Composer Peter Ash writes about the first ever performance of The Pelicantata at Bath Abbey in March.
How do you transform a classic children's story by Roald Dahl into a large-scale choral work that the Stroud Choral Society might enjoy singing? This was the exciting challenge that this venerable chorus presented to the librettist Donald Sturrock and me last year.
With the encouragement of Roald Dahl's wife, Liccy, we accepted it. The emotional connections were clear to us both. Donald and I have known the Dahl family for many years. Donald worked with Roald Dahl in the 1980s and wrote his biography Storyteller in 2010. We had also already written an opera, The Golden Ticket based on Charlie and Chocolate Factory.
I knew that The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me was dedicated to Liccy's three daughters, the youngest of whom, Lorina, died of a brain haemorrhage, aged 27, in 1990, the same year Roald died. Lorina’s presence haunts the story. She lived in a very narrow house, just like 'The Grubber', the sweetshop in Roald’s story. She even had a pet monkey for a time. I did not get to meet Lorina, but Donald and I are dear friends with the other dedicatees, her sisters Neisha and Charlotte. I also remember well one of the first conversations we had with Brough Girling, Chairman of the Stroud Choral Society, where he described his own friendship with Roald Dahl in relation to the Monkey’s touching final song which becomes the a capella chorale near the end of the work. So all of us felt a profound connection with the original story.
It was clear the piece needed to be fun and practical - not too long, expensive or difficult to execute. Stroud’s Music Director, Huw Williams gently suggested we agree on an orchestration that was both appropriate to the character of the story, but that would maximise the possibility of future performances. We chose a small string orchestra, 2 oboes, 1 bassoon 2 trumpets, timpani and organ. But I also wanted to colour the extraordinary three creatures in the story in a less traditional way. So, the Giraffe became a contra-bassoon, the Pelly a cor anglais, and the Monkey a flugel horn.
Donald wisely suggested that the narrator should be the Duke of Hampshire’s chauffeur. He describes Billy, the little boy, who befriends the three animals and tells his story. We had previously discussed the possibility that Billy himself might be the narrator. But we also knew that many of Roald’s stories rely on the reader 'becoming’ the child protagonist in the story. We tried to follow that lead and hope that members of the audience will imagine they are Billy too.
Roald Dahl had a unique ability to re-imagine his childhood feelings and then present them to the reader/listener - I was struck by the moment in this story when The Pelly (a pelican) tries to persuade Little Billy to hop in to his open beak to go for a little ride! “I will not hop in,” Billy says, “unless you swear on your honour you won't shut it once I am inside. I don’t like small dark places.” In this moment, I was taken right back to my own childhood when I first saw a pelican. I had exactly this strange feeling of panic and dread, combined with a strong sense of the ridiculous.
But just how DO you tell a dramatic children's story with 100-plus potentially reluctant adult choristers? Huw kindly sent me a list of 'desert island' works he would take with him if his one luxury was The Stroud Choral Society! I tried to take inspiration from some of these and use them in my own way according to the dramatic situation. So, for example, in the opening chorus, Hampshire House, we thought of a stately Handelian quality using a Pevsner-like description of the Duke and Duchess’s home followed by a pastoral depiction of the gardens and finishing with a fugue based on Roald’s brilliant description of Hampshire House with its 677 filthy windows.
Many of Roald’s stories contain comic rhyming songs, which are often a bit subversive. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me was no exception. Donald added some more of these and together they offered me yet another opportunity for musical characterisation. The Stroud Choral Society had also recently created a treble chorus. In this context, it seemed quite natural for the children (now renamed The Minpins Chorus) to play the animals. So I wrote them four cheeky choruses: Monkey Business, Pelly's Patented Beak, Giraffey's Magical Neck and Hunger is Catching!
I also wanted a bit of audience participation. The traditional cantata often has familiar chorale tunes that the audience would have sung. Roald’s story presented the perfect opportunity to reinvent this when The Duchess, a famous opera singer, thinks her jewels have been stolen. Roald Dahl has her sing:
“My diamonds are over the ocean,
My diamonds are over the sea,
My diamonds were pinched from my bedroom,
Oh, bring back my diamonds to me.” Etc.
The traditional Scottish folk song she sings is timeless. The Beatles even made a version of it. So, at the climax of the fugue The Burglar in his Beak, the audience is invited to stand and sing My Bonnie lies over the Ocean with these new words, alongside the ladies of the chorus. As they do so and the fugue reaches its noisy climax, the burglar, who is trapped inside the Pelly’s beak, tries to shoot his way out. With a bit of luck, it should be both fun and chaotic.
As for the title of the cantata, it was always there - like a beautiful, if somewhat over-sized - why didn't we notice it before? - pale green egg, hidden behind a huge 18th century wing chair in a corner of one of those Palladian rooms in Hampshire House. The egg finally hatched, the bird hopped up onto the window ledge and flew down to us. It innocently declared itself in “The Burglar in His Beak” in answer to the question “Who can save us?”
The world premiere of The Pelicantata is on 4 March 2017 at Bath Abbey. Find out more and book tickets.