Requiem for the Disappeared

Composer Conor Mitchell hopes his new work may offer some 'small comfort' to the families of the Disappeared

'Nobody wants to talk about it. It’s an inconvenience. It’s getting in the way of the peace process, this disgusting thing that happened.'

Composer Conor Mitchell is talking about the 'disappeared', the group of mainly Catholic victims of Northern Ireland's long-running sectarian conflict, who were abducted and murdered by the IRA. They were buried in secret locations, leaving families in agonised ignorance of their loved ones' whereabouts, and unable to grieve their loss properly.

The plight of the disappeared and their families haunts Mitchell, as it haunts many. Like innumerable young people of his generation, Mitchell left the violent environment of Northern Ireland, forging a successful early career for himself in musical theatre in London.

Three years ago he returned to native soil, and began thinking about the Northern Ireland conflict in a more focused fashion. 'There are people like me,' he remarks, 'who grew up in the 1980s, went away and came back, and are now asking "What went on?"'

Conor Mitchell


As he puts it, Mitchell 'stumbled across' the story of Jean McConville, the west Belfast mother of ten who was abducted and murdered by the IRA in 1972, and immediately felt a strong compulsion 'to respond to it in some way' artistically.

The upshot was an early version (Songs for Jean McConville) of what has now become Requiem for the Disappeared, the new work by Mitchell which receives its world premiere on May 3 in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, as part of the 2012 Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival.

Mitchell's aim in setting the Latin words of the Requiem mass is very specific. 'What the disappeared were deprived of was a funeral rite. The more I learnt about this period, the more I felt I wanted to write a piece of music that would embody the funeral rite for people that didn’t have that.

'If you’re a composer the only way you can speak about this kind of thing is to write a piece of music about it, without getting political. To say this is how I feel about this situation.

'These are Catholic people. I’m a Catholic. I needed to say some things through music about the denial of the right to burial. On a very human level you try to imagine what it’s like for someone just to vanish, disappear...' He tails off, as though words themselves are not sufficient.

Requiem for the Disappeared, unlike most of Mitchell's work, was not a commissioned piece, but a personal one, a work that Mitchell felt that he needed to write. As such, there was no immediate prospect of performance. That is where Spark Opera, the dynamic young Belfast company helmed by 23-year-old Queen's University graduate Kate Guelke, enter the picture.

Guelke, who describes Spark Opera as 'a platform for young local composers' specialising in 'mounting large-scale, ambitious works which wouldn't ordinarily see the light of day', had previously commissioned a short opera (Intolerance) from Mitchell. She immediately jumped at the opportunity to help him bring his Requiem project to fruition.

Guelke is unstinting in her praise of what Mitchell has created. 'The reason Spark Opera is producing Requiem for the Disappeared is that it's a great work. And although it doesn't include a stage element per se, it's dramatic and ambitious and challenging, just like opera.'

As music pure and simple, Guelke rates Mitchell's achievement highly. 'It’s an absolutely stunning piece. I find it immensely refreshing and effective in its simplicity. Britten's obviously a big influence, but there are moments that almost sound like Fauré. It's really rather beautiful, if unusual, as you might expect of Conor.

'It's also by far the longest and biggest work Spark Opera has ever produced,' she adds. 'With a length of nearly an hour, and featuring a 26-piece string and wind orchestra, chorus and soprano soloist, it's definitely the hardest thing we've ever done.'

Hard, not least because the subject-matter of Mitchell's Requiem is so emotive, more usually debated in the heated wrestle-room of post-conflict resolution than in the rarified context of a classical music concert. Both Guelke and Mitchell, however, believe passionately in the power of art to create a different kind of space for controversial social and political issues to be contemplated.

'I think a piece like this gives people the opportunity to reflect,' explains Guelke. 'There's something about setting aside the time to listen to a new Requiem mass, there’s a freedom and privacy to that space which is really quite rare.

'I think the issue of the disappeared in particular calls for this space. Because the search for the disappeared is not just about finding bodies, it’s about finding closure. In other words, dealing with the past in a way that enables society to move forward. Conor's Requiem is an acknowledgement of the past that, unassumingly, contributes to that move forward.'

Mitchell himself is very much in agreement with Guelke's analysis. 'It’s fantastic having a new, shining society where everything is moving forward, and new buildings are being built. But I feel something that is absent is the idea that it’s OK to grieve.

'I’m not saying you should want to live your life in the past. But I think there’s something very healing about saying "Something awful’s happened, and we need to acknowledge that it was awful".'

Requiem for the Disappeared will, Mitchell hopes, make it easier for that painful kind of acknowledgement to happen. 'What I want is to have people in the cathedral, with this very ancient text, say "It’s OK to stop for 50 minutes and actually think about what happened here."'

'These people were murdered and they were never found. Let’s all just stop and consider that fact, and listen to a piece of music in response to that. I would hope at the very end there’s some sense of hope. If it gives some small comfort that would be fantastic. That’s as much as I can do.'

Requiem for the Disappeared will be performed at St Anne's Cathedral on Thursday, May 3 at 7.45 pm. Tickets are available via the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival website.