Great operas are made by great marriages between composer and librettist – be they enduring (Mozart and da Ponte, Strauss and Hofmannsthal) or fleeting. Of the contemporary operas I’ve been privileged to see, there’s one that strikes me as being far ahead of the rest in achieving that perfect combination of a great story with well crafted words, set brilliantly to music: Flight. So I was delighted to get the chance to speak to composer Jonathan Dove and librettist April De Angelis – by three-way video call, with us all housebound – to prompt them to reminisce about the creation of one of the most successful operas of recent decades.

The cast of Flight at Scottish Opera, 2018
© James Glossop

The first thing that strikes one about Flight is that it’s extremely funny. The gags – which flow in an unending stream – are light, hilarious and beautifully set up. Dove had wanted to write a comedy from the moment in 1995 that Glyndebourne’s Anthony Whitworth-Jones asked him if he would like to write an opera for them – “which is a question people would kill to be asked – I didn’t even pretend to hesitate”. He had in mind  “a Figaro for the 90s – of course, it’s impossible, but who wouldn’t want that” and he knew immediately that he wanted to work with De Angelis, with whom he had previously collaborated on Pig, a ten minute chamber opera.  “The first time we met, April made me laugh straightaway,” Dove remembers. “She also impressed me enormously with some very incisive remarks on an opera I’d seen recently that I thought hadn’t worked”.

April De Angelis
© April De Angelis

When it comes to humour, I ask about what does work. It becomes clear that De Angelis hasn’t lost her ability to present a clear analysis. “What’s funny about people is the discrepancy between how they imagine they’re being seen and what is really coming across. So that’s all you’re doing, really: there’s a comic gap between what someone intends to happen and how it’s actually being received by other people and the audience. You can’t impose a gag on a character, so you think ‘well, they’re in this scene, what’s their take on it? How are they misreading themselves and everyone else?'” Dove interposes that “a good way of killing a joke is often to set it to music,” to which De Angelis counters that “if you have a kind of culturally high registered music like you have in opera and then you have something that’s set against that, something crude or banal, there’s humour in that.” It would appear that the words “we have our lucky donkey for luck” are just intrinsically funny when you sing them in an operatic voice.

De Angelis has written many plays and few operas. Much of the craft is similar, she feels – the construction of the story, the structure of a scene, creating interesting characters. The most important difference is in the process of writing words that will somehow lend themselves to being sung. There is a quality of heightened language, of spareness as well as the fact that some phrases will be sung repeatedly. She points to a phrase like “soon our journeys will start” that is sung many times by different characters, with a subtly different meaning for each.

Jonathan Dove
© Marshall Light Studios - Fran Marshall

For her, character and dialogue are the easy part:  what’s really hard is the plot. The story behind Flight is an exceptional one: that of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the Iranian refugee who had been living in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle Airport since 1988 (he was not to leave until 2006, long after the opera’s premiere and the 2004 release of Steven Spielberg’s film The Terminal). De Angelis and Dove had been kicking many possible stories around unsuccessfully and she had been running out of time and ideas when a friend mentioned Nasseri’s story to her the day before a crucial meeting. It was a great relief when Dove “just leapt on the idea” and “recognised that it had legs”.

“Everything about it felt fresh,” he recalls. “Nixon in China and The Ice Break had isolated airport scenes, but there had not been a complete opera that was set in an airport. There’s the essential idea of somebody who’s trapped because he’s not allowed into the country, but he’s not sent home. There’s an unexpected act of bureaucratic mercy, but only qualified, only up to a point. And there seemed to be such a mythic power to this person trapped between worlds.”

There was never any intention to tell Nasseri’s story from beginning to end and the plot of Flight seems to have grown organically: the two “found the story as they went along” with a great deal of trial and error. None the less, the opera has a substantial level of formal structure: the group of disparate people trapped together is a trope familiar to us from Agatha Christie to Buñuel's The Exterminating Angel; the big tarantella finale of Act 1 is well-used in opera and musical theatre. Dove considers it a nod to Rossini but also points out a basic practicality about the similarly lively Act 2 finale: “We were writing it for Glyndebourne, where there is a long dinner interval, so that must have been in the back of our minds, at least, about needing a good finale before the interval.” Flight has echoes of other operas of the past, notably of Falstaff being stuffed into a laundry basket.

Dove’s choice of singing voices for each part was straightforward, for the most part: “Straightaway, I thought the Refugee would be a countertenor, because I connect that with otherness. The idea of the Controller floating above everyone is sort of obvious, so she had to be the highest voice. Her kind of opposite number is the Immigration Officer, so it’s natural that he would be the lowest voice.” When Dove is writing, he generally knows the singers who will be performing at the premiere, with the dizzyingly sustained high F for the Controller written when he had heard Claron McFadden, who was to sing the role at the 1998 premiere – “it’s the same note as the Queen of the Night, but that’s staccato: Claron could actually sustain it and I’ve never heard anyone do that before. It never occurred to me that Flight would still be being done 22 years later and that many other people would sing it – I just thought ‘that’s amazing’”.

De Angelis does not have a musical background and her analytical skills seem to fail her when I ask how she knows that particular word will sound good – why does an ordinary sounding endearment like “sugar cube” sound so romantic when set? “I know a bit about poetry, but I don’t really know about setting things to music – so that’s Jonathan, really. But if you’re writing, you’ve got to have some feeling for language, haven’t you, otherwise you’re in the wrong job! As to calling someone a sugar cube or whatever: you’re always trying to look for a different image, because people are tired of hearing the same image, aren’t they?”

Jonathan Dove
© Marshall Light Studios - Fran Marshall

Although Flight is an airy comedy for almost its entire length, it becomes very dark indeed at the end when the Refugee tells his story: he was a stowaway in the wheel arch of an aeroplane; his brother fell to his death. The transition from comedy to tragedy adds an extraordinary poignancy to the piece – perhaps its single most exceptional feature. Was this planned from the start? De Angelis says it wasn’t; rather, it gradually became necessary as the story was written. You had to ask how and why the refugee got into the airport in the first place. “I remember that I phoned up an airport and asked ‘would it be possible for someone to stow away in a wheel?’” The panicked response of “who are you and why are you asking this” gave her the impression of being about to be arrested simply for asking the question. That was in the days before Google and Wikipedia: a search today reveals that by the time Flight was written, there had already been seventeen cases of “wheel-arch stowaways”, with very few survivors.

During Flight’s run at Opera Holland Park in June 2015, there was a hideously spooky case of life imitating art: Mozambican Carlito Vale died when he fell from the wheel arch of a British Airways 747 on its approach to Heathrow. “I think it was very difficult for the cast to perform the next day when it happened,” Dove remembers. “In some things, it seemed to me that April uncannily prefigured real events. After we wrote the opera, a woman gave birth in Terminal 4 and abandoned the baby in the toilet. It was named after the two air stewards who found it.”

Dove considers himself incredibly lucky to have written a piece that has been performed frequently. He points out that Monteverdi’s Orfeo, considered the first masterpiece of opera and now seen regularly, was only heard twice during its composer’s lifetime, “on both occasions by probably fewer than 100 people.” In January this year, Dove attended the Canadian premiere of Flight, which was its 30th production or revival. He is thrilled at the number of houses in which it has been played and that it’s a piece people connect with.

After all this time, will the pair do another opera together? De Angelis points out that for her “day job”, she’s really not a librettist but a playwright but the composer suggests that “I may be able to persuade her to moonlight one more time. Or more than one: I think we should have written more operas together by now.”