Even by his own exacting standards, the last two years of Conor Mitchell’s career as a composer and theatre maker have been nothing less than remarkable.
In June 2017, the Co Armagh man set up the Belfast Ensemble, drawing together a small team of like-minded collaborators – actors Abigail McGibbon and Tony Flynn, cabaret performer Matthew Cavan, lighting director Simon Bird, video artist Gavin Peden and a core of eight musicians.
The extraordinary canon of new work achieved by the ensemble during its short life will be celebrated at the end of this month at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre.
The centrepiece of this three-day bash – unsurprisingly called Bash – is Lunaria, a 15-minute piece, commissioned by PRS Foundation, the UK's leading funder of new music and talent development. After its Belfast preview, Lunaria will be performed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London as part of the New Music Biennial 2019 and will subsequently be broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It will also be presented at Hull Truck Theatre by Absolutely Cultured Hull, an initiative set up in the aftermath of UK City of Culture 2017.
For the inaugural PRS festival in 2012 – the Cultural Olympiad – Mitchell wrote a short opera for NI Opera entitled Our Day. It was a response to the day in 1972 when the entire country set aside the Troubles and paused to watch Mary Peters win gold at the Munich Olympics.
“That first festival was such a success that PRS and Southbank decided to do it every two years,” says Mitchell.
“Between then and now, the Belfast Ensemble came about. This year we have been included in the commissioning of 20 short classical music pieces, to be performed first in the respective companies’ home cities and then in the Southbank Centre.
"It's a fantastic event, totally free and attended by thousands of people, who walk between all the pieces of music. We're in with organisations like the BBC Concert Orchestra and Opera North, which puts the ensemble into a completely different peer group. We are the only company from Ireland to be invited and, considering we've been going for such a short time, it's a real honour."
Bash will occupy the entire Lyric building for three days – June 28th-30th. It will be a retrospective celebration of two years of the Belfast Ensemble’s work, focused around Lunaria. Mitchell explains that the title derives from the plant of the same name – better known as honesty – which, like the ensemble, takes two years to flower.
"We'll be presenting specially remade versions of two of the ensemble's solo pieces – Abigail McGibbon in the Catherine of Aragon piece, The C**t of Queen Catherine, and Tony Flynn in the Fall of the House of Usher.
"On the final night, we'll be doing a concert version of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance in its entirety. It will feature all the ensemble members and orchestra, plus Marie Jones and lots of other people. We'll be going hell for leather to get a full house and give the money back to the musicians and actors.
“I’m obsessed with Victorian music hall and G&S. Theirs were original stories, highly political. In this case it’s about a load of people who get one over on the British establishment. And, come to think of it, it’s about sea borders too. So it’s really quite current.”
In almost every element of his impressive body of work, Mitchell has never shied away from controversy or from exposing contentious issues of the time. While his compositions have been lauded in London, New York and Europe, and major figures like Stephen Sondheim have lent staunch support, there have been periods when he has struggled to make his unique voice heard on home turf.
Destined for great things
From a young age, it was evident that this highly intelligent, driven young man was destined for greater things. At the age of 15, he turned heads with a blazingly fearless appearance in Peter Quigley's production of the 1960s musical Zigger Zagger for Arts Youth Theatre in Belfast, a group whose members included RSC actor Jonjo O'Neill and West End musical star Rachel Tucker.
It was no surprise when he left Northern Ireland to study in England, Indeed, it would be many years before he would return to a place that was, arguably, unready for the challenging brand of theatrical composition he was importing.
“After graduating, I was in London for 12 years, composing a whole variety of stuff, which was being performed all over the place,” he says.
“I came back here to get better in touch with music. I’d been sharing a flat in London with two others and it was impossible to get a piano in there. So I came home and moved into a house in the country, with a piano. However, if you are alone in an isolated place, working intensely and have a propensity for drink, you can get hooked. I got hooked.”
There followed three dark years, during which Mitchell recalls reaching rock bottom. But, slowly and fitfully, he conquered the illness. A tattoo in Roman numerals around his neck records his sobriety date: 20 October 2014. He says that day marked the beginning of a step change in his music. And then, in June 2017, the ensemble happened.
He owns to being heavily influenced by Benjamin Britten, as well as by Sondheim's genius as a lyricist-composer. Having trained in Second Viennese composition, his work is complex, intellectually rich and infused with American and European overtones.
He is at the epicentre of every ensemble performance, the undisputed master of ceremonies, playing, conducting, breathing life into every living second. He agrees that one does not emerge from an evening in the company of the ensemble humming a catchy tune, fondly describing his pieces as “… little oil paintings”.
He looks back on a career which has developed in three stages: he talks of being on “Sondheim planet” during his 20s; his 30s were all about personal growth and a move into opera. Now, in his 40s, a mellow confidence exudes from him. He says that he feels safe in himself.
A conversation with Mitchell is peppered with names like Britten and Bernstein and Guthrie and Auden and Schoenberg. He and Mark Ravenhill were commissioned by Aldeburgh Music to complete the Britten-Auden cabaret songs, which were premiered at the 2012 Aldeburgh Festival and transferred to festivals in Rome, Edinburgh and Holland.
“Belfast didn’t seem interested,” he observes sardonically. The pair subsequently created Ten Plagues, a powerful suite of songs about the Aids epidemic for the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.
Outburst Queer Arts Festival has just commissioned a full production of Abomination: The DUP in Concert. This verbatim opera incorporates the words of an interview given by former DUP politician Iris Robinson to the BBC broadcaster Stephen Nolan, in which she described homosexuality as "an abomination". One song We Are Poofs echoes sentiments voiced by DUP MP Sammy Wilson, currently the party's Brexit spokesman.
“I describe myself as a theatre man,” says Mitchell. “But in telling my stories on a stage or in a theatre environment, music in all its forms is always my mode of expression. While actors and writers use words to tell their story, for me it’s always tones and dots.”
Bash is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast from 28 to 30 June.