Opera companies, and their audiences, have long suffered from some serious misapprehensions about modern opera. In the bad old days, people seemed to believe that the career of 'composer' was some sort of promotional ladder, in which the eager young apprentice would start out writing chamber works, move on to penning a full-scale symphony or two, and finally achieve the ultimate accolade of an opera commission. Since a real opera composer not only has to write the lines, but set them too - exhibiting a far wider range of theatrical skills than any playwright - it was small wonder that the single operatic commission was invariably followed by a single run of performances and the composer's speedy exit back to the concert hall.

Bad as the old days were, the days of the Opera Studio and the Garden Venture were even worse. All that nurturing and nurse-maiding of wannabe opera composers and would-be librettists in hot-house conditions, and nothing to show for it but a few stunted experiments in a doomed hybrid form, the 20-minute music drama.

Meanwhile, the training has always been there for those who wanted it. Like Jonathan Dove, who learnt his craft the old-fashioned way - coaching singers and getting to know the repertoire, and the inner workings of an opera house, as a Glyndebourne repetiteur; anatomising the bowels of Mozart, Verdi and Wagner by reorchestrating their scores for the reduced resources of Graham Vick's City of Birmingham Touring Opera; catering to all comers and all abilities at the cutting-edge of community opera; underscoring genuinely theatrical performances such as Diana Rigg's in her Broadway-storming Medea.

All of which raises expectations for tonight's premiere of Siren Song (right), his first full-length opera, based on the bizarre true-life story of a sailor's year-long passion for a phantom pen-pal.

'Siren Song' opens 8pm tonight, Almeida Theatre, N1 (071-359 4404), then 17, 19, 22, 23 Jul

(Photograph omitted)