Saturday, April 04, 2015

Swanhunter rides again

Wonderful talk the other week with Jonathan Dove about Swanhunter, which Opera North is currently doing at the ROH Linbury and is touring until 3 May. I love Jonathan's music, which manages to be engaging, original, interesting, compelling and atmospheric rolled into one, and it's always a joy to talk to him about his work. Not everything has gone into the paper, so here is the director's cut.

Being a contemporary classical composer can be an insecure business for some. But, it seems, not for Jonathan Dove, whom I catch for a chat just before he heads off to Hawaii, where one of his numerous operas is being staged. “I’m having rather an annus mirabilis,” he declares, mildly incredulous. Closer to home, his one-act chamber opera Swanhunter is coming to London for the first time: Opera North, which commissioned it, brings a new co-production with the theatre company The Wrong Crowd to the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio on 2 April. And this is just the beginning. 

“I like to feel useful,” Dove explains as we ponder the secret of his success. “And opera is something I like to share.” This at least partly accounts for his quantity of stage works for schools, families and community participation; they have included The Adventures of Pinocchio, The Enchanted Pig, and Tobias and the Angel, to name just a few, many of them received by audiences and critics alike with near rapture. Dove’s style is lyrical, fresh and, above all, genuine; he says he finds the matter of introducing young audiences to opera an inspiring challenge. “But whatever you do in that respect, Benjamin Britten always got there first,” he acknowledges, nodding to the prevailing influence of such works as Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and The Little Sweep.

After studying composition with Robin Holloway, Dove (now 55) learned the processes of opera from the inside, working as repetiteur, arranger and outreach animateur. “I first started to get excited about opera in my twenties, when I was playing the piano for rehearsals,” he says, “and before I started writing my own pieces I used to reorchestrate great operas like Wagner’s Ring cycle and Rossini’s La Cenerentola for what was then Birmingham Touring Opera. The idea was to take opera on the road. There’d be a bunch of us in a van, going around the country playing Rossini operas in sports centres. Opera can have a whole existence outside the opera house – you don’t have to have a proscenium arch and a full symphony orchestra, though it’s very exciting when you do.”

He wrote Swanhunter for Opera North in 2009: “The brief was to create something based on an idea of the north,” he says, “something for young people – the target audience is ages eight to 12 – and therefore not too long; and something that could be easily toured.” His regular collaborator, the librettist Alasdair Middleton, began the process by researching Nordic myths and homing in on the ancient Finnish folk-epic of the Kalevala.

Its hero, Lemminkäinen, must accomplish a set of apparently impossible tasks in order to win a beautiful bride: he must hunt the Devil’s elk and shoot the swan that swims around Tuonela, the isle of the dead. But he is killed and his body dismembered and thrown into the river. His mother fishes out the pieces, reassembles them and sings him back to life.

“It was that idea – that a mother might sing her son back to life – which stuck in my mind and wouldn’t go away,” says Dove. “It seemed an extraordinary and wonderful theme for an opera, especially one that might introduce the artform to some of the audience. It’s a story that celebrates the power of song as something magical, something that can heal and revivify.” 

This is the same story that inspired Sibelius’s Lemminkainnen Suite, its best-known extract being ‘The Swan of Tuonela’. But when Dove turns to the Swan, far from Sibelius’s dark-hued cor anglais solo, he begins its song “stratospherically high,” as he says, “descending in a cascade of harp ripples. Once I saw a child put his hands over his ears! It’s unearthly, and for people who are mainly used to hearing the human voice singing through amplification it can be interesting to see people producing these sounds without any mechanical assistance. As this will be some young people’s introduction to opera I want them to hear some of the extraordinary things the human voice can do.” 

Dove’s busy year intensifies in summer, when his enormously successful opera Flight, created in 1998 for Glyndebourne, comes to Holland Park Opera in the latest of its numerous incarnations; it has travelled the world from the US to Germany to Australia. “It was a life-changing piece for me to write,” Dove remarks. “I did what I’ve always tried to do, which is to write the piece I wanted to see. But I didn’t know whether anybody else would want to see it. It’s incredibly gratifying that it turned out they did.”  

And just as gratifying is the prospect of Sir Simon Rattle conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in Dove’s brand-new opera for children, The Monster in the Maze, in July. If this isn’t an annis mirabilis, I don’t know what is.

Swanhunter, ROH Linbury Studio Theatre, from 2 April, then touring until 3 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000