‘Children deserve to be taken seriously’
In The Girl, the Hunter and the Wolf, the character of the wolf is not the scary monster we know from fairy tales, but a hunted loner in need of help. Director Inne Goris and composer Vasco Mendonça talk about their children’s opera, which invites the audience to be open to new ways of thinking about the world.
Text: Wout van Tongeren
To start with: how did the idea for this show come about?
Vasco: ‘I was interested in making a children’s opera about a subject that is close to my heart. I’m worried by the way that people handle differences of opinion in the today’s world. If you have a disagreement, you should be able to sit down together and find a compromise. But it seems that nowadays people often want to silence their opponents completely, to crush them. I wanted to make the point that what is different is not necessarily dangerous. So I came up with the idea of taking the story of the three little pigs and telling it from the wolf’s perspective. He would explain that it was all a big misunderstanding, that he never intended to eat the pigs. I got to talking with Inne about that idea, and she suggested broadening my focus beyond that one fairy tale and take the character of the wolf as a point of departure.’
Inne: ‘I told him straightaway that I’ve never been crazy about the tale of the three little pigs. That could’ve been the end of the project right there, but we managed to find common ground in the figure of the wolf, a very intriguing character. We know him from various fairy tales: he is always the bad guy, always solitary, manly and hungry. But if you read about real wolves, you learn that they can go up to 10 days without food, that they usually live together in packs and that a “lone wolf” is actually often a female. All those things seemed like an interesting context to work from. That was the jumping-off point of our conversation.’
In the story as it was ultimately conceived by librettist Gonçalo Tavares, the hungry wolf is on the run from two hunters. He meets Little Red Riding Hood, who, in contrast to the hunters, actually opens up to him and tries to help. Whether she succeeds or not is left up in the air. Why not opt for an straightforward happy ending?
Vasco: ‘The wolf embodies our fear of the unknown, of the Other. In this show we tell a story about differences, about disagreements, about misunderstandings. From that perspective, would it make sense to have everything come to a nice pat conclusion? That’s not what the world is like. I think it would be great if the children thought about the ending for themselves afterwards and came up with their own ideas about how the story should end.’
Inne: ‘We soon found ourselves on the same page on this issue too. Neither of us are afraid to show the darker sides of life in a show, to leave things ambiguous. That’s very important to me as a creator. I think you should take children seriously. They also have a dark side; they also do bad things.’
And shows for children should reflect that complex reality?
Inne: ‘That’s right: I don’t want to shy away from heavy topics. As a child you go through a lot: your cat dies, your grandmother dies, you get into a row with someone at school – you name it. Ugly, dark things happen, that’s part of life. And you’re not doing children any favours by leaving things like that out of a show. You have to give them a chance to relate to these kinds of issues and talk about them. I sometimes get the sense that parents and teachers are afraid to talk to children about the more serious themes after the performance. That’s the real problem.’
Vasco: ‘But that’s the crux of it: you have to talk about it, so these subjects don’t turn into boogeymen, so big and terrifying that you can’t deal with them anymore. If I shielded my children until they reached adulthood and then sent them into the turbulent world, how long would they last? Wouldn’t it be better to expose them to the less pleasant side of life in a mild way, in small doses like with a vaccination, so they build up their immunity?’
And how does The Girl, the Hunter and the Wolf prepare its young audience members for life?
Vasco: ‘It’s important that in this show Little Red Riding Hood is not the helpless girl threatened by the wolf. Of all the characters she’s probably the one who’s most in control of the situation.’
Inne: ‘She can build a rocket; she’s a tough cookie.’
Vasco: ‘And a special connection develops between her and the wolf. There’s a basis of empathy between the wolf, who needs help, and Little Red Riding Hood, who is more self-assured. It’s a layered relationship, which the audience can interpret for themselves.’
Inne: ‘In the end it’s Little Red Riding Hood who brings the proceedings to a close. She sings: “The world is a strange party, but I’m dancing.” And to me that means: the world may be complex, but it’s possible to move through it gently, at your own pace. Be open and make connections; to me, that’s what she’s saying at the end.’
Vasco: ‘And ultimately that’s a very positive message: connect with people, don’t say no right away. Give others a chance.’
The creative team on their collaboration
Flemish theatre director Inne Goris creates poetic performances that blend visual art, music, dance and theatre. She has worked at LOD muziektheater, hetpaleis in Antwerp, Silbersee and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen, and elsewhere.
‘In previous original works with composers, I was usually the initiator, and I gradually developed the performance together with others “on the shop floor”, as it were. But The Girl, the Hunter and the Wolf really started with Vasco. As a result, this project has been a chance to explore a different style of working; I find that very interesting.’
The Portuguese composer Vasco Mendonça studied at the conservatoires of Lisbon, Amsterdam and London. His work is performed all over the world, in venues such as the Philharmonie de Paris, Lincoln Center, Centro Cultural del Bosque and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.
‘As I like to say: I write opera because I like theatre, not because I like music. And “theatre” means collaboration. And when you collaborate, you have to trust others. We’re working toward the same goal, which is ultimately to create the best possible show. And that foundation of trust definitely exists in this collaboration.’