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This month, Young at Art is hosting a wide array of digital content as it moves online for this year’s Belfast Children’s Festival. Boasting a selection of performances, interactive events, and exhibitions; the festival aims to be accessible to children of all ages and their families.
As part of the festival The Musician: A Children’s Horror Opera, presented by the Belfast Ensemble, is an origins story of the well-known tale — The Pied Piper of Hamelin. A mysterious traveller narrates the Piper’s journey to infamy; starting as a young boy, an orphan of the streets, tortured by the unkindness of others. When he shows immense generosity to a travelling musician, the man teaches him the mysteries of music, a power that consumes him and eventually buries his good nature.
The creation of this production seems heavily stacked on the shoulders of Conor Mitchell, who has written, directed, produced, designed, and composed the show. His story achieves a familiar feel, whilst creating an original and gripping backstory. Its central theme, regarding morality, teaches us how good nature can be twisted by external pressure and that we must look beyond someone’s actions to their cause — something which promotes a positive attitude for its target audience. Its simple yet effective design is created with a raked platform of artificial grass, backdropped with projection, and surrounded by an orchestra. This set up really highlights the individual moments of the show, whilst the music embraces the characters from all angles, embedded in the very essence of the piece.
As someone far more aligned with the theatre, I find it hard to maintain full submersion in the piece when the operatic tones of its performers are so drastically disconnected from the intended age and tone of the characters. The physicality of the performers is also far closer to the pantomime gestures of Commedia dell’arte, or a telenovela, than the convincing and honest performances I would prefer, but I must admit that this is a consistent problem I find with a lot of classical opera. Ultimately, the modern approach is somewhat halted by the necessities of classical opera, rather than providing a fresher, more youthful composition to appeal to the younger generation.
Matthew Cavan’s narration is magnificently pitched, igniting intrigue with his tone, and levelling his characterisation safely between patronising and mature. He chimes in throughout the performance with parenthesis and unseen characters, all the while keeping the focus fixed on the main character, the momentum moving swiftly along. The rest of the cast is made up of Sarah Richmond, Rebecca Murphy, Paul Carey Jones and Maeve McGreevy (as The Boy, The Vile Little Girl, The Musician, and The Mouse, respectively), each delivering their roles with pin-point precision and complete vocal control. Accompanying the cast (or leading them, I’m not quite sure) is a superb orchestra, conducted by Tom Brady; perfectly delivering Mitchell’s score as though it develops organically from undertones of malice to full on horror movie climax.
The Musician, with film production by Little Giant Films, is visually stunning, cinematic, and gripping. With many of its elements hitting the mark beautifully, I fear it may be my ignorance of Opera that keeps me detached; but unfortunately I cannot shake the feeling that this show would be more engaging as a play backed by music than with the introduction of singing – and more accessible to children.
The Musician: A Children’s Horror Opera is available to stream online until 14 March 2021. For more information and to book visit Young at At online.