Showing posts with label Jonathan Dove. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jonathan Dove. Show all posts

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Sizzling new works draw full houses at last

SO heartening to attend two Proms within a week that included a) world premieres and b) full houses. Here's my write-up of last night's new works from Jonathan Dove and Dieter Ammann, alongside Beethoven 9, in The Arts Desk. Taster below. And a PS: I seriously did not envy the page-turner her job.

Andreas Haefliger (and his beleaguered page-turner) stay cool in Ammann's new concerto
Time was, not long ago, when the very word “premiere” was enough to ensure a sizeable smattering of red plush holes in the Royal Albert Hall audience. It seemed people did not want to risk attending new works for fear they would sound ghastly. Any artform depends for its lifeblood on strong new creations and an audience for them; so it is excellent that this concert was the second in a matter of days in which the place was packed out for a Prom including brand-new pieces. In a time of welcome diversity of styles and approaches, are music-lovers finally becoming curious, even eager, to hear the best of what today’s composers have to offer? I hope so - because otherwise it would mean everyone was only there for Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony yet again.
This programme included two world premieres. Jonathan Dove's We Are One Fire is a 90th anniversary celebration for the BBC Symphony Chorus, inspired by the message of humanity in Schiller’s Ode to Joy and drawing on the idea that, in the composer’s words, “20th-century archaeology showed us that we are all indeed brothers and sisters”...

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

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Look what I found on Facebook

Amazing what you can stumble across on Facebook. If I hadn't logged on just after Jonathan Dove posted a flier for his new opera Mansfield Park, which will be premiered next week. I might never have known he'd written it. What? Jonathan Dove has turned Jane Austen's Mansfield Park into an opera?!? Clearly this needed urgent attention, so I've written a feature, which is out today in The Independent. Read it here.

There was a little more in the original version about the doughty Heritage Opera and how this tiny and excellent enterprise went about raising the necessary dosh to commission a new work from one of the UK's best music-theatre composers. So here is the director's cut.

Plenty of new opera has graced the stages of London and Manchester this year, much of it controversial, cutting-edge and high profile. But off the beaten track, in the stately homes of northern England, a small and very plucky opera company has dared to think big in a completely different way. Heritage Opera, based in Staffordshire, is about to give the world premiere of an opera based on nothing less than Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, written for it by one of Britain’s finest music-theatre composers, Jonathan Dove.

The intimate scale of the enterprise might have pleased Austen herself, who once referred to “The little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush...” Involving just ten singers and piano-duet accompaniment, the opera has been conceived specifically for performance in country houses, which has been Heritage Opera’s speciality since its founding in 2006 by its musical director, Chris Gill. The ‘theatre’ itself serves as the opera’s set.

Commissioning Dove was ambitious for such a small and still relatively new company: this audience-friendly musical creator has some extremely successful operas to his name and can probably pick and choose. His Flight, created for Glyndebourne in 1998, has been staged across three continents; his Pinocchio for Opera North was a more recent smash hit. Yet the encounter with Heritage Opera was serendipitous: it enabled Dove to fulfil a cherished dream.

“The idea for Mansfield Park goes back a long way,” says Dove. “When I first read it, more than 20 years ago, I remember hearing music and feeling that it wanted to become something. At that time there was another company that used to tour stately homes doing blockbuster opera repertoire with piano; it went through my mind at the time that that would be the perfect way of doing Mansfield Park
. I’ve never thought it would be right for a larger opera house.”

Austen fans will be familiar with the story of Fanny Price, a poor relation in a grand house, in love – at first unrequitedly – with the family’s second son, Edmund. The long-suffering girl watches helplessly as he is dazzled by the sophisticated Mary Crawford; scandal, heartbreak and stargazing all have their places in the tale before it reaches its quietly happy conclusion. Dove nails its appeal: “It’s just like Cinderella,” he says. His regular librettist, Alasdair Middleton, has boiled down the substantial book to its dramatic essence, framing each scene with a sung ‘chapter’ heading and retaining Austen’s words wherever possible.

Strange, perhaps, that Austen has been largely overlooked by opera composers until now; strange, too, that of all Austen’s books Mansfield Park could seem the least obvious choice for adaptation. Would Pride and Prejudice or Emma, more popular novels with more extrovert characters, not hold more appeal? Dove says that in fact the reverse is true.

“I heard music in Mansfield Park in a way I hadn’t with the others,” he says. “It’s the way Fanny Price is written. Elizabeth Bennett and Emma Woodhouse are delightful and fantastic characters, but I never felt there was anything that I needed to add to that. With Fanny, we sense her suffering, but she’s never explicit – she never says to Edmund ‘Stay away from Mary Crawford’. It’s what she’s not saying that provokes the music.”

He hasn’t attempted to create a pastiche of the musical style of Austen’s day: “The score doesn’t strictly behave like early 19th-century music, but I hope it suggests that era,” he says. “The accompaniment is for four hands at one piano, a medium that Austen would have heard often. I like the idea that while that the musical grammar might be unfamiliar to her, the vocabulary is something she’d recognise.”

Sarah Helsby Hughes, HO’s artistic director who also sings the role of Mary Crawford, has high praise for Dove’s musical characterisation. “The music for Fanny is gorgeous, extremely haunting and touching,” she says. “Mrs Norris is very cleverly done, with spiky writing that’s her to a T. And for the conversation between Mary and her brother Henry he’s created an urbane, almost jazzy, city-gloss idiom that’s different from any of the other characters’ music: it tells us that these are city slickers who’ve arrived in the country. The words of that conversation are lifted straight from the book – it really is Jane Austen.”

Dove’s Mansfield Park arrives in typically restrained Austenesque style, virtually unannounced compared to this year’s other, noisier world premieres. The Royal Opera has brought us Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole; English National Opera presented Nico Muhly’s social-networking crimmie Two Boys; Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee has just taken the Manchester Festival by storm. Heritage Opera’s approach to commissioning has been altogether different – of necessity, since unlike those other companies it receives not a penny of state subsidy.

The cost it faced, £36,000, may seem relatively modest, but it’s still a substantial amount for a small company to raise from scratch. Help arrived in a grant from the Peter Moores Foundation; a healthy donation came from a private sponsor; but still, for three years HO collected doggedly via fundraising events and appeals at their other performances around the north of England. Responses ranged from fans popping in a few pounds to one enthusiast writing a cheque for £1000. “Our local audiences have responded like kings and given everything they could,” says Helsby Hughes.

And what will hardened Austen fans make of a Mansfield Park opera? Tim Bullamore, publisher of the Bath-based magazine Jane Austen’s Regency World, thinks it will be welcomed with open arms. “The ‘Janeites’, as Rudyard Kipling called them, are absolutely devoted,” he comments. “They’ll go round the world, they’ll go to conferences, they dress up – recently I saw 100 of them walking through Bath in regency costume. That’s especially popular with Americans – I think this opera should cross the Atlantic really well.” As an opera in its own right, he adds, Mansfield Park has great potential: “It has all the subjects you need in an opera: adultery, affairs, money...”

There, though, any resemblance to Anna Nicole ends. Austen’s Mansfield Park has a special sensibility (and perhaps sense, too) that enjoys an apparently timeless appeal. Dove’s version may start out on a piece of operatic ivory with its first stately homes tour. But I suspect this won’t be the last we hear of it.

Mansfield Park opens on 30 July and tours until 11 August. Full details at: