Friday, March 18, 2016

Composer of 'Mansfield Park' discovered the novel 'asked itself to be made in the opera'

Jane Austen's powers of observation, her sense of humor, and her nuanced delineation of character suggest some of the difficulties — and temptations — of adapting her novels for the stage.

Jonathan Dove feels 'Mansfield Park' told him it needed an opera.
Opera, which enforces refinement and concentration on sources from prose fiction, is a hard taskmaster for anyone tackling such a project. But Jonathan Dove and his librettist, Alasdair Middleton, took on the challenge with "Mansfield Park."

According to the English composer, interviewed at the Basile Opera Center on Monday: "'Emma' and 'Pride and Prejudice' are the Austen novels I liked most. But I never heard music with those books. But there was something incomplete about 'Mansfield Park.' It asked itself to be made into an opera."

Dove, in town for the American professional premiere of the work by Indianapolis Opera, explains it this way: Fanny Price, the heroine, is an outsider who has been treated by "Mansfield Park"'s film adaptation as an Emma or Elizabeth Bennet —members in good standing of the landed gentry in Regency England whose independence is asserted from that status. In fact, she is harder to get to know than those forthright characters and not treated well by everyone in her milieu.

That difference helped the story suggest operatic possibilities to Dove: "There are close parallels with the Cinderella story," he pointed out, "and you know you can tell that in the course of an evening."

Dove was further inspired by the intimacy of Austen's setting, having long ago been intrigued by Pavilion Opera, an English company, taking operas into the stately homes of England and presenting them with piano accompaniment. That influenced his creation  in 2011 of "Mansfield Park," with instrumental assistance limited to two pianists at one keyboard. Since the plot of the novel involves a project to stage a play, in which everyone but Fanny is swept away, the creative spark for the new opera was almost inevitable.

The composer, prolific in a wide variety of musical genres, also reflected the influence of the intimate setting in how he chose to write for voices. "You get the kind of intimacy that you don't get in conventional opera," he said. "There are different scales of singing — it's not Verdi."

Dove uses his 10 singers in continual ensemble and solo textures. "It's the kind of sound world Jane Austen would have recognized," he said,  though he emphasizes that his music doesn't ape early 19th-century musical styles. His inspiration, he adds, is the Stravinsky of "The Rake's Progress," but without explicit referents to the musical manners of the period. Each of the two-hour opera's 18 scenes is conceived as a "chapter" — 11 in Act 1, seven in Act 2 — with its own musical character.

Inspired as an opera composer by  Benjamin Britten and John Adams, he is particularly admiring of his countryman Britten. "You can always understand what people are singing — it's all very natural in Britten," Dove said. He has no need to compose without being certain of performance, he said, particularly with opera. And he feels fortunate not to have to supplement his composing with teaching or conducting.

And his procedure in composing an opera? "When I'm writing, I sing all the lines, trying to find the accompaniment that suggests the emotion. I want to feel the energy that's needed (from the accompaniment) to match them. I can feel what happens in the music over time."

For the listener and operagoer new to his work, Dove closed with these words of advice. "My music doesn't need any preparation," he said reassuringly. "There's nothing to be afraid of. You should be able to enjoy the whole thing on first hearing."

And, no doubt, root for the outsider Fanny Price to find happiness at Mansfield Park.