In conversation with Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove is a prolific and eclectic composer with a wide range of work in his repertoire. He is also one of Britain’s most successful international composers, creating work for festivals and opera houses around the world. He has also enjoyed enormous success in the field of community opera.

You have written many works of differing kinds but can we focus more on your stage works, of which you have written an astounding 26? In the league table of Jonathan Dove dramatic works, where does Flight fit in? Both in terms of what you think of it from a musical achievement perspective and its importance to your canon?

Before Flight, I had written three large-scale community operas – full-length works with casts of more than two hundred, and often more than one orchestra – where most of the performers were amateurs; I had also written two chamber operas (and a couple of micro-operas) for professional performers. Flight was my first chance to write a full-evening, full-scale work for professional performers, and I think you can hear my excitement at being able to write intricate ensembles for the singers, and exuberant show-pieces for the orchestra. At the time I wrote it, I felt there was no shortage of serious modern operas, but there seemed to be no comedies. So I asked April de Angelis to write the libretto. We had already written two micro-operas, Pig and Greed, and I knew she could tickle my musical funny-bone. I was unbearably nervous at the dress-rehearsal, because although I had absolutely written the opera I wanted to see, I had no idea if audiences would share my enthusiasm. Seeing Flight reach its listeners and ‘take off’ was enormously encouraging. It represented a huge leap for me, and made possible everything that has followed.

Flight is your most performed work internationally but does it surprise you that this OHP production is the first professional London performance of it?

I’m delighted that Flight is finally getting a professional London production. The original Glyndebourne production was televised in 1999, so it was seen quite widely; and Glyndebourne revived it in 2005. But of course not everyone can get there, and there is a significant new audience in the capital. So, to give Flight a new production ten years after that revival strikes me as good timing.

You seem to like the short form, one act opera, even titling some in Italian; is that late Italian verismo genre of any influence on you musically?

My Italian operas were all written for Musica Nel Chiostro, a magical festival that ran for thirty years in a Tuscan monastery. Two of them were designed to be part of evenings of Baroque laments, so the models were much older! However, three of my one-act operas in English were based on current events. Two of them were for television; featuring news footage and sometimes creating the illusion that familiar events were actually sung. So you might say that they were attempting a new kind of verismo!

Whilst we are on the subject of influences, who would you cite as being primary amongst yours?

Britten for storytelling, Stravinsky for harmony, Rossini, Mozart and Verdi for comedy.

The debate about musical forms and “accessibility” of the music continues to rage among audiences. What is your view of this? It is said that many audiences don’t “listen” to the music that is coming at them, but rather wait for clearly signposted “melodies”, preferably ones they know. This often means they miss beautiful, if short-lived motifs. Is this something of which you are aware as a composer? And how does it affect the way in which you work?

Many of my favourite moments in opera do involve melody! But part of the richness of the medium is how many different kinds of music are involved in telling a story. I don’t expect audiences to be conscious of how an opera is put together, so listeners may not be aware of everything the music is doing. I try not to worry too much about what I think an audience might like. I try to write the piece I want to see and hear, and I have discovered that, if I manage to please myself in this respect, I will often please some other people too.

As a working opera composer, which gives you a unique view of the operatic firmament, what is your view of the operatic world and its struggles and controversies right now?

I have seen lots of wonderful new productions recently, with fantastic singing and great feats of visual and dramatic imagination; there is so much talent and vitality in the artform, and new artists continue to emerge. But seeing a number of American opera companies disappear rather quickly certainly makes us think about all the challenges opera faces, in attracting and keeping new audiences for this thrilling but expensive medium. Developing compelling new work has a part to play here.

You spent a lot of time working as a répétiteur, accompanying singers in rehearsals and in working on roles: how profoundly has that experience contributed to your ability to write for voice?

I spent the best part of ten years working as a répétiteur (alongside other freelance piano-playing and arranging) and it was a crucial experience for my development. It gave me insights into how singers work, their strengths, and the obstacles they have to overcome; it introduced me to many wonderful singers; and it meant that I always had in my head the sound of their voices.

As a bit of fun, what opera do you wish you had composed?

Far too many to mention.

You are the second living British operatic composer we have worked with and one question we had for Will Todd seems appropriate for you too, which is; how much of Britten’s success and status affects how you compose? In other words are you influenced by him and/or do you worry that people will always hold up your work for comparison with his?

Britten has always got there first! He wrote the seminal community opera and a landmark television opera, he virtually created chamber opera and opera for children, and invented the church opera. He showed that so much is possible; especially that opera need not be restricted to the big opera-house. So he has been a shining inspiration at every turn.

What are you currently working on?

I am making final corrections to a large-scale one-act opera called The Monster in the Maze, which includes a hundred children and a hundred adults in the cast. It will have three different staging’s this summer – in Berlin (in German), in London, at the Barbican (in English) and in Aix-en-Provence (in French).

Is there an opera that you are longing to compose?

I have ideas for quite a few operas, and with luck I’ll get the chance to write some of them.

Where do you get your operatic source material?

You never know where the next story will come from. Sometimes a story in the news strikes a spark, as in Flight or Siren Song. It might be something I read a long time ago, like The Adventures of Pinocchio, or Mansfield Park. Other people suggest stories to me: Tobias and the Angel and The Other Euridice, to name but two. You could say that opera is a way of looking at the world, and I am always interrogating stories and ideas to see if they might have an opera in them.

Is there a book you would love to turn into an opera?

That would be telling.