This opera was composed specifically for members of a rural community to participate in. Therefore all performers, including choirs, children’s voices and instrumentalists were originally drawn from the local vicinity (apart from Michael Chance who first sang the title role – and who is in a sense alienated both vocally and dramatically from the rest of the community in the piece).
One thing that the librettist, Michael Irwin and I could not have foreseen, when we first discussed the piece in the New Flying Horse in 2011, was how topical it would seem in 2015. The opera begins with an election, and the mayor (who is re-elected for the 10th time) spends much of his time being smugly self-congratulatory and uttering platitudes – in fact I’m sure I’ve heard several politicians apparently quoting from Michael’s libretto during the recent election campaign. Even more peculiar – from my point of view - was the plague of rats, which descended on our part of Boughton Aluph, while I was writing the scuttling, scrabbling rat music in Act 1. Several rats took up residence in our compost heap and, for a period, regularly commuted from there to our loft so that I could literally transcribe the pattering of their feet overhead while I wrote the music. So, as ever, art mirrors life in weird and wonderful ways.
The story of The Pied Piper is very familiar and presents an opera composer with a marvellous range of dramatic possibilities: there are selfish agendas, moral conundrums, mysterious events, strange alliances, expedients, and ultimately tragic consequences. There are two rat catchers in the opera, and both of them are, in different ways, outsiders. The first is an ordinary chap, overwhelmed by circumstances, and isolated and unsupported by his political masters. His is a spoken role – in order to emphasise his ‘ordinariness’, trapped as he is in an unsympathetic operatic world. The second rat catcher – the Pied Piper - emerges as the key figure in the second half of the opera. He is of course a mysterious, even mystical character whose accompanying music reflects his ‘otherness’ through the use of three striking musical colours: the countertenor voice, the soprano saxophone and the use of electronics. The mayor, who holds court throughout the drama, is accompanied by a quartet of male-voice councillors, who are really stooges, parroting everything he says; he also has two eloquent spokespersons: a wheedling henchman/legal advisor in the form of a tenor, and a Thatcherite secretary in the form of a coloratura soprano. A crowd of townspeople, played by four distinct groups of amateur singers, find themselves caught between the manipulative behaviour of their leaders and a crisis that is rapidly spiralling beyond their control. Finally we have the chorus of children, innocently leading the triumphant procession at the beginning, and forming a more disquieting procession at the end. The opera begins and ends with children’s voices.