Bruce: The Firework Maker’s Daughter

The Firework Maker’s Daughter is a new opera by award-winning composer David Bruce and librettist Glyn Maxwell, based on the fairy-tale adventure by acclaimed children’s author Philip Pullman. Staged by John Fulljames, with designs by Dick Bird and puppetry by Indefinite Articles, this tale of courage, friendship and growing-up will be a magical, theatrical event suitable for all the family.

“More than anything else in the world, Lila wants to be a Firework-Maker. But every Firework-Maker must make a perilous journey to face the terrifying Fire-Fiend! Can Lila possibly survive? Especially when she doesn’t know she needs special protection to survive the flames…”

David Bruce writes:

Since my own childhood I have thought of the theatre as a colourful place of magic and fantasy and as I’ve grown older I am still attracted to those same aspects—for me there is not really a difference between children’s theatre and adult theatre—as I see it, it’s all ‘play’ and we are all children.

Philip Pullman seems to share a similar enjoyment of the fun and colour of the theatre—in an essay describing the origins of The Firework Maker’s Daughter, he talks about his role putting on annual plays in the school where he worked:

Each year I would add some new theatrical trick to my repertoire: a shadow-puppet interlude, or a scene painted on a gauze that would magically vanish when you raised the lights behind and lowered them in front, or a wind machine and a thunderstorm. I had more fun fooling about with those things than I’ve ever had before or since.

For me—as I think for Pullman—there is a direct connection between the sense of fantasy that can be created in the theatre and a sense of spiritual and moral questioning. In the theatre we allow ourselves to wonder—to question ‘what if’ – and the question can sometimes be absurd or comical in nature, but other times be something much more profound. In a largely secular society, the theatre is one of the few places where we can still ask ourselves the big questions, and still feel wonder in all its aspects. My instinct as an artist is to set those big questions in a context that allows us to laugh, smile and relax. And this is one of the things that attracts me most about Pullman’s story—it contains both the absurd and fun elements that make theatre such a delight – talking elephants, a fire-fiend in a grotto, etc.—whilst at the same time making some fairly profound points about the creation of art, the need for self-expression, friendship, courage and love. To quote Pullman again:

Fairy tales are ways of telling us true things without laboring the point. They begin in delight, and they end in wisdom. But if you start with what you think is wisdom, you’ll seldom end up with delight—it doesn’t work that way round. You have to begin with fun.

I am attracted in this story to the Far Eastern setting and the possibility that it offers me to create a distinctive sound-world for the piece. As a composer I have often drawn influence from folk idioms from around the world, and am attracted to the idea of creating my own kind of ‘imaginary folk music, which is somewhat familiar, but also new and unknown. The Firework Maker’s Daughter similarly occupies some kind of familiar but unknown imaginary land with elements of Thailand, China, India and Indonesia all wrapped together and intermingling.

As a result, two particular passions of mine are likely to find their way into the music. Firstly, Indian music, which I have loved for many years (I have already had discussions about the project with renowned British tabla player Kuljit Bhamra, who has worked specifically on incorporating tabla and aspects of Indian music into the Western notated tradition); and secondly, home-made ‘folk’ instruments – Pullman mentions that in his original production, a home-made “gamelan” was used on stage, made out of scrap metal. I have long had an interest in such home-made instruments—for example Piosenki, my song-cycle of Polish children’s poems includes a 6 foot “lagerphone” made from bottle tops attached to a large pole – so the idea of revisiting Pullman’s original idea is very appealing to me.

As a composer for whom color and indeed humour are passionate concerns, I believe there are huge opportunities in this piece to create a vivid and rich operatic re-telling of the story, which will enhance Pullman’s wonderfully imaginative world in ways only opera can. The story has huge scope, taking in intimate personal moments – for example, Lila’s battle with her own self-belief as she struggles up the mountain; contrasted with large operatic set pieces such as the fire-fiend’s grotto and the elephant parade. Topping it all of course, there will need to be musical fireworks, with Lila’s culminating “display” an extraordinary musical and visual climax. Having set both a solar eclipse (Has it Happened Yet? 2002) and childbirth (Push! 2006) to music before, these are the kind of “impossible” musical challenges I relish.