ARTS & VISUAL ARTS: `I've always felt the need for melody'

Jonathan Dove's operas leave him outside the avant garde: he's dared to exchange angst for sheer musical pleasure. By David Benedict
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The Independent Culture
UPON RECEIVING a prestigious commission to write an opera for ENO, a British composer (who shall be nameless) rang a senior music journalist. "I don't really know much about opera," he said, guilelessly. "What pieces should I listen to?" In terms of outlook and dedication to the creative opportunities afforded by this, the most extravagant and potentially exciting of art-forms, the gulf between this man and opera composer, Jonathan Dove, is cavernous.

While it's true that he has two concerto commissions up his sleeve, Dove's career is remarkable for its almost exclusive concentration on theatrical music. Few contemporary British composers can boast of being on Broadway, but theatregoers from Hackney to Manhattan heard his scores for Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet and Diana Rigg's Medea, not to mention the 14 other plays he has scored for the Almeida. He also has a back catalogue of TV and film music but the reason for his recent exclusive deal with publishers, Peters Editions, has little to do with any of that. They're after his operas.

This summer, Glyndebourne Festival will stage Flight, a huge success last year for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, but before you rush to book for this extraordinarily confident, richly lyrical piece, you may still be able to nab the odd seat for his latest opera, Tobias and the Angel, which opens on Wednesday as part of Almeida Opera.

It must be conceded that 20th-century opera has a very bad name. The ENO season devoted almost exclusively to post-1900 work went down like a lead balloon with subscribers vanishing at the perceived notion of endless, impossibly challenging works with "no tunes". Still, they had a point.

Composers of this century have harnessed the post-Schoenbergian abandonment of traditional harmony and excelled at portraying grief, pain and angst but as Dove puts it, with a gently wry smile of understatement, "the vocabulary of celebration is a little undernourished... not to mention comedy. I do like to laugh." He praises Alban Berg for his enviable skill as a musical dramatist but although he certainly won't name names, he distances himself from composers who, with signally lesser effect, have sought to emulate the neuroticism of the fiercely dramatic writing in Wozzeck or Lulu.

"I'm always looking for ways to tell a story through melody. When you spill your guts on stage musically, if the audience goes with you, they might have a fantastic roller-coaster ride but it's quite easy for them to think, `there's a drunk person in the room screaming... I'll wait until they stop.'" He believes there's another route. "Perhaps I'm hoping to lure the listener in through sheer musical pleasure so that they're interested enough to let imagination do some of the work. I'm not trying to do everything for them."

Whatever the path, it certainly works. Faced with his almost shamelessly entertaining chamber opera, Siren Song, some critics disparaged it for sailing towards being a musical. It wasn't, but Dove shows little interest in pointless divisions. Indeed, this Cecil B de Mille of contemporary opera has written three giant works for regional communities - including one opera for Peterborough with a local cast of 700 - since his baptism as musical director of a vast local cast in West Side Story in a disused cotton mill in Bradford.

Possibly due to the fact that he has final orchestral rehearsals to oversee, he's slightly wired, his ideas tumbling forth in unusually rapid speech. There's an engaging confidence about him which is borne out of the fact that not only has he cut a distinct groove for himself, he's also, regretfully, turning down work. In the words of David Parry, the conductor of Flight and Tobias, "He's like a 19th century composer in that he's genuinely interested in the voice." That chimes with Dove's remark that he has been increasingly drawn towards singers and "working towards a singable line". Parry also points to Dove being "very hands-on". Rather than writing operas because they provide the chance to write for massed forces and look good on the CV, Dove has undertaken a rare, almost ideal opera apprenticeship.

He played piano by ear as a very young boy. Before going to bed he'd hear his mother playing the piano and he would pick up Clair de Lune or Handel's Largo or whatever she was playing. At the age of 11 he wrote a symphony.

"Well," he grins, "I called it a symphony but it was only on the piano. I played it for my puzzled but very patient piano teacher and I don't think it made any sense at all." As a teenager he played violin and viola in orchestras when not singing in choirs and being the organist at the local church. He wrote the odd choral piece but never imagined making a living out of it. He studied composition with Robin Holloway at Cambridge but they spent most of their sessions playing Mahler symphonies on two pianos as "yet again, I'd failed to write anything." Needing money at the end of his first year, he rang up Jeremy Sams who suggested he play for a rehearsal for the Handel Opera company which Sams couldn't do. "So I walked in on Monday morning and found James Bowman and Paul Esswood lying on the floor singing some fantastic duet and I thought `this is a lot better than sitting in the university library, and I'm getting paid for it.'"

A subsequent eight-year career as a rehearsal pianist took him to Opera 80 who were doing The Tales of Hoffman in a reduced orchestration which had been hurriedly done by a fleet of orchestrators but not well. "It's a very particular thing, reducing it to a 15-piece orchestra while not making it sound like a cafe band at San Marco, or worse. Seeing it not quite work and being possibly a little too opinionated, I said, `why not do this, this and this?' And they said, `well, why don't you do it next time?'"

He went on to re-orchestrate works as diverse as La Cenerentola, Falstaff, La Boheme, The Magic Flute and, most famously, a reduced Ring cycle. "You stare at these scores, wondering `why did he write this here? What effect did this have and can it be achieved by any other means?' The music passes through you. Arranging them, you do feel almost as if you've written the piece." At the same time he was learning about collaboration from David Parry and through watching Graham Vick and Richard Jones - "the two best opera directors in England." Thus, when he began writing opera, he really knew what he was doing, and, more importantly, why.

Parry speaks glowingly of Dove's unusually distinctive stamp, but Dove himself is hard put to describe his style. "There's certain music that you know how to write but it isn't necessarily what you want to hear, it's just something you've found a way of doing. Discovering how to write the music I actually had in my head took a long time." Like his hero, Stravinsky, he uses predominantly white note harmony and then there's melody, which, though difficult to define, "I've always felt the need for." He recognises his fondness for regular pulse and clear rhythm, which explains why some have spotted echoes of John Adams. It also allows for humour. "You need something to play against for wit to work. Comic timing is much harder to achieve in an amorphous rhythm."

All this places him outside the avant-garde, but few of those composers look to drama for inspiration. He already has his eye on a play and a novel for future operas. "They cry out for music, although I'm not sure that anyone else would think so. It's about seeing where singing can add something, or tell you something you couldn't get in any other way. When feelings reach a certain temperature they become singable. Opera can realise the secret life of characters. A good dramatist can focus a story so that everything anyone says is important and therefore singable." The same could be said of a good opera composer.

`Tobias and the Angel' is at Christchurch, London N1 (0171-359 4404) 7-10 July; `Flight' is in rep at Glyndebourne (01273 813813) from 14-28 August