Into the Little Hill turns a centuries-old folk tale into contemporary opera

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      Ask any half-dozen random strangers to relate the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and you will likely get six variations on the same basic story.

      They’ll tell you that when the German town of Hamelin was overrun by vermin, a rat-catcher was hired to get rid of the rodents. He did this by means of a magical pipe or flute, playing a tune so hypnotic that the rats were compelled to follow him as he led them away from Hamelin, never to be seen again.

      Upon his return, however, the piper found that the payment he was promised for his services was not forthcoming. So, he pulled out his pipe, began playing, and strolled out of town—this time with all the children of Hamelin following in his footsteps.

      The Pied Piper legend dates back to the Middle Ages, and it simply refuses to die, inspiring artists from the Brothers Grimm and Robert Browning to Walt Disney and Atom Egoyan. In the current century, it has been the basis of no fewer than three operas.

      On May 19 and 20, Vancouver’s Astrolabe Musik Theatre will stage the Canadian premiere of one of them, Into the Little Hill. Astrolabe’s founding artistic director and general manager, renowned soprano Heather Pawsey, tells the Straight that the British opera, composed by George Benjamin with words by Martin Crimp, has been on her to-do list for nearly a decade.

      “When I first heard this opera almost 10 years ago, the music immediately grabbed me,” Pawsey says during a three-way call that also includes music director Leslie Dala. “I sing a lot of contemporary music and George Benjamin’s sound world was just something I had never encountered. I was so compelled by it. But when I ordered the score and I read Martin Crimp’s libretto, the thing that leapt out at me—and one of the reasons I thought ‘I have to produce and sing this opera’—is because this story is sadly so relevant.”

      The Pied Piper narrative clearly still resonates with contemporary audiences, and Crimp’s spare but affecting lyrics leave ample room for postmodern interpretation. Indeed, critics have read Into the Little Hill in a number of ways—as a commentary on immigration policies, for example, or as a meditation on the Holocaust.

      Closer to home, the theme of sweeping away elements that society deems undesirable or unacceptable might seem all too familiar to anyone who has had their eye on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in recent months.

      “Everyone labels somebody as a rat,” Pawsey says. “It happens all the time. It’s happening right now. What are the power dynamics involved? Who makes these labelling choices? Who has the power to decide who are the rats? And what are we—as individuals, as collectives of individuals, as society—willing to do to get rid of ‘rats’? And sadly, we’ve seen the answers to that through the centuries, and still today.

      “And then,” she continues, “what happens when we refuse to pay the piper, when we don’t take responsibility for our actions? Everything about that just spoke so powerfully to me in this intensely beautiful, very crystallized form of this 35-minute opera. And I just knew it had to be done.”

      For the Canadian premiere, Pawsey will be joined by mezzo-soprano Emma Parkinson, and between the two of them they will sing all six characters: the Crowd, the Stranger, the Narrator, the Minister, the Minister’s Wife, and the Minister’s Child. Pawsey admits that this is no easy task.

      “George Benjamin makes some extreme demands on both the singers,” she says. “We’re at the extreme edges of our ranges; way up at the top or way down at the bottom. Rhythmically, it’s very complex and very precise. Dynamically, what he wants is, again, extreme: as soft as humanly possible and then as loud as humanly possible. Everything is very large.”

      Pawsey is quick to note, however, that when she says “extreme demands,” she doesn’t mean anything that could potentially damage the vocal cords; this is contemporary opera, after all, not a screamo concert.

      “As someone who does sing a lot of contemporary music, I’m so grateful for that,” the soprano says. “It’s also one of the things that attracted me to the piece, because I love a challenge, but I love it when the challenges are intentional and with an understanding of how my instrument, the voice, works. And this has that in spades.”

      Dala is an equally big fan of Benjamin’s work, praising him as “an innovative and novel voice.”

      “I had the chance to see him conduct his opera Written on Skin in concert performance in Toronto a number of years ago when he was a featured guest composer with the Toronto Symphony,” Dala says. “It was really astonishing, and I was told by some of my friends and colleagues in the orchestra that they refer to him as ‘bionic ears’. He’s one of these people who has the minutiae of the detail in his writing and these complex harmonic things.”

      Astrolabe’s staging of Into the Little Hill will feature a 15-member ensemble playing an idiosyncratic assortment of instruments, including a bass flute and a Persian santur. It will also include choreography by Israeli artist Idan Cohen, founder of the Vancouver-based Ne. Sans Opera and Dance company.

      “The movement will act like a counterpoint, sometimes telling the story, sometimes doing something completely different,” Dala notes. “I’m super excited to be in the rehearsal room with Idan as this gets put together, because I always feel like my eyes are opened by the revelations that he brings to a piece.”

      Pawsey adds, “Dancers are capable of saying with their bodies what singers aren’t. They’re capable of saying sometimes what the text isn’t saying. It just adds another whole element, and with someone like Idan, who has classical music training as well as dance training, he was the person I was waiting for.” GS

      Astrolabe Musik Theatre presents the Canadian premiere of Into the Little Hill at the Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre in the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on May 19 and 20 at 7:30pm. For tickets, go here.