From 27 October to 5 November in the Upper and Dress Circle Foyers of Theatre Royal Glasgow, Scottish Opera is staging an exhibition of original work created by a group of women from the Scottish Borders for the project Sweet Sounds in Wild Places.

The project helped build creative skills as well as increasing self-confidence and self-expression through engagement with the arts and formed part of the 250th anniversary celebrations of Sir Walter Scott.

The visuals, recordings and 3D clay models were made as creative responses to Scott’s 1819 novel The Bride of Lammermoor, which tells the tragic love story of Lucy Ashton and Edgar, Master of Ravenswood. When she is isolated by domineering relatives and pressured in to marrying the heir of a neighbouring noble house, Lucy’s mental health breaks down, leading to fatal consequences on the wedding night. Gaetano Donizetti’s 1835 opera, Lucia di Lammermoor, was inspired by Scott’s work.

Last autumn, the participants took part in a series of free workshops (with support from  The Abbotsford Trust and Live Borders!) using music, creative writing, film and photography in Hawick and Galashiels, led by Scottish Opera artists including a composer and a performance poet/writer, as well as two visual artists, before both groups came together over one weekend at Abbotsford House, the home of Sir Walter Scott.

Exploring the characters of Lucy/Lucia, Sweet Sounds in Wild Places will be displayed in four acts, a format that mirrors a common structure for many operas and plays, that sketches the arc of the story, each with a distinctive theme and focusing on a different subset of art, media, music and creative writing.

The exhibition explores the issues of loneliness and lack of empowerment, as well as the impact, for good and bad, that landscape and environment can have on mental health. The project aimed to provide a safe space for people to rebuild their confidence and emotional resilience, reflect on their own experiences during lockdown, demonstrate how opera can be used as a tool to raise awareness of issues around women’s wellbeing, and find innovative ways to address health inequalities amongst the Scottish population.

The Sweet Sounds in Wild Places project was established following a report in September 2020 from the international aid organisation CARE, which revealed that the Covid-19 pandemic caused a women’s mental health crisis, with reasons including reduced income, home schooling, care of elderly relatives, and social isolation. In situations mirroring Lucy/Lucia’s, some women cited aggressive, controlling, and violent behaviour from partners and family, with nowhere to escape during lockdowns.

Jane Davidson, Scottish Opera’s Director of Outreach and Education said: ‘The pandemic was life changing for most of us, and many people sought to re-evaluate their priorities and values during this time. This was a project that sought to provide opportunities for women in the Scottish Borders to develop their creative capacities in music, visual arts and poetry, whilst exploring themes that could be connected to their experiences during lockdown including feelings of loneliness, isolation, lack of empowerment which are similarly faced by the central character Lucy /Lucia, the heroine of Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor which, in turn, inspired Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Drawing parallels between the challenges faced by this fictional woman and some real life situations, gave the community artists the chance to reflect upon their own experiences through the lens of creative expression, helping to build emotional resilience.’

Viola Madau, one of the workshop leaders said:’ The participant’s creative journey with us started with a shaky black line on a white piece of paper, and culminated with powerful and meaningful artwork they were proud of. Witnessing their creativity blossoming was the most incredible thing. Growing up we are told, directly or indirectly, that the arts are either something to be remunerative or to abandon for more practical skills. The brilliant women we worked with went through tough times in their lives and these experiences and feelings naturally emerged in their art pieces. This was wonderful to see, proving that art can be an incredible part of one’s healing process.’

Susan Ballard, one of the project participants said: ‘Sweet Sounds in Wild Places was incredibly enriching for me. I’d been feeling hopeless and directionless since the pandemic, but thanks to an inspiring team from Scottish Opera, I found new, creative and fun ways to explore and express difficult experiences in a supportive group. I think about what I learnt a lot and continue to feel grateful for the skills and perspectives the tutors helped me to develop. A truly transformative project. ‘

In addition to the exhibition, on Thursday 3 November a Q&A event called Insight into Sweet Sounds in Wild Places is taking place in partnership with the Binks Hub (University of Edinburgh.) The four artists who led the project will chat to a group of students, researchers and other interested individuals to explain more about it, with each artist giving a short presentation about their particular art form approach with some explanations about how some of the exhibits were created.