Saturday 2 September 2017

From naughty and disreputable to suspiciously establishment

Jonathan Dove talks about writing operas, and his new version of Mansfield Park.
Set design by Dick Bird for Martin Lloyd Evans production of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival
Set design by Dick Bird for Martin Lloyd Evans production of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival
The Grange Festival is giving the premiere of Jonathan Dove's new orchestral version of his opera Mansfield Park on 16 September 2017. The opera was originally written for soloists and piano duet, and premiered by Heritage Opera in 2011, and in this form has had performances by companies such as the Royal Academy of Music (in 2012), and Indianapolis Opera (in 2016). Dove's new orchestration, commissioned by The Grange Festival, will give the opera a new look, and the premiere coincides with the 200th anniversary Jane Austen's death and is being performed in a venue a short distance away from Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Hampshire. I met up with Jonathan to find out more about how he came to write an opera on a Jane Austen novel.

Mansfield Park provoked music in a way that no other Jane Austen novels did

Jonathan Dove
Jonathan Dove
Jonathan got the idea for an opera based on Mansfield Park over 30 years ago when he first read the novel and could hear music associated with it. The way the heroine Fanny suffers in the novel is never expressed directly, only obliquely, lends itself to musical expression. And two scenes in particular, seemed to have a particular musical resonance. In one, Fanny is looking out at the stars, Edmund joins her and for a moment everything is as it has been, but then Mary Crawford's singing draws Edmund inexorably away, a scene which Jonathan describes as particularly moving, and music helps make Fanny's isolation full of feeling.  In the other scene, they all go to look at Mr Rushworth's gardens, whilst walking they encounter a locked gate and different members of the party manage to get into the wilderness, leaving Fanny alone in some anguish, Edmund and Mary Crawford having disappeared into the shrubbery! Moments like these chimed with Jonathan and rather provoked music in a way that no other Jane Austen novels did, not even his favourite, Emma.

Separate from this, he had friends working with Pavilion Opera who performed operas in stately homes with piano accompaniment. The two ideas 'sort of coalesced'; an opera based on Mansfield Park put on to piano accompaniment in a country house, with a plot set in a country house which even has a play being put on.

Jonathan rather liked the idea of writing for piano accompaniment and around ten singers (the maximum number he had been allowed when commissioned to write Flight for Glyndebourne). He imagined the opera as simply being performed in the round in a country house, and never thought about performance in a proscenium arch theatre.

In 1998, independent of this but linked, Jonathan's long time librettist collaborator Alasdair Middleton was wanting to make a theatre piece out of one of Jane Austen's juvenilia, The Beautiful Cassandra, a short, delicious little piece written when Austen was 12. They created a melodrama out of it (it was recently performed at the Orlando Festival in the Netherlands), and Alasdair told Jonathan that Austen used to get up early to practise the piano. So the idea of  Austen as a pianist, young ladies performing the piano as an accomplishment, rather found its way into Mansfield Park too.

The idea for the opera, but no-one was asking for it

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Heritage Opera (2011)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Heritage Opera (2011)
Essentially Jonathan had the idea for the opera, but no-one was asking for it, though Alasdair thought it a great idea too. Jump to 2006, and Jonathan and Alasdair were working on The Enchanted Pig which premiered at the Young Vic with a cast including Nuala Willis (for whom Jonathan has written a significant number of pieces ) and her husband, John Rawnsley, who had just joined the board of Heritage Opera. Heritage Opera seemed a good fit with Mansfield Park but commissioning a new opera was a big undertaking for the company. The first performance was in 2011 at Boughton House, with the stately home setting as the main set, and 100 people in the audience. He rather liked the way it was portable, and that the accompaniment wasn't a reduction of anything.

Anthony Whitworth Jones (then at Garsington Opera) came to hear it and commented that the work would fit a 500-600 seat theatre but would need more colours in the accompaniment. Though, as a rather wordy opera, it did not seem a good fit with too big a theatre. The Royal Academy of Music performed the opera in 2012 with the piano on stage and the piece certainly seemed big enough to fill the space. But Jonathan accepts that companies might have conceptions of his works which never occurred to him when writing them, for example Tobias and the Angel was conceived as a church opera but in 2006 the Young Vic successfully used it to re-open their theatre.

For Mansfield Park, Jonathan feels that Alasdair Middleton's dramatisation of the book is quite brilliant, though inevitably it has radical elements. There an no scenes in Portsmouth, Tom (the oldest Bertram son) does not appear, and neither does Fanny's brother William. The orchestration of Mansfield Park was commissioned by The Grange Festival, and Jonathan used an ensemble of 13 instruments including piano (almost identical to Britten's The Rape of Lucretia) so that there are elements of a piano concerto to the accompaniment. Jonathan hopes it will be just as easy to achieve a good balance with the singers, as the orchestra is in the pit.

In fact, Britten was considering an operatic version of Mansfield Park as a follow up to The Rape of Lucretia. Jonathan did not know about the Britten connection when he first imagined the opera, but when working with Colin Graham (who had worked with Britten), Graham talked about it. Evidently there was rather more than a scenario, and Ronald Duncan drafted the libretto to Act One, though Britten wrote no music.

Frustrated by film and television adaptations of Mansfield Park

Set design by Dick Bird for Martin Lloyd Evans production of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival
Set design by Dick Bird for Martin Lloyd Evans production
of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival
Jonathan has always found himself frustrated by film and television adaptations of Mansfield Park, particularly the way Fanny always seems to get transformed into someone more sprightly and pro-active. He wanted to try and capture the true spirit of Fanny's character, and he feels that when reading the book, it is Jane Austen's writing, which is often very funny, which energises you and he felt that in the opera music could play this role whilst preserving Fanny's essential character.

Another aspect of adaptations of Jane Austen was the challenge of making the manners formal enough, and Jonathan feels that too often the manners are too modern. So the music gives a sense of restraint, with Jonathan restricting the sound palate. He has tried to include nothing that would not have occurred post-1815. But he points out that it is not a work of scholarship, nor does he pastiche the music of the time, instead the individual sounds (the chords etc) are ones which Jane Austen herself could recognise but Jonathan's musical grammar is different. But it begins and ends with a chord of C major.

Another layer of formality is that in the libretto, the characters announce each chapter which also helps to compress the work as Jonathan and Alasdair were able to just use the most important scenes.

He found many instrumental ideas implicit in the piece

Jonathan's normal method of composing an opera is to write the vocal score first (as this is the score which needs delivering for rehearsals), and to orchestrate later. But he thinks about the orchestration as he writes, so he has thought about the orchestra even thought the parts have not been written out. For Mansfield Park it was entirely different, he was orchestrating a piano part which had never been thought of in orchestral terms. In fact, he found many instrumental ideas implicit in the piece, though he was also able to do things not possible in the piano (such as have off-stage instruments during the ball scene). The instruments also bring colour and intensity, so that emotions present in the score have more importance.

Normally when writing opera Jonathan expects to find the characters each have their own instrumental colour or mode (he tends to write in modes), and the working out of the drama is in the working out of the contrasts between this different kinds of music. But Mansfield Park is not like that, it is more Mozartian in that each scene is like a self-contained number, and there is only one recurring motif, which is connected to Fanny. Jonathan feels that it is a special piece in his output, but it could never be described as modernist and he sees it more as an homage to neo-classicism in a similar vein to Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.

A significant number of operas though not all of them are called so

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Indianapolis Opera (2016)  (Photo Dennis Ryan Kelley Jr.)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Indianapolis Opera (2016) 
(Photo Dennis Ryan Kelley Jr.)
Jonathan has written a significant number of operas though not all of them are called so. With The Enchanted Pig, which is a fusion of musical theatre styles, they didn't use the word opera as they wanted people to come to the Young Vic to hear it. Many of his operas are for smaller instrumental ensembles, and he has written few large scale orchestral operas, though at the moment he is working on one Marx in London which is to be premiered in Bonn in 2018.

Jonathan's varied and flexible attitude to the operatic form, whether it be the forces involved or the style of the piece, arises partly because his formative operatic experiences were writing community operas for Glyndebourne (the biggest used 600 performers) and the Hackney Empire. And his recent work The Monster in the Maze continues this, as it uses a very big cast (300 when it as performed in Aix-en-Provence) includes adult, youth and children's choruses.

He was accompanying James Bowman, and getting paid for it! 

As a teenager Jonathan loved the theatre, and loved playing in the London Schools Symphony Orchestra, as well as enjoying singing in the school choir. After University, to earn a living, he became a repetiteur in opera (getting his first job thanks to Jeremy Sams). This was the beginning of his operatic life; he realised that all the things that he was keen one could be found in this one medium.  He was accompanying James Bowman, and getting paid for it! A door had opened.

He was playing for rehearsals of The Tales of Hoffmann for Birmingham Opera when the planned orchestral reduction failed to appear and lots of people were involved in creating it at the last minute. Jonathan then did the orchestral reductions for the subsequent operas  La Cenerentola, La Boheme, The Magic Flute, The Cunning Little Vixen and, most famously, Wagner's Ring Cycle (in 1990) for 18 instruments. This was his apprenticeship, thinking about scores from the composer's point view; could the same effect be achieved with smaller forces.

He did not feel that what he was doing was respectable

Set design by Dick Bird for Martin Lloyd Evans production of Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival
Set design by Dick Bird for Martin Lloyd Evans production of
Jonathan Dove's Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival
Though Jonathan studied composition with Robin Holloway whilst at University, he expected to make a living as a pianist and in fact wrote little music at University. He had made up pieces at the piano as a child, but wrote very little down and when he did he did not find the music satisfactory. It took him a long time to learn how to write his own music, and it didn't help that the sounds that he wanted to make were not then considered 'respectable'. At University he was 'supposed to write like Boulez'. So when he started writing music, he did not feel that what was doing was respectable. And though the world has got larger in terms of musical idioms, to a certain extent he still feels that. He still reads condescending reviews for people hoping for someone else.

The first pieces where he found his own voice were dance pieces. Partly this was because dance has its own environment so he felt emboldened to do what he wanted as people would be looking at the dancers. So this was when he heard the music and it felt exactly right. He adds that though the pieces would never have been done by SPNM (the Society of Promotion for New Music which merged with three other networks in 2008 to become Sound and Music), there was no shortage of earnest new music.

Growing up, writing opera did not occur to him because in new opera at the time, it was not possible to write music which was direct, fun, had catchy tunes, and used an orchestra, where you could hum the tunes afterwards.

A particular way of looking at the world

At one point in our discussions we talk about the term opera. This was partly because I hesitated to use the word for some of Jonathan's pieces, but he sees the operatic genre as a wide one. He has grown up with a particular affection for trained singers and acoustic instruments, and though he has worked in other areas, these are what he is most comfortable with. In terms of style, Jonathan uses and interesting analogy. If you have a continent of musical comedy whose Northernmost shore is Sondheim, and a continent of opera whose Southernmost shore is Britten, the Jonathan is in the sea between them!

Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Hampstead Garden Opera (2013)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Hampstead Garden Opera (2013)
He is continually turning over and investigating ideas for pieces and new operas. If he encounters and event in the newspapers he think, might that be an opera; if he encounters poetry he thinks, might he be able to set it. He sees this as a particular way of looking at the world. So for example, his opera Siren Song was based on a true story which he read about in the newspaper; he mentioned it to the Almedia Theatre and they encouraged him to write it.  With Siren Song, the opera was based on Gordon Honeycomb's book and he thought it would be possible to extract the dialogue from the boo , but this didn't work. He realised he needed a dramatist, someone who knew how to make words work on stage, including how few to use.

Sometimes he has an idea for an opera which no one is interested in, but the ideas do not go away and some have remained on the back burner. To bring an opera into the world takes the convergence of a number of things. Many years ago, he and Alasdair Middleton were travelling round Italy and visited the Parco di Pinocchio in Collodi, giving them the idea of Pinocchio as an opera, which would eventually become The Adventures of Pinocchio. He offered the idea to Opera North and they decided to commission it.

Jonathan's operas tend to have a variety of types of genesis

Jonathan Dove: MAnsfield Park - Royal Academy of Music (2012) (Photo Hana Zushi)
Jonathan Dove: Mansfield Park - Royal Academy of Music (2012)
(Photo Hana Zushi)
Jonathan's operas tend to have a variety of types of genesis. Having written three community operas for Glyndebourne, they asked him if he wanted to do an opera for the main stage. He said yes, a comedy. He wanted April de Angelis as the librettist because she made him laugh, and it was April who brought the idea of Flight. With Tobias and the Angel the church which commissioned the opera asked him if he could make an opera from the Book of Tobit. He read it, and found the story of a man who gets blinded at the beginning and gets his sight back at the end, and immediately thought 'What does it sound like?'.

Flight has a special place in Jonathan's affections; a high profile commission from Glyndebourne, it was an amazing platform so early in his composing experience and for Jonathan is is surprising how many subsequent productions there have been, how many people have seen it. The Monster in The Maze is his most translated piece, and whilst working on them his community operas felt the most worthwhile. His first TV opera When she died (about Diana, Princess of Wales), had by far the biggest audience and was like having something performed at the London Coliseum every night for three years. The Enchanted Pig is one of his most performed works, the original production had 151 performances.

Mansfield Park at The Grange Festival

Mansfield Park is being performed at The Grange Festival by a team which has history with Jonathan's operas, conductor David Parry and director Martin Lloyd Evans, and Jonathan loves both of their work. During his repetiteur days Jonathan played for a lot of productions which David Parry conducted, so David Parry conducted the premieres of Flight, Tobias and the Angel and Pinocchio. Jonathan comments that there is a photo somewhere of himself and Parry playing duets at Batignano, and he feels David Parry understands his music. Martin Lloyd Evans has directed Flight for British Youth Opera, Pinocchio and The Little Green Swallow at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and designer Dick Bird was responsible for Pinocchio and The Little Green Swallow at the Guildhall.

The Grange, Northington  (Photo Joe Low)
The Grange, Northington  (Photo Joe Low)
There are lots of productions of Flight this year, and Jonathan comments the he feels he has moved from being 'naughty and disreputable to suspiciously establishment'

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