Opera is central to Jonathan Dove’s output and few composers have been as active in bringing opera to a new generation of audiences. His hugely successful opera The Adventures of Pinocchio has delighted family audiences around the world since its 2007 Opera North première and recently returned to London for a series of performances by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Other operas draw on fairy tales and folk stories and his writing for young audiences is clearly important to him. As part of Opera Month’s focus on accessibility, we asked Jonathan about writing for – and collaborating with – children.

Jonathan Dove © Andrew Palmer
Jonathan Dove
© Andrew Palmer

The Adventures of Pinocchio has recently been performed at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Why do you think this opera, in particular, has proved so successful with audiences, both young and old?

First of all, it's a terrific story, and a popular one.  Adaptations often shy away from its darker side, but the opera embraces the scary and sometimes violent things, and children seem to like those. It's full of colourful characters, who each have their own vivid music. If you don't like one of them, there'll be another one along in a minute: the scenes are quite short, and the music is rarely slow. It's not easy to perform, but it's not difficult to listen to. Under the colourful surface, the story has depth, and I still find Pinocchio's transformation into a real boy surprisingly moving.

When composing a new opera, where do you begin? Do you start with libretto first, or musical themes and motifs? How do you decide upon a text/ subject?

The first thing is the story. Sometimes there's a particular moment that invites music. With Tobias and the Angel, it was wondering what it would sound like if a blind man could suddenly see again. In Swanhunter, a mother sings her son back to life: when Alasdair Middleton told me that story from the Kalevala, I thought it would make a wonderful climax for an opera for young people, celebrating the power of song in a dramatic way. The Enchanted Pig includes a journey to the end of the world, and beyond, to the sun and the moon and the Milky Way.  When I find moments like those in a story, I know I have to write the opera.

The Enchanted Pig (The Young Vic, 2007) © Catherine Ashmore
The Enchanted Pig (The Young Vic, 2007)
© Catherine Ashmore

To some extent, the story may suggest a particular writer, but Alasdair is my most regular collaborator. We usually start by taking long walks, imagining the opera together, scene by scene. Along the way, we might notice that certain scenes could include some kind of ensemble, or involve a chorus; or that a certain song might do particular work in telling the story. I may already have ideas about the kind of music I want to write at certain points. Mostly, though, at this stage we're really focussing on the story we want to tell. Probably we'll already know how many singers will be involved, and which voice-types - or even which particular singers.

Alasdair then works on his own for quite a while and produces a draft libretto, which is usually very close to the final version. I may ask for a few more words here and there, or for a different approach to a certain song. I start with a lot of preparatory sketches of music for characters or moments in the story, working out how I can get the instruments to create the right atmospheres and contrasts. Then I sing away at the piano until the opera is finished.

How important to you is writing for younger audiences?

It's exciting and inspiring to think that what I am writing may be the first opera a child hears. That's very idea-making: I want to show young people all the wonderful things opera can do, the extraordinary sounds that trained singers can make, and how music can tell a story. It also keeps my feet on the ground. Clear, honest storytelling is paramount - there's no room for just being clever.

The Adventures of Pinocchio (Opera North, 2007) © Robert Workman
The Adventures of Pinocchio (Opera North, 2007)
© Robert Workman

When composing for a younger audience, do you have to adjust your musical language at all? Do you think there is any difference in the way children engage in your work from the way adults do?

I always try to think of catchy tunes and rhythms, strong harmonies, and colourful orchestration, and I don't think my vocabulary changes all that much for a young audience. I perhaps try harder to keep the story moving with plenty of variety of pace and texture. The main difference is that I consciously avoid writing too much slow music. I don't think children have the same appetite as adults for slow music, and it can make them restless.

In your Hackney Chronicles, schoolchildren didn’t just perform the piece, but managed the whole production, stage crew, front of house etc. How did the music for the project evolve?

Alasdair and I went into Lauriston Primary School, and tried out different true stories from different periods in Hackney history with one year group. Using the stories that the children most responded to, Alasdair wrote the libretto, and then I went back to the school and tried out bits of it with the children. Working in twos and threes, the children would find a few different ways of singing the same line, then we'd all get round the piano and compose the song together. I don't remember exactly how many songs we wrote in this way, but they helped to establish the tone for the whole piece.

You have been involved in a number of community outreach projects, such as Tobias and the Angel. Can you describe the value of these initiatives and what you hope those involved drew from them?

Community projects celebrate the communities that make them. They celebrate the performing talents of the communities, the imaginative talents, the history. Groups come together who might otherwise not meet each other - young and old, from different backgrounds and ethnicities. All the participants discover abilities they didn't know they possessed, and discover that, whatever their individual gifts, by working together they can make something they are proud of. Adults in community projects get to play in a way they rarely do in everyday life. The excitement of all this discovery radiates to the audience.

Tobias and the Angel (The Young Vic, 2006) © Keith Pattison
Tobias and the Angel (The Young Vic, 2006)
© Keith Pattison

After an initial contact with the medium of opera via a community project or watching/ participating in a performance of a children’s opera, what is the next step? What do opera companies need to do, in your opinion, to build a new audience for opera for the next generation?

This is tough! Building on the relationships and group-development created by a community project requires resources. Turning a specially-formed chorus into a group that meets regularly is expensive. Opera companies know they need to develop a new audience to replace the one that's gradually dying out, and it's a huge challenge. Developing a new repertoire can certainly help. The Adventures of Pinocchio has introduced opera to lots of children and young people - although it will be quite a while before these youngsters are buying their own tickets! It's so important that young people come to associate the opera house with excitement, and the un-amplified human voice with drama.