As a young man, British composer Jonathan Dove read Jane Austen's classic novel Mansfield Park and as he turned the pages, he heard music.

"There was something about the storytelling in this particular book that created a space into which music naturally flowed,” he says.

Mansfield Park tells the story of Fanny Price, a sensitive young girl who has grown up in the stately home of her wealthy aunt and uncle, Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram. Sent away by her poverty stricken parents and treated as an outsider by the Bertrams, Fanny harbours a secret love for her cousin Edmund that looks set to end unhappily when the glamorous Henry Crawford and his sister Mary arrive on the scene. So what was it about this novel in particular that convinced Dove it would be the perfect subject for an opera? “Perhaps it was because the quiet heroine - so unlike other Austen heroines- often appeared to suffer in silence,” he reflects. “Her reticence invited the music; deep feelings, which she could not utter, were seeking expression."

But having an idea for a new opera and bringing that new opera to life are two very different things, and it wasn't until Dove worked with Lancashire-born baritone John Rawnsley (Patron of Heritage Opera) on his composition The Enchanted Pig that he dreamed Mansfield Park could become a reality.

“Jonathan happened to mention to John that he had always wanted to make a chamber opera with piano accompaniment based on Mansfield Park to be played in stately homes,” says Artistic Director of Heritage Opera Sarah Helsby Hughes.

“John told him about the new company of which he was patron, that had just that kind of performing set-up, and the idea started then that Heritage might be able to fund Jonathan's dream.”

Commissioning a new work is a massive undertaking for any opera company, but there was an especially huge mountain to climb for Heritage Opera, who are just five years old and operate mainly around the North-West of England. In the five years since their creation they have performed three to four operas a year including works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini, but starting from scratch was an entirely new ball game for them, and a costly one at that.

“The commission fee was £36,000” explains Helsby Hughes. “The fund-raising was a massive undertaking. We held concerts and dinners, and had retiring collections after every show we have presented since 2007. We received about half the fee in private sponsorship, from Mr David Laing, an anonymous donor and the Peter Moores Foundation. The rest came from our wonderfully loyal Northern audiences, who contributed so much to the commission fee in individual gifts from as little as £10 to as much as £1000.” So now that the commission fee has been raised and the opera composed, what can we expect from Mansfield Park? In recent years Dove has created some extremely popular and critically acclaimed operas such as The Adventures of Pinocchio and Flight, and although Mansfield Park will feature a pared down chamber orchestra, Heritage Opera are extremely excited about the score, which they say is “wonderfully atmospheric, tuneful and full of energy.” Bringing it to life will be Heritage Opera patron John Rawnsley in the role of Sir Thomas Bertram and Leeds born soprano Serenna Wagner as Fanny Price. Company founder Chris Gill will conduct the production which has been billed as a 'Regency novel brought to life.'

“The action takes place on a page from the book,” explains Helsby Hughes, “and the literary theme is continued on the furniture and set dressings. The audience is positioned on three sides, so hopefully they will feel very involved in all the action.”

Attending a performance of Mansfield Park promises to be a unique musical experience and an opportunity to see something that, although seemingly familiar, is an ambitious new project by a celebrated modern composer.

Laura Wilson