7 Apr 2024

From Marx and Austen to stranded in an airport: Jonathan Dove on keeping opera relevant

From Culture 101, 1:07 pm on 7 April 2024


Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove Photo: Roni Sidhu

“If opera doesn’t tell stories about right now or about who we are now, then eventually it’s just going to die out,” British composer Jonathan Dove tells Culture 101’s Mark Amery. 

Dove should know. With 32 operas to his name he’s one of the most performed living opera composers of our time.

In February, one of Dove's latest operas had its UK premiere, Marx in London! In the reportedly gleefully silly period comedy, the great left-wing economist can't manage his own household budget. 

Dove is on a mission to give opera contemporary life.

His comic opera Flight, about a refugee trapped in an airport lounge, has had 37 productions throughout Europe, the USA and Australia. And his television opera When She Died (about Diana, Princess of Wales) was seen by more than 2.5 million people worldwide. And last year’s Itch follows a 14-year-old science fanatic who discovers a new element to add to the periodic table.

Dove tells RNZ: "I think life is all potentially operatic ... opera is a way of telling stories.

"But it's true that some stories particularly suit opera, which can be a potentially immersive medium." 

Laughter and farce were much more common in opera in days gone by, whereas documentary elements may generally be less naturally suited to opera, but it can be done with the right story - as in Flight, he says.

Dove has also worked extensively in initiatives that combine professional and community-based musicians, working with groups with different abilities in different contexts. 

Waterperry Opera production of Jonathan Dove's opera of Mansfield Park

Waterperry Opera production of Jonathan Dove's opera of Mansfield Park Photo: Robert Workman

Dove will be in Aotearoa New Zealand for the premiere here of his chamber opera Mansfield Park this month. In it he finds new ways of illuminating one of Jane Austen’s less celebrated novels.

He explains that music gives a voice to the feelings of its main character Fanny, that a play or screen adaptation cannot.  

"Mansfield Park made me imagine music, and I think it's at least partly because the heroine Fanny Price is not exactly completely silent, but she doesn't voice her feelings in the book ... and I think that was somehow where music wanted to come in.

"It's a kind of a Cinderella story.

"I always had the feeling that this wasn't a conventional opera, I wasn't imagining something in an opera house, I was imagining something in a stately home. Mansfield Park it's a stately home, a big country house. 

"I was just imagining what would it be like if you were sitting in the living room of a stately home - and there's a piano of course, and somebody starts to play, and then all of a sudden somebody next to you starts to sing and then you realise you're in the middle of a story."

The production with Opera New Zealand is from Waterperry Opera, whose festival is set at Waterperry House and Gardens in Oxfordshire. Its artistic director has described the experience of their work as wanting “to be more like Glastonbury than Glyndebourne." 

In this case Dove has hatched a work that can be produced with minimal set design in the very Victorian setting of the novel on which it is based - a country estate.

In New Zealand it will be staged in the Public Trust Hall in Pōneke Wellington (17-18 April) and Settler’s Country Manor, Waimauku, in Tāmaki Makaurau - Auckland (21 April).

From The Unruly Tourists to (m)Orpheus, New Zealand Opera has had a strong recent track record with new opera, but this is a country where it has proven difficult to mount them next to the classics.   

Dove is also in Aotearoa to contribute to New Zealand Opera's inaugural New Opera Forum, at Waikato University, 22- 26 April. The forum will consider how new opera works are developed and given the greatest chance of success.  

Waterperry Opera production of Jonathan Dove's opera of Mansfield Park

Waterperry Opera production of Jonathan Dove's opera of Mansfield Park Photo: Robert Workman