ONE OF the more intriguing shows at this year’s Baboró festival for children is The Musician from Northern Ireland’s Cahoots Theatre Company.
Written and composed by Conor Mitchell, this is an opera specially devised for young audiences which relates the famous story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.
The Musician is about a child destined to become the best known flautist of them all…the Pied Piper. Rejected by his own townsfolk, the young boy meets a travelling musician who teaches him how to play the flute. The boy plays beautifully but then discovers that the music has an extraordinary effect on the town’s rats - a dangerous hypnotic power.
With magic, dance, and its very own orchestra, The Musician is a dark, original, and truly thrilling piece of musical theatre.
“Cahoots commissioned me to do the piece some three years ago,” Mitchell tells me. “I wanted to do something that would engage with live music. I wanted a story that people would be familiar with so I took aspects of the Pied Piper of Hamelin and sort of galvanised it with the story of how he learned to play the flute.
“I thought if there was that element of familiarity, it provided a story young audiences could cling to because you’re asking them a lot if you’re just throwing opera at them.”
Would Mitchell say there are specific challenges involved in composing opera for children?
“You have to think a lot more clearly about lyrics because the lyrics just go past once, they’re not like a book that can be re-read,” he responds. “Children are very demanding of lyrics, they want them to be clear and the story-telling needs to be clear; but once that’s in place you can throw more advanced music at them. A children’s audience is cleverer than an adult audience in a sense because kids take everything at face value in theatre.”
Mitchell expands on his engagement with the Pied Piper story.
“What I was interested in was a psychological deconstruction of that character so I went back to the Robert Browning poem,” he says. “What you find there is a character who gets very annoyed when somebody breaks a promise.
“I just had to go back and paint that character as a child, to where a promise actually meant something and that’s tied in to a pet mouse that is murdered around the breaking of the promise, that sets in motion a chain of events beyond his control that turns him into the vengeful pied piper character.”
The Irish Times described the show as “a chilling horror opera” and Mitchell readily acknowledges that is quite spooky.
“You’re dealing with tapping into that classic fairytale scenario of children being taken away from their parents,” he says, “and I knew if I was gonna write for that age group I wanted to write something that was a bit scary. When I was that age what I really liked were ghost stories.
“If you look at the Harry Potter books, the central theme there is someone murdered Harry’s parents and they’re coming to murder Harry; I think that’s testament to the fact that children like being brought to that edge. That said, there are no axe murderers or the like in it – though there is a little girl who gets all her flesh eaten off by rats, but she deserves it!”
The Musician was first staged, to great acclaim, last year and for this revival Mitchell has opted to use solely operatic voices.
“When we did the play initially we used music theatre singers and they were excellent but we just thought this time we might gamble and use operatic voices,” he says. “I thought at first I couldn’t throw operatic voices at children but they really went for the show last time. So I’ve opted to go for a full operatic sound this time and we have a cracking team of singers. The music accompaniment is live, and I wanted strongly visual instruments so we use harpsichord, bass clarinets, piccolos, and cello.”
The Musician promises to be a spellbinding experience. It’s at the Black Box from Thursday October 15 to Saturday 17 with two performances daily. Full details regarding show-times are available from the Town Hall Theatre (091 - 569777 ) or Baboró (www.baboro.ie ).