Kennedy-Fraser and Bantock | The Seal-Woman

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About the recording

Project

We are excited to announce that we will record Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Granville Bantock’s Celtic Folk Opera The Seal-Woman between 1-7 March 2024 in Glasgow, with the Orchestra of Scottish Opera, conducted by John Andrews.

Completed and premiered in 1924 at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, directed by Barry Jackson and conducted by Adrian Boult, it exemplifies Kennedy-Fraser and Bantock’s combined brilliance, innovative spirit, and deep affection for their shared Scottish heritage. Despite the historical significance (preserving and promoting Hebridean legend and folk music) and the artistic beauty of this opera, it has not received a full-scale performance since 1975. This project aims to rectify that oversight, reinstating The Seal-Woman to its rightful place in the history of British opera and presenting it to a new generation of listeners, scholars, and opera houses. 

Beyond its artistic value, the project also holds significant academic potential. A fresh recording of The Seal-Woman will enable scholars and music enthusiasts to engage with the opera in a new and more accessible way. This accessibility is amplified by the comprehensive liner notes that accompany all Retrospect Opera releases written by leading experts. 

This project is timely in the current cultural landscape and aims to build on the sell-out performances of The Seal-Woman given by Scots Opera Project with piano by restoring the composers’ original orchestration. With a renewed global interest in celebrating cultural heritage, diverse narratives, and collaborative creations, The Seal-Woman promotes Scotland’s rich cultural legacy. As this opera is such a concentrated celebration of Scotland, being the work of two composers with immediate Scottish connections, and imbued with the country’s deeply evocative music, landscape and stories, Retrospect Opera are determined to record the work ‘on home ground’ in a Scottish city, with a Scottish orchestra, and as many artists as possible who either are or have a connection to the country. 

Resurrecting The Seal-Woman is a worthwhile venture that champions artistic innovation, celebrates Scottish heritage, fosters academic research, and broadens public engagement with opera. Your support will not only bring this neglected masterpiece back to life but will also contribute to the understanding and appreciation of Scottish music, culture, and history. 

 

The Seal-Woman

Plot Summary 

An uninhabited islet in the Western Isles of the Scottish Hebrides 

An old crone or ‘Cailleach’ sings of local legends of seals that turn into mortal women. The voices of a Seal-Woman and her Seal-Sister are heard. Two Fishermen and the Islesman approach the island. The Isleman recalls a Seal-Woman he has seen before, and when she and her sister appear he captures their sea-robes – without which they cannot return to the sea – and will only relinquish those of the sister. He declares his love for the Seal-Woman, and she agrees to go with him. Seven years later, the Seal-Woman has borne his child, Morag. The Cailleach visits them, and while she sleeps three prophetic swans arrive and predict that the Seal-Woman will be free only when her daughter discovers the sea-robe hidden in a peat stack. Morag finds it and brings it to her mother. She flees and flings herself from the cliff into the sea. The Islesman and his daughter listen to the Seal-Woman singing as she swims away. 

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The Seal-Woman was Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s only completed operatic work (in which she also sang the role of the Cailleach in the first production), and a new recording provides a valuable opportunity to recognise the work of female composers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries who made a significant contribution to the musical landscape of their time. Kennedy-Fraser was an important ethnomusicologist and performer who did much to preserve and promote Scotland’s ancient musical culture by collecting and arranging folk songs for publication that are still performed today. 

The mythical Selkie stories (not unlike Dvořák’s Rusalka) provide a captivating tale exploring the entwining of two worlds, making it accessible and intriguing for both newcomers and seasoned opera listeners, and the inclusion of popular Scottish tunes, such as ‘An Eriskay Love Lilt’ further connects the work with its Scottish roots and enhances its appeal for new audiences. 

Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Granville Bantock

Born at Perth, Marjory Kennedy-Fraser was the daughter of the famous Scottish singer David Kennedy and studied music in Milan and Paris. At the age of twelve she toured with her father as his accompanist. Following her husband’s death, she settled as a teacher and lecturer in Edinburgh, devoting much of her life to the collection, arrangement, publication, and performance of Scottish folk songs, especially those of the Hebrides. The Seal-Woman was her only completed operatic work (in which she also sang the role of the Cailleach in the first production), and a new recording provides a valuable opportunity to recognise the work of female composers of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries who made a significant contribution to the musical landscape of their time. For a more in-depth biography please see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marjory_Kennedy-Fraser 

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Granville Ransome Bantock (1868–1946) was an accomplished composer, educator, conductor, administrator, and internationally respected examiner, leaving his mark on every facet of musical life. In addition to his busy professional life, simultaneously holding the positions of Principal of the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music (now the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire) and Peyton Professor at the University of Birmingham, he composed an enormous amount of music.

Born in London to a prominent Scottish surgeon, Dr George Granville Bantock, and his wife, Sophia Elizabeth Ransome, the young composer’s journey was far from conventional. Though initially steered towards the Indian Civil Service and then Chemical Engineering, his path was diverted due to health issues and an undeniable pull towards music.

Eventually, he entered Trinity College of Music where, amongst other things, he studied counterpoint and harmony with Dr Gordon Saunders. On being awarded the first Macfarren Scholarship, Bantock entered the Royal Academy of Music in 1889, a transformative period where he was mentored by a leading Wagnerite, Frederick Corder. Embarking on his professional journey, he travelled the world as a conductor of musical comedies for George Edwardes, and even ventured into the world of publishing with The New Quarterly Music Review.

As a conductor, his skill was recognised in 1897 when he took on the mantle of conductor at the New Brighton Tower near Liverpool, promoting the works of an eclectic mix of composers. Bantock’s stature grew when he moved to Birmingham in 1900 to take up the post of Principal of the Birmingham and Midland Institute School of Music. Eight years later, in 1908, he succeeded Edward Elgar as Peyton Professor at the University of Birmingham. Whilst in Birmingham, Bantock played a significant role in founding the city’s principal orchestra, now the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

As a composer, Bantock’s legacy is one of richly orchestrated tone-poems depicting exotic landscapes and stories. Hundreds of songs sit beside instrumental and piano pieces, enormous choral works and operas, ballets and plays. Bantock was a composer of extraordinary vision and inextinguishable energy.

For a more thorough biography, see King, Andrew, ‘Sir Granville Bantock (1868 – 1946): Aspects of His Life and Songs’, PhD diss. (University of Birmingham, 2021)

The Legend of the Seal-Woman, or Selkie

Tales about selkies – mythical sea-creatures who live as a seal but can shed their skin and transform into a human – have enchanted and engaged story-lovers across much of Europe for centuries. In one traditional retelling, an island-dweller steals a seal-woman’s skin and forces her to live in human form as his wife. They reluctantly have a family together, but one day the selkie discovers where he has hidden her sealskin, uses it to resume her natural form and returns to the sea.

Particularly associated with Celtic and Norse cultures, stories of selkies may be found widely across Norway, Iceland, Ireland, the Northern Isles, and the Faroe Islands, as well as Scotland. For that reason, variants of the myth have long been a great source of artistic inspiration, ranging from Eliza Keary’s poem Little Seal-Skin (1874) to books such as Mollie Hunter’s A Stranger Came Ashore (1975) or Susan Cooper’s The Selkie Girl (1986) and films such as John Sayles’ The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) or the animated Song of the Sea (2014).

One of the most enduring versions is the traditional ballad ‘The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry’, collected by Francis James Child in his famous nineteenth-century anthology and popularised by Joan Baez in her 1961 recording, ‘Silkie’. Another variant of the story even framed an episode of Scottish television crime drama Annika in 2023.

In Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and Granville Bantock’s The Seal-Woman (1924), the selkie myth reaches its artistic apotheosis as a work of opera. Kennedy-Fraser first encountered the story on the small island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides. It prompted her, across some years, to gather orally the ballads sung by the islanders to the seals on the shore as imitations of the airs that they imagined the selkies might sing themselves.

As Kennedy-Fraser explained in the original programme for The Seal-Woman, these ballads became incorporated in her ‘Celtic folk opera’ as the three seal-airs and mermaid’s song, together with a dozen or so other traditional Hebridean songs. The most prominent, ‘Love-Wandering’, appears throughout the score as the love theme.

Performers

John Andrews Conductor
Benjamin Hamilton Assistant Conductor
The Orchestra of Scottish Opera

Yvonne Howard The Cailleach (An Old Crone)
Catherine Carby The Seal-Woman
Catriona Hewitson The Seal-Sister
Seumas Begg The Islesman

Arthur Bruce First Fisher

Christian Loizou Second Fisher and The Water-Kelpie

Eve Pearson Maxwell, Caitlin Mackenzie, Amy Karensa Three Swan-Maidens

Màiri MacMillan Gaelic Coach

Our recording team are Matthew Bennett (Recording Producer), Dave Rowell (Recording Engineer), and Andrew H. King (Executive Producer).

Supporters

 Hawk Green Brass Thank you to those who have already supported us:

Friends | The Bantock Estate | Gavin Bantock | The Nicholas Boas Trust | The Ida Carroll Trust | Vint Cerf (Patron) | The Rebecca Clarke Society | Jenny Collinson | Michael Cooke (Life Member) | Julian Grant | John Grimshaw (Life Member) | The Francis Routh Trust | The Vaughan Williams Foundation | Judith Waddicor (Patron) | Tim Wood-Woolley

Members | David Brown | Helen Brown | Peter Christie | The Brass Bands of Marple | Stephen Lloyd | Robert McCarthy | Alyson McLamore | Michael Sharp | Michael Symes | Roger W. Turner (Life Member)

Sponsors | Drew Adams | Ian Rutland Boughton | Richard Bratby | Norman Croucher | John Diamond | Jean-Marie Grégoire | Natsuko Hirakura | Derek Hughes | Michael Jones | Piet de Jong | Eric Nye | Michael O’Shaughnessy | Helen Pankhurst | Jürgen Schaarwächter | Keiko Shirakawa | John Taylor | Janet Upward | Elmar Weinmayr | Renée (Mrs Percy) Young

Supporters | Michael Allis | Brian Bailey | In memory of Pat Bishop and Kate Rhodes | Mark Blake | Thomas Crochunis | Bill Davy | Roderic Dunnett | Alison Findlay | Jacqueline Fujita | Siân Griffiths | Jacquie Hibbert | Andrew King | Leanne Langley | Patrick Lonergan | Ian McHugh | Colin Morris | in memory of Hilary Neilson | Yuko Otagaki | Saverio Porry Pastorel | John Purser | Joyce Roebuck | Helen Roper | Derek B. Scott | John Sheppard | Masaya Shimokusu | David Shuker | Jan Smaczny | Russell Taylor |Anthony Thorley | Peter Trotter | John Ward | Helen Weatherhead | Mark Welling | Stephen Woodward | 1 anonymous donor