“Is it the monster?”
The Monster in the Maze – An Opera for All Ages by Jonathan Dove
“I remember in my early teens reading The Hobbit and playing along with it on the piano, translating it into music,” Jonathan Dove recalled in an interview for the magazine Time Out in November 2009. “Around that time I also built model theatres of increasing sophistication – the last one used up all of my Meccano set and had ultraviolet lights and a hydraulic revolving stage.” It is no wonder that Dove, born in London to architect parents in 1959, has devoted himself to the genre of opera more consistently and successfully than most other contemporary composers. He studied with the neoromantic composer Robin Holloway at Cambridge University and, after graduation, began a career as an accompanist, répétiteur and arranger. His breakthrough as a composer came with his airport comedy Flight, which was commissioned by the Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1998 and was presented several times at the Glyndebourne Festival. The opera, which is about a group of travellers who are stranded in an airport for 24 hours, has since been staged many times in Europe, the US and Australia and was televised. The British composer combines elements of contemporary opera with the opera buffa tradition in the work, at the same time drawing on the “CNN opera” genre, which deals with actual events and includes such works as John Adams’s Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer and Anthony Davis’s X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X. The critic Victor Lewis-Smith euphorically described Flight as “a piece that made opera look like a thriving art form and not an elegant fossil. It’s never easy to create accessible art without compromising integrity, but Dove and [his librettist] De Angelis have succeeded gloriously.”
In the meantime, Jonathan Dove’s catalogue of works comprises more than 20 operas, in which he consistently succeeds in communicating directly with listeners, even those who are new to the concert hall, thanks to his lively theatrical instinct based on practical opera experience: “I believe that opera can be for everyone – it’s an exciting place of beauty and wonder and fun and enchantment.” Thus it is not surprising that the composer has written two operas for television, commissioned by the British television station Channel 4, which were seen by millions of viewers. When She Died (2002) examines British reactions to the death of Princess Diana, and Man on the Moon (2006) is about the first moon landing. Dove’s musical fairy tale The Enchanted Pig, commissioned by London’s Young Vic Theatre, has been performed as often as a Broadway production or musical – a success which the composer continued with The Adventures of Pinocchio, commissioned by Opera North and premiered just before Christmas in 2007. Pinocchio won a British Composer Award in 2009 and has enjoyed numerous performances in Britain, Germany and the US. The production at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London, directed by Martin Duncan, was recorded and released on DVD and Blu-ray disc.
Like many contemporary British composers, Jonathan Dove is actively involved in local cultural initiatives. As artistic director of the Spitalfields Festival from 2001 to 2006, he made an important contribution to musical life and education in London’s former slum area. Several of his works have brought people with very different social and cultural backgrounds together to present musical projects – including the community opera Tobias and the Angel, a church opera with community involvement, which was premiered in London in 1999, The Palace in the Sky (2000) and the community cantata On Spital Fields (2005), for which Dove received a Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Award. In addition, he tries to spark the interest of young people in classical music with his works. In 2001 he composed The Hackney Chronicles for primary schools in East London, to be performed and staged by children; the opera is still presented frequently. Swanhunter, also commissioned by Opera North after the success of The Adventures of Pinocchio, is another of his operas for young people, which was successfully premiered at the Grand Theatre in Leeds in November 2009.
Jonathan Dove has incorporated his experience with community operas and the skills he acquired during his work with children and young people – composing for amateur performers and an untypical opera audience – in his latest opera project: The Monster in the Maze, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, which alternates musically between Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, echoes of cool jazz and American minimalism. The unconventional ensemble, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle, consists of vocal soloists – a heroic tenor (Theseus), mezzo-soprano (Theseus’ mother) and bass-baritone (Daedalus) – as well as a speaker (Minos) and a dancer (Minotaur); the orchestra is made up of members of the Berliner Philharmoniker and a group of young instrumentalists. On top of that, the work, which is being premiered at these concerts, calls for three different choruses, providing an ideal opportunity for collaboration with the education project Vocal Heroes, in which children and young people in various districts of Berlin come together to sing.
In The Monster in the Maze Dove and Middleton retell the ancient legend of Theseus, who set out to kill the Minotaur. After his victory over Athens, King Minos of Crete demanded that the Athenians regularly offer seven young boys and seven young girls as tribute, because his son was killed in Athens through an act of treachery. The unfortunate children disappeared in the depths of the labyrinth and fell victim to the man-eating monster – half bull, half man. According to the myth, the shining hero Theseus was given a sword and a ball of thread by Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, the end of which he tied to the entrance of the labyrinth. After killing the Minotaur he found his way back to freedom with the help of the thread.
So as not to exceed a performance length of approximately 55 minutes and to limit the number of soloists, Dove and Middleton dispensed with the character of Ariadne in their opera. Instead, supplied with all sorts of heroic clichés – “Though my dinner’s on the table, my ship is on the shore, and oh, I love my fireside, but love adventure more” – Theseus encounters the brilliant inventor, technician and architect Daedalus, who had built the dangerous labyrinth for King Minos, in the maze. Daedalus leads Theseus to the Minotaur, which the hero conquers amid battle cries and comic strip sounds (“Smack! Ouf! Bang! Thwack! Clatter! Bellow! Punch it! Twist! Duck! Charge!”). With Daedalusʼ help the Athenians find their way back “to light and freedom”. The opera closes with their joyful return to their home: “The sun is so bright – we walk in the sunlight, live in the sunlight, forever.”