Flight of fancy

Before Steven Spielberg made 'The Terminal', the story inspired an opera. And Glyndebourne believes it's the ideal way to pull in younger audiences
Click to follow

"It was one of the nicest things that's been said to me," Dove laughs. Flight, set in an airport terminal, isn't as "filthy" as all that – although a couple of incidents involving a steward, a stewardess and a male passenger give it a foot in farce. "There's a moment that I was afraid might cause the timid and elderly some anxiety, but nothing that would remotely disturb anyone who watches television," Dove says. "I think, though, that the on-stage birth is probably a first for opera."

Commissioned by Glyndebourne and premiered in 1998, Flight is an original modern comedy, with the serious undertones that the best comedies have. And since most of us have been on a plane and experienced that alarming sense of limbo in the departure lounge, it's not so surprising that Flight has so far enjoyed 52 performances worldwide (most new operas are lucky to have six), an outing on TV and a rare revival at Glyndebourne.

Recently, most opera houses have preferred to commission works based on books, plays and films (Thomas Adès' The Tempest, Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, or Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale). Flight was inspired by what Dove describes as "a nugget of a true story", that of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who, due to a series of bureaucratic bungles, ended up living in limbo for years inside Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport. "Encountering his story bounced us into thinking about a world we otherwise wouldn't have thought about," says Dove, "wondering what happens when you extend that limbo between our ordinary lives and being in the air, which for most of us is finite. What happens if that's infinitely prolonged?"

The Refugee – sung by a counter-tenor, a voice that suggests the other-worldly and magical – has a series of encounters with passengers and adversaries when an electrical storm traps everyone for a night in the airport, a situation that forces them to confront their inner selves and one another's.

"In a mythic way, the storm is almost the result of a test that they all fail at first: namely, will you help this refugee?" Dove explains. "They can't move on until they have passed that test."

Dove and his librettist, the author April de Angelis, found their "nugget" before Steven Spielberg, coincidentally, took up the same one. In Spielberg's film The Terminal, Tom Hanks plays an unfortunate Eastern European visitor to New York trapped in the airport transit lounge when his country undergoes a military coup before he can pass immigration. Spielberg's take is a feel-good movie starring a guy-next-door actor; there's some love interest, some smiling sidekicks and a happy ending for all. Dove's Refugee, whose origin is never revealed, has a far darker story to tell in the final scene. Any mental association between Flight and The Terminal probably won't do the former any harm, but this is not the opera of the film.

Pre-Spielberg, Flight had already proved its worth in terms of attracting young audiences, with productions in Germany and the US, as well as Richard Jones's staging for Glyndebourne which has been exported to Belgium and Holland and is soon to visit Australia. "At every performance I've been to," Dove says, "I've met people who are at an opera for the first time. That's great, because I think Flight is an ideal first-time opera. The story is fast-paced; it's in English and the words are set in such a way that you can hear all of them, so there's no need for surtitles; the music is quite catchy; and the audience laughs out loud, which doesn't happen in too many 20th-century operas."

Besides its humour and its lucid, singable, glitteringly individual music, the piece's theatricality goes back to Dove's earliest enthusiasm for the stage.

"I think of Flight as theatre that happens to be opera," he says, "and the performers have to be actors who happen to be opera singers." As a kid, he adds, he loved to spend his spare time building model theatres. "I was stage-struck, without feeling any need to go on stage. When you write an opera, you are really embodying all the characters and behaving like a director and a roomful of actors rehearsing a play. All the decisions that actors and directors make between them are going on inside the theatre in my head. Maybe there's an actor manqué somewhere in me that makes me want to act through other people's singing."

Dove cut his teeth with the City of Birmingham Touring Opera (now Birmingham Opera Company); he played the piano for rehearsals and reorchestrated full-scale operas for orchestras of 15, including a condensed version of Wagner's Ring cycle. His first three commissions from Glyndebourne were for community operas for its outreach wing. Their tremendous success is an indication of how inspiring he finds it to interact with collaborators and audiences of all ages and abilities. While various older British composers have retreated to islands or mountains to weave fantastical soundworlds that can leave audiences puzzled, Dove lives in Bethnal Green, runs the Spitalfields Festival and is hard at work on a piece for television and a full-scale opera for a major company – "to be announced in their own time," he says.

But with Flight, had he set out to write that all-too-elusive object, an "accessible" opera? "I wanted to write a show that I'd like to see myself," he says. "I think the only people who don't have a good time in this opera are the ones who want art to be difficult. That's a legitimate viewpoint, but it's not one that I share."

Among the more traditionally-minded critics at Flight's first run, that viewpoint was certainly present: the setting was sometimes deemed too "trivial" for opera and the story too down-to-earth. Dove acknowledges that Glyndebourne took a risk.

"I was the biggest nobody they'd ever chosen! I realise now how unusual this is and I feel incredibly lucky to have had that relationship with the company: to have had the chance to learn my craft first through writing the community operas and then essentially being allowed to write whatever I wanted to write. I hope that I've repaid that trust by writing a piece that's worth hearing twice."

And is Flight Glyndebourne's most unusual opera? "A lot of contemporary opera is extraordinary," says Glyndebourne's director, David Pickard, "but this is the first one we've commissioned that has had such a good continuing life with further productions. It's made an important statement: that contemporary opera can be a pleasure, not a penance! I've brought Flight back not only because I was so keen to have it myself, but also because there has been so much interest in it from the public. And its immediacy of musical expression makes it an ideal work for young people and for anyone who's never been to the opera before."

'Flight', Glyndebourne Festival Opera (01273 813813; www.glyndebourne.com) 12 to 28 August