Norse mythology came to the fore in a big way a couple of years ago when Neil Gaiman released his celebrated book of the same name, but as of yesterday, Francesca Simon’s book, The Monstrous Child, has it rearing it’s deliciously vile and decidedly grotesque head once again. When the YA novel came out in 2016 it was a success in its own right – shortlisted for the Costa Book Awards and nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017 – but it was interesting to hear from the author herself, on the Today programme, that even at the draft manuscript stage, she knew she had more than a book on her hands: she had an opera. And last night was its world premiere at the (almost) brand new Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre in London.
I have to say, I was rather blown away. Everything about the production oozes the macabre charm that traditional tales hold dear (think Hans Christian Anderson meets Brother’s Grimm) and like many strands of traditional story-telling, it celebrates the brutal and the grotesque – in the comically visceral birthing scene that opens the opera, complete with giant vagina, and placenta that follows the delivery of Jormungand the snake, of Fenrir the wolf, and the half-human-half-corpse goddess of the underworld, Hel (around whose life the story is centred); in the base behaviours of the Norse gods themselves; in Simon’s wonderfully indelicate libretto; and in the rich sound-world that composer, Gavin Higgins, has created. She was right. She had an opera on her hands and it has been realised as a truly immersive piece of theatre, not least because of the talented and fearless cast and the inventive design aesthetics which references its oral story telling heritage through its use of puppetry.
It’s true: fairy tales/traditional tales in opera is nothing new. Purcell wrote Dido and Aeneas in the late 1600s and certainly Norse mythology itself is no stranger to the operatic stage, with Wagner’s Ring Cycle being first performed in the 19th century. It makes sense. As Francesca Simon made reference to in her Today interview, these stories grapple with huge themes: with love and hate; with life and death; with greed and avarice and vengeance; with making sense of how things came to be. What better way to bring such concepts to life than with full orchestration behind it and with voices, singing from the soul?! It’s a perfect match in my book. And, focussing in on the literary world for a moment, it also raises an interesting question about why genre fiction is often poo-pooed as being somehow naff or aligned with certain audiences. I forget which book it was in reference to now, but The Guardian damned one such fantasy novel with false praise in stating: ‘file under guilty pleasure’. This is indicative of what I’m driving at. Why there is the need for guilt when enjoying a well delivered story (whatever the medium), or for it to be ‘filed away’ is beyond me. Fantasy has been at the core of our world culture for centuries (Homer’s Iliad is a case in point!) and it invites the exploration of themes and ideas that transcend genre. On the flip side, I think Francesca Simon and Gavin Higgin’s The Monstrous Child makes an equally clear and important statement about opera. Its intended audience is young adults; its story is part of our world heritage. Like genre fiction, opera is for everyone; and for both, the only thing that stands in the way of wider audiences are preconceived ideas…
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