad, half-fed, half-sarket
Is a’ th’ amount.”

He thought – and reflected – on politics, about how his people were represented, about the origins and limits of political authority. At the opening of the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 1999, Sheena Wellington sang:

“For a’ that an’ al’ that
It´s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man the world oe’r
Shall brothers be for a’ that”

Back to Obama – we could have easily have sung that on 20th January 2009 or 2013.

I was just reading a copy of The Spectator magazine from around that time, where I guess we were all a little more light-hearted. There was a story about a poetry competition – about entering heaven. The Almighty heard the most appalling racket going on at the Pearly Gates. Wouldn´t you guess: English and Scottish football fans. “Right” he said “I´m not putting up with this for the rest of time. I gather that you are as usual quarrelling about which Nation is top dog. Well you´ll resolve that dispute now and for eternity. So, both groups, nominate a poet.” The Scots chose Burns, and the English, Wordsworth. And God said “You have 20 minutes to to produce a four line poem including the word Timbuktu – rhyming.”

It took the Wordsworth gang no time at all. The Scots were thoroughly depressed, because it sounded awfully poetic:

I went unto a foreign land
I came across a silver strand
A sailing ship hove into view
Her destination: Timbuktu

BUT suddenly, from the back of the Scots corner came Rabbie Burns – and he saved the day:

Tim and I a’walking went
We spied three lassies in a tent
Since they were three and we were two
I bucked one and Tim buck’d two!

But perhaps it´s the extraordinary range of Burns´s songs and poetry that gives us his immortality. He was just as brilliant and fluent writing about the church´s hypocrisy – think of Holy Willie´s Prayer – as he was in beautiful, tender love poetry. In John Anderson, my Jo, he captures a whole marriage in two delicate, heart-rending stanzas. Remember:

John Anderson, my jo, John,
We clamb the hill thegither;

He makes us laugh, and he makes us weep.

He´s the poet who can make us look at ourselves again, who is always reinventing himself, because we are constantly remaking him, rethinking him. He was fascinated by how complex we are – all of us. “Oh wad some pow-’er giftie gie us, tae see oursel’s as others see us.”

So, we have a poet of the head and the heart. He shared his head – his thoughts on justice and faith – and he opened his heart to share his vulnerability and a capacity for love which he wanted us all to share. He never sought celebrity. He was a poet and musician of the mouth – his bequest is his language: sweet, passionate, funny and pragmatic.

His Scot´s language has legs, wearing a kilt in Scotland, or a sari in Sri Lanka or a bush hat in Sydney. His poems travel, surf, fly. And mostly, the haggis travels with them.

Mary Miller

25th January 2016