Flodden gets operatic

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Of the many artistic tributes to Flodden in the month of the battle’s 500th anniversary, an opera that incorporates an early form of rap stands out.

That is just one of the ingredients in Matthew Rooke’s opera, ‘Flyting’, to be performed at the Maltings on the battle’s anniversary date, Monday, September 9.

The piece mixes African instrumentation with traditional Scottish musical forms, exploring links between the two places.

The term ‘Flyting’, Matthew explains, “Refers to the medieval art of exchanging often cutting or ribald insults, each of the poets or Makars using their wits as a rapier to show their mastery over their opponent in a live poetic contest.

“Flyting was really the first kind of accessible poetry, in a way,” he continues: “you could use it in court to insult an opponent, or to flirt, or curry favour. It really was the rap battle of it’s day.”

Matthew was first pointed in the direction of medieval flyting by composer Ronald Stephenson.

“He asked me: ‘I suppose you know about the African musicians in James IV’s court?’ And I had to admit I didn’t.”

It is true: rather than being a provincial outpost, as is sometimes assumed, James IV’s Scotland court contained African dancers and ladies in waiting.

Out of that inspiration came an opera that, according to its creator, asks “Wha’s like us?

“And we get some interesting answers!

“Musically you have a form of flyting between two musical worlds. There is also the pleasure of working with two different traditions.”

It is very much a unifying, ensemble piece, as might be expected from Matthew, who brings together a multitude of art forms in his day job as the Maltings’ chief executive and artistic director.

“One thing in common between African and Scottish culture is that no one likes to be told to sit back and give the whole song to just one person so in between many vocal sections there is a chance for players to chip in too.”

‘Flyting’ opens in the aftermath of Flodden, and goes on to explore Afro-Scottish links from other centuries.

These include a dramatic musical retelling of the Selkirk-born explorer Mungo Park’s death in the magnificent Boussa Falls while looking for the source of the Niger.

There is a nod to a historical footnote, as the piece goes on to explore the poet Robert Burns’ considering taking up a post overseeing the transfer of African slaves to Jamaica.

There is a free preview talk on the opera, on Saturday August 31, at 2pm in the Henry Travers studio.