Review: The Musician (Belfast Ensemble)

Last year, the Belfast Ensemble shared their Abomination: A DUP Opera, which was one of the earliest filmed shows to be made available during the lockdown crisis. Now, they are back with The Musician: A Horror Opera for Children, written, composed and directed by Conor Mitchell, which originally ran on stage in 2019.

It is a loose adaptation of The Pied Piper, that tale of the loss of childhood innocence. It is packed with chills, frights, and a handful of strong characters – the Boy, the Vile Girl, the Musician, the Narrator, and the Mouse.

The score is beautifully performed by Matthew Cavan (the Narrator, who has an impish and conspiratorial tone children will enjoy before the camera), Sarah Richmond (a sweetly soprano Boy, who starts innocent and grows to be something quite different), Rebecca Murphy (the antagonistic Vile Girl, beautifully voiced), and Paul Carey Jones (a magnificent baritone Musician).

Sarah Richmond as Boy in The Musician: A Horror Opera

Dancer Maeve McGreevy gives life and breadth to her solo routine as the Mouse (choreographed by Jennifer Rooney), evoking memories of the classic Beatrix Potter ballet. A moment of grace, mischief, and poise.

Aimed at children of school age, this will enthrall with its imagery, including projections which highlight or underscore scenes of action. The opera is unapologetic in its complexity, while telling a story accessible to all age groups, and if the thread is lost, the spoken narration keeps younger minds from getting lost.

The basic story is that of a Boy (who is good, and hungry, and carries a mouse in his pocket), who meets a Girl (who is bad, and well-fed). The Musician is a richly ambitious project which pushes a lesson and a moral without being overly preachy about it, as the Boy starts to follow a path from which he must be stopped.

Rebecca Murphy and Matthew Cavan as Vile Girl and Narrator in The Musician: A Horror Opera

Not shying away from the horror within both the original story and this adaptation, this tale will thrill children with its tales of violence and the seamy side of exploitation. Fairy tales all have this unpleasant core which young audiences tend to love, cheering when the snake claims its victim, or the piper takes his prize.

As this is an opera, the music is a key element in the storytelling, with a flute in particular taking centre stage. You can also see parallels with the nature vs nurture debate relating to how personalities develop over time, which may inspire some lively discussions within your family as you view.

The Musician: A Horror Opera for Children is streaming until the 14 March as part of the Belfast Children’s Festival, and tickets (£5) can be purchased here.

Image credit: Neil Harrison