Monday, March 11, 2019

The Musician – ambitious, high quality, unapologetically opera, and accessible to audiences young and old (The Belfast Ensemble) #bcf19

Small red chairs for children make up the first two rows of the Harty Room at Queen’s University Belfast on Sunday night. The young audience have gathered along with older friends and family to hear the concert version of The Belfast Ensemble’s children’s horror opera The Musician as part of Belfast Children’s Festival.

A funny worked example of the difference between how people talk in a TV show and in an opera breaks the ice and introduces the audience to the very distinctive orchestral staccato stab from the 15 musicians that will pepper the hour-long work.

After a galloping musical start, Matthew Cavan begins to narrate the story. A young boy (Jack Wolfe) with a rumbling tummy lives with a mouse in his pocket. A vile and well-fed girl (soprano Rebecca Murphy) wearing a golden coat is quickly set up as his nemesis. They stand to sing on a raised platform to one side of the orchestra. When a musically-gifted stranger (baritone Christopher Cull) appears with an unkempt beard, the boy gets a lesson and quickly shows off his talent. But those who listen must always pay a price, and soon the boy is demanding all kinds of goods in return for not setting the mice or (shivers) the rats on the local townsfolk.
“If you don’t pay the price I will play a different tune, not for mice, or rats, or men, but for children …”

It’s definitely opera, with the baddies becoming victims, and the power of music corrupting the vulnerable who switch to prey on those who once kept them out in the cold. Murphy’s shrieking bad girl performance was matched by the increasingly bold and out-of-control Wolfe who calmly grew up into a monster. The revelation about the narrator’s true identity is nicely handled, though some continuation of the golden colour – a scarf or a pocket hanky – would have made it even more obvious.

Conor Mitchell’s opera tells the four-person story very clearly, allowing the poetry of the narration to gently lapse into song and giving the children plenty of airtime to build rapport with the audience. The two percussionists (Brian Rice and Anthony Stuart) at the back of the orchestra with their spooky waterphone, a double bassist (Gareth Hopkins) expected to bang his bow for sharp effect, and the final rodent noises from the string section (led by Clare Hadwen), the sound is both expansive and expressive. Davey Mayes flute deserves a mention too for his critical role bringing the old story to life.

Parts of the performance were quite noisy for some the youngest members of the audience (who snuck in under the age 6+ recommendation!) but for the most part the children were quite transfixed by the music and particularly the great eye contact and facial expressions from narrator Cavan. Gavin Peden projected pastoral scenes and scurrying rodents onto the back wall to add to the discomfort of any musophobes in the venue.

Beware the power of music to distract, to destruct and to destroy. In their quest to create new musical theatre, The Belfast Ensemble certainly succeed in shining new light and new tunes on the Pied Piper story. The Musician is ambitious, high quality, unapologetically opera, and accessible to audiences young and old. Now the question is where and when we will next hear the piper’s tune again.

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