Jonathan Dove: No nose for talent

Jonathan Dove's 'The Adventures of Pinocchio' is the most acclaimed new opera in years – so why is he being ignored by the Establishment? Michael Church investigates
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Has British opera hit the buffers? This week's announcement that Scottish Opera is presenting a series of 15-minute shorts – with libretti by celebrity authors – is just the latest indication of general desperation. Despite valiant attempts at stimulating new work by Welsh National Opera, Scottish Opera and Opera North, little of note has resulted, while the list of commissions by our national companies – the real barometer – is shockingly short.

English National Opera kicked off the new millennium with Mark-Anthony Turnage's rousing The Silver Tassie, but all it has done since is David Sawer's forgettable From Morning to Midnight; the Asian Dub Foundation's amateurish Gaddafi; and a co-commission of Poul Ruders' excruciating The Handmaid's Tale.

The Royal Opera has a slightly higher strike rate but, apart from Thomas Adès's magnificent The Tempest, has turned up no gems. It uses its Linbury Studio Theatre to launch new chamber works, but the most ambitious of these – Nigel Osborne's The Piano Tuner – was a well-intentioned failure. In April, the ROH will premiere Harrison Birtwistle's The Minotaur. This may have as big a resonance as his Gawain, but it's the first opera he's produced in 10 years. Turnage is even more parsimonious, and Adès's next opera for the ROH will surface, if it's lucky, in 2012.

In short, no one could accuse these boys of overproduction. And since they're regarded as British opera's hope for the future – our answer to John Adams and Philip Glass – pessimism seems justified.

But there is a composer who could help reverse this trend, if given the chance, and that's Jonathan Dove. When his The Adventures of Pinocchio makes its triumphal entry at Sadler's Wells this month, London audiences will doubtless join their Leeds counterparts in their enthusiasm. Dove's musical retelling, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, of Carlo Collodi's tale about a mendacious marionette has toured to packed houses and ecstatic reviews, thus reinforcing his position as the one composer who repeatedly hits the mark.

The Enchanted Pig, Dove's Christmas opera-musical for the Young Vic, ran for 81 performances. His TV operas on Diana, Princess of Wales's death and the Moon-landing have worked triumphantly. Flight, his comic opera set in Heathrow, was commissioned by Glyndebourne and has been performed worldwide. And with The Palace in the Sky, composed for Hackney Empire plus local talent, he has shown how opera can fit social reality like a glove. He loves the voice, and knows how to give it a soaring, melodious grace; his orchestrations are deft.

Dove has never had a flop, and Pinocchio is his 21st opera. So why has he never been commissioned for a main-house piece by the big London companies? Snobbery, one suspects, though unsurprisingly, neither company wanted to comment (though ENO did point out that Palace in the Sky was commissioned by its Baylis community scheme). You see, he "only" writes community operas, children's shows, and for TV. But it's worth examining Dove's case, because he's mining a rich and promising seam.

As a pianist/organist/violist, and having studied composition with Robin Holloway at Cambridge University, he went straight into the theatre. He spent 10 years playing at opera rehearsals, and doing chamber arrangements for City of Birmingham Touring Opera: his training in orchestration. "But playing the viola in an orchestra," Dove says, "is possibly the best training. You're in the middle of what's going on, and you see how orchestral textures work. And reorchestrating the Ring for 18 musicians, and reducing it was an amazing education in what music does in opera – how it connects to action, drama and character."

As Glyndebourne's assistant chorus-master, Dove was drawn into the education department, and commissioned an opera for local schools. This led to two more local works: On Spital Fields, the thrilling cantata he devised two years ago for one of London's least privileged boroughs, shows he has kept faith with this underrated art form. "Community work keeps my feet on the ground, and in touch with the music in people's heads," he says. "There are musical ideas and a musical vocabulary we can all share." But Dove's priority is narrative. "All cultures have ways of telling stories through song."

Comparisons have been drawn between him and John Adams, and they do indeed share the same sound world, with singable vocal lines, colourful orchestration, and a strong pulse. Dove is flattered, but draws a distinction: "Adams is the most exciting composer alive today, but to me his works are more like oratorios. Having grown up in the theatre, I want to see people sing to each other, and respond. And on the whole, I've been lucky: what pleases me, seems to please a lot of other people, too." Anyone listening, up there in the control room?

'The Adventures of Pinocchio', Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0844 412 4300), 27 and 29 February, and 1 March