Donald Sturrock - Roald Dahl's biographer and librettist of the orchestral version of The Minpins - on the recent Finnish premiere
The Minpins was Roald Dahl’s last work and is one of his least well-known. It tells the story of a small boy who is drawn into a frightening forest. There he encounters dangers, surprises, and excitements and, by his own skill and heroism, eventually defeats the Gruncher, a terrifying monster. Yet The Minpins also contains something unusual. For its tone and subject matter hark back to the legends and landscapes of Roald Dahl's native Norway.
Though both his parents were Norwegian, Roald Dahl was born in Wales and educated in England, visiting Norway in his summer holidays. At home his mother spoke Norwegian and the stories she read to him at night were often folk-tales from the Northlands. Many of the key elements in these tales - from the tiny Minpins who give the story its name to the threats of terrible monsters, and Little Billy’s deep bond with Swan - almost certainly drew their origins from the Norse folk-tales the young Roald Dahl’s mother read to him as a child.
The Minpins is full of Norse resonances. Most notably perhaps is the “Forest of Sin”, where “none come out, though many go in.” This terrifying place bears an uncanny similarity to the forest of Tapio the spirit-god, which the great Finnish composer Jean Sibelius described so vividly in his own final work the tone-poem Tapiola. He even wrote a verbal description of it after the title-page of the score:
Vast and eternal, the Northland’s deep dark forests
Stretch ancient mysterious, full of savage dreams
Within them dwells the Forest’s mighty God
And wood-sprites weaving magic in the gloom...
Tapiola, just like the Forest of Sin, is a kingdom from which no-one returns. No-one except a hero, or Little Billy, of course. So perhaps not surprisingly, when Peter Ash and I decided to set The Minpins to music, Sibelius was the obvious collaborator, and a complete performance of Tapiola is the centrepiece of this concert version of The Minpins.
Since its first performances twenty years ago in St. Petersburg, this 80 minute concert version of The Minpins, scored for narrator, orchestra and chorus, has been presented in the UK, France, Germany and Australia - but never in Sibelius’s homeland. So it was with great excitement we heard last year that the Finnish National Opera wanted to stage The Minpins to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Sibelius’s birth last month.
How would they do it? Well, it was a tremendous success. Packed houses of children watched spellbound as Roald Dahl’s story came to life, around the orchestra which was placed centre stage in front of a magical forest backdrop. Simple animation depicted the flight of Swan. The storyteller, Timo Torikka, was compelling and charismatic, varying his voice brilliantly as he became Little Billy, Don Mini or The Swan. Though I understood no Finnish, I was gripped from the beginning and the kids taking part did themselves proud, particularly the solo violinist who played in the celebrations after the Gruncher is defeated.
But the heroes of the hour were surely Sibelius and Roald Dahl. I am currently editing Roald Dahl’s letters and was recently reminded how much he loved Sibelius’s music. Sadly the two men never met. But, at the opening night, Sibelius’s grandson said to me that he thought his grandfather would have loved The Minpins or Tinkätyiset as it was translated in Finnish. Roald’s widow, Liccy, was similarly thrilled. She told the gathered production team at the first night party that she thought it was a perfect marriage of music and text and that her only regret was that Roald was not there to share in the celebrations.
Images courtesy of the Finnish National Opera, photographer Heikki Tuuli. For more information, visit the official website.