Who needs community opera?

Part One: ‘Let’s take over a whole town!’

Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove, In Search of Angels, 1995

© Richard Davies courtesy of Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

‘Let’s take over a whole town!’ I suggested to Glyndebourne in 1988. ‘Everyone can be in an opera.’

I have been writing community operas for thirty years. At first, it was co-creation, shared with hundreds and hundreds of people. Eventually it led to an ambitious attempt at a networked performance of a community opera on three continents. Along the way, my ideas of authorship and ownership have evolved, and my sense of what is useful.

We were considering ideas for outreach projects. I was not without megalomania. I had been inspired by working for Opera North on a community production of West Side Story with a huge cast of 200 amateurs, in a disused cotton mill in Bradford. The sense of audience involvement in the promenade performance, and the hunger of the participants for this experience, opened a door in my mind.

West Side Story is a New York story – but what would it be like if the community were telling its own story? What if the performers had written their own music?

Initially, my approach was quite rigid: each performer must have a hand in the composition of the songs he or she sings. In Hastings Spring (1990), this meant that some of the best songs were almost inaudible in performance: the highly inventive teenagers who had written the tunes with me turned out to have no great singing ability. I also realised that, in general, far more people were interested in performing than in composing. Most of our 200-strong cast didn’t mind who had written the songs, they just wanted them to be good.

So I adopted a more relaxed approach in Dreamdragons (1993). Some groups helped writer-director Ali Campbell find out what story the town wanted to tell, a process that felt like a kind of divination. It wasn’t based on reminiscence, but sometimes participants’ expressions became part of the text. Other groups then helped me turn this text into songs, to be performed by yet more groups (although there was often overlap between them). The story itself would also be mainly about these groups, but there would be a handful of professional soloists for key characters, and a handful of professional instrumentalists to form the backbone of the vast orchestral forces.

I developed a more playful way of working, finding different ways of getting people improvising together in song (while stamping and clapping and even dancing), splitting into groups to try out different ways of singing just one or two lines of a libretto, then all gathering around the piano to stitch the fragments together: this process often led to surprisingly organic melodies. From the piano, I had a hand in shaping the music, but there was always a sense of collective achievement, and shared ownership. I compared myself to a public letter-writer, helping people give voice to their deepest feelings.

I followed a similar process in a series of community operas over the next ten years. Working in this way gave me an insight into the kinds of musical material ordinary people have in their heads, and can get excited by. In each opera, having devised perhaps six or seven songs in groups, my task was then to weave their melodies into the score to make a musically and dramatically satisfying whole.

This is where things could get tricky. Even though my idiom sounds tonal, and I should therefore find it easy to integrate this new ‘folk’ material into a larger piece, there can be a tension between satisfying the needs of the community performers or co-creators, and satisfying one’s own needs as a composer. The fun of the workshops often contrasted with dark private moments, when I did not feel personally satisfied with the work-in-progress, yet knew I had produced something that everyone would enjoy performing, with enough challenges and rewards to make them come back week after week for rehearsals.

In purely aesthetic terms, these operas were flawed in all kinds of ways; but the experience as a whole was always spectacularly worthwhile for a huge number of people who discovered that, together, they could make something way beyond their expectations, and take a pride in it – while making new friends and having a lot of fun.

Adults don’t always get much time to play, and the explosion of energy that they release is a huge part of what an audience enjoys in a community opera. Individual voices may not be strong, but in big enough numbers, they can raise the roof. Harnessed by a skilful director, a crowd of non-professionals has amazing theatrical vitality. The conspicuous value of the whole endeavour, and the joy of feeling useful to my community, always kept me coming back for more.

What could be more exciting than helping a whole town to sing its story?

1990 Hastings Spring, Glyndebourne’s first community opera, in Hastings, East Sussex

1993 Dreamdragons, Glyndebourne community opera in Ashford, Kent

1995 In Search of Angels, Glyndebourne community opera in Peterborough

2000 The Palace in the Sky, English National Opera and Hackney Music Development Trust community opera at the Hackney Empire

2001 The Hackney Chronicles, Hackney Music Development Trust: not strictly a community opera, perhaps, as it was performed only by 9-year-olds, but used the same development process

2005 On Spital Fields, Spitalfields Festival Community Cantata (staged)

Jonathan Dove, In Search of Angels, 1995
© Richard Davies courtesy of Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.