Who needs community opera?

Part Two: Telling a universal story

Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove, The Monster in the Maze, 2015
production by the Berlin Philharmonic, photograph by Monika Rittershaus, courtesy of Stiftung Berliner Philharmoniker

One drawback to co-creating operas with their community performers is that you can end up with pieces so precisely tailored to their communities, in the stories they tell and the forces they use, that no-one else will perform them. All that creative endeavour may yield just one glorious moment: a week of performances and it is over.

This was my experience with all the works I mentioned in Part 1. At the time, it seemed worth it – after all, life itself is transient. Even if those pieces only had one production, they left a legacy. They awakened an appetite for this kind of experience, and the community participants always wanted more. They would go on to commission new work.

But eventually I found it frustrating that so much energy went into pieces that had such a short life, however magnificent. On the face of it, at least one of them could have had further performances: The Palace in the Sky was not explicitly rooted in a London borough; it was a modern retelling of the Tower of Babel, and could have a resonance wherever skyscrapers were built. But I orchestrated it for the local forces in Hackney: in addition to eight professional players from the ENO orchestra, there were steel pans, a jazz band, a Salvation Army band and a Turkish saz ensemble. That’s not a combination you find everywhere. How to make a community opera that could have a longer life?

The answer was to tell stories that could belong to any community, and accompany the singing with instrumental forces that are readily available.

Tobias and the Angel was informed by all those years spent co-creating, and tells a story of magical healing from the Biblical Apocrypha. This time there was no devising process involving the participants, but in writing for a community chorus and a children’s chorus, I had the sounds of all those earlier workshops in my head, and felt easily able to write music everyone would enjoy singing. The opera has had more than a dozen different productions. One of these was a touring production, which worked with many communities. Choruses in each town would learn the music and staging and then be joined in the last week by the eight professional soloists and the nine-piece band.

The Monster in the Maze, based on the myth of the Minotaur, has turned out to be even more useful. Although only composed in 2015, it is now my most-translated opera. You can’t expect young children to sing convincingly in a foreign language, so there have been productions in English, French, German, Portuguese, Catalan, Swedish and Chinese/Taiwanese; (a Dutch production has been temporarily halted by Covid-19.) Its value is that it offers a means for symphony orchestras and opera companies to reach out to their communities. There are perhaps three hundred people on stage, but only three professional singers and one professional actor. Half the orchestra is made up of young musicians, sharing desks with their older professional counterparts. On stage and in the pit, the professionals raise the game of the amateurs, while the amateurs remind the professionals of excitement they first felt performing together, and give them a chance to encourage and bring on the young and inexperienced.

Co-commissioned by two symphony orchestras and a music festival, The Monster in the Maze is designed to be either semi-staged in a concert hall, with singers and orchestra sharing the stage; or fully staged, with the orchestra in the pit. Inspired by the example of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde (1958), the most prominent role is for teenagers. Younger children also play a part, while adults get to play both the grief-stricken Athenian parents and the bloodthirsty Cretans. Potentially, whole families can be involved. And thus the audience will naturally include plenty of family members too.

So a community opera based on a powerful myth turns out to meet the need of arts organisations to engage with their communities; the need of professionals and amateurs to engage with each other; the need of a composer and dramatist to feel useful to their community; and the need of all kinds of people to participate in a group artistic endeavour of which they can be proud, and which they can share with the people they know and love, on stage and in the audience. A particular strength of The Monster in the Maze is that the community performs in a high-status cultural venue, in a work that belongs there: no-one is being patronised.

My most recent community opera, Search for Spring, has another Greek myth under the surface. It too has been a casualty of Covid-19, but will eventually involve a thousand amateur singers in each performance. It’s designed to be performed outdoors, so it doesn’t need a conventional performing space. If you are telling a universal story, the sense of ownership and engagement is there, even without a group divining and devising process, so long as the creative team have the right instincts and experience. The power of community opera comes from the huge number of voices, which, en masse, need no amplification. If a composer can tune in to the sound and capabilities of untrained voices, the results can be rewarding for everyone.

1999 Tobias and the Angel, English Touring Opera and Young Vic Theatre co-production

2015 The Monster in the Maze, Co-commission and co-production between Berlin Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra and Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

2020 Search for Spring, Commissioned by the Lincoln Center and originally planned for the Mostly Mozart festival in August 2020