Conor Mitchell’s new opera for children is not without a dark side

IrelandIreland Conor Mitchell’s The Musician: A Horror Opera for Children: Soloists, The Belfast Ensemble / Tom Brady (Conductor), Livestreamed from Belfast’s Lyric Theatre as part of 2021 Belfast Children’s Festival, 12.3.2021. (RB)

Conor Mitchell’s The Musician: A Horror Opera for Children (c) Neil Harrison

Director/Designer – Conor Mitchell
Choreographer – Jennifer Rooney
Lighting – Mary Tumelty
Projections/3D Virtual Production – Gavin Peden
Costumes – Laura Firby
Ensemble Leader – Clare Hadwen

Paul Carey Jones – The Musician
Matthew Cavan – The Traveller
Rebecca Murphy – The Vile Little Girl
Sarah Richmond – The Boy
Maeve McGreevy – The Mouse (solo dancer)

Following his acclaimed production of Abomination: A DUP Opera (review click here), Conor Mitchell returns to the Lyric Theatre with this new children’s opera. The Musician is a prequel to The Pied Piper of Hamelin by the Brothers Grimm. It tells us about the origin of the mysterious Pied Piper and how he developed into the unpleasant character depicted in the fairy tale. He starts his life as an impoverished waif living in squalor and mistreated by everyone around him. We see some of this mistreatment in his exchanges with the vile little girl who abuses and patronises him. His only companion is a mouse with whom he shares everything. A mysterious musician turns up who entrances the town with the power of his playing. The boy behaves in a selfless way by offering to give his mouse to the musician and the musician teaches him how to play. The boy discovers that the music he plays gives him power over people and other living things. Following a series of confrontations with the vile little girl he uses his pipe to exhort rats to attack her and other people in the town.

Conor Mitchell’s The Musician: A Horror Opera for Children (c) Neil Harrison

Much of the action takes place on a ramp which also acts as a grassy verge. Images are projected on to a screen behind the ramp and on to the ramp itself when the rats were attacking. Laura Firby’s costumes lit up the production with some bright primary colours. The traveller was dressed from head to foot in bright red and was wearing a suit, shirt and tie. The vile little girl was wearing a yellow coat and was carrying a balloon. The boy was wearing drab grey colours and looked dirty and dishevelled. The projections on the screen were inventive and included drab street scenes, animated projections of mice and rats and in some cases individual words such as the word ‘Talent’ which appeared when the boy was trying to master the pipe.

The cast did a sterling job breathing life into their respective roles. Matthew Cavan was excellent as the sinister traveller. He acted as the narrator of the tale while providing a commentary on the action before revealing his true identity at the end. As The Boy, Sarah Richmond was suitably down at heel at the beginning of the opera before becoming nastier as the work progressed. Rebecca Murphy’s Vile Little Girl was as described and became sanctimonious when reminded of her church affiliation. Paul Carey Jones’s mysterious Musician was a worthy mentor, passing on sage advice to his young protégé. All of the characters sang well and they gave committed performances.

Conor Mitchell’s score is tonal infused with elements of modernity. I particularly liked the arresting overture which was highly energetic while at the same time having elements of fairy tale whimsy. Tom Brady and The Belfast Ensemble played well and provided sterling support for the singers.

I wondered how this opera would appeal to children and young people. There are certainly other works of art for children which use horror. Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel is the most obvious operatic example, and one can see elements of fairly grisly horror throughout the Grimm fairy tales and in the Harry Potter books – for example where Voldemort’s giant snake viciously attacks characters. Matthew Cavan’s traveller certainly did an excellent job in highlighting the fairy tale elements for young audiences. However, many of the other characters in the opera displayed very dark and twisted motivations and behaviours and I am not sure how well they would appeal to a young audience. I suspect this work might go down better with slightly older age groups.

Like all good fairy stories, the opera ends with a moral of the tale: is someone born bad or do events make them become that way? It is a thought-provoking note on which to end.

Robert Beattie             

For more about the annual Belfast Children’s Festival click here.

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