Singing Jane Austen

Jonathan DoveThu 7th September 2017

Composer Jonathan Dove introduces the new version of his opera Mansfield Park

Jane Austen might not have been horrified to think of one of her novels being turned into an opera. She had a voracious appetite for theatre and comic opera, which she satisfied whenever she visited her brother Henry in London.  Serious opera was perhaps another matter: during one such trip, she wrote to her sister: ‘I was very tired of Artaxerxes.’  Nonetheless, she transcribed its overture for her domestic enjoyment, alongside themes from The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute

The first time I read Mansfield Park, some 30 years ago, I heard music. That doesn’t always happen when I read, and it certainly didn’t happen with Jane Austen's other novels. But there's something about this particular book that provoked musical ideas. I think it was the way the Cinderella-like heroine, Fanny Price, so often suffers in silence. There are clues to her feelings, but unlike the lively Emma Woodhouse, or the high-spirited Elizabeth Bennet, she does not express them. Her reticence invited music, as a way of revealing those hidden emotions.

The idea of making an opera of Mansfield Park has haunted me for many years, but I never imagined it as a conventional opera in a big opera house. I imagined it as a chamber opera, on a very small scale, accompanied only with a piano duet, playing to relatively small audiences in stately homes: the house itself would provide the scenery. I imagined the singers moving among the audience, so the singing could be on an intimate scale.

Eventually, I was introduced to Heritage Opera, a company performing on just this scale. They commissioned the opera for a tour of stately homes in the north of England. My collaborator, Alasdair Middleton, then faced the challenge of adapting the novel. 

Screen adaptations of Austen generally feel quiet and empty to me, in comparison to the lively sensations I get from reading the books. The joy of the authorial presence, her intelligence, wit and irony are easily lost in translation. I wanted the opera to convey something of her vitality. Some of this is found in the dialogue, but of course, you can only sing a fraction of it in the course of an evening in the theatre. 

Alasdair compressed the action, excising the Portsmouth scenes so that most of the story unfolds in and around Mansfield Park, and doing without certain characters – Tom, the eldest Bertram; William, Fanny’s brother; and some smaller roles. He brilliantly distilled the dialogue into lyrics, keeping the flavour and many actual phrases of the original. Fanny Price says very little out loud in the novel, but Alasdair turned her (narrated or implied) thoughts into soliloquy. She is the only character in the opera who sings her feelings directly: other characters sing one thing while meaning another, and it is their actions and interactions in ensembles that tell us what they really want. 

The least likeable character, Aunt Norris, is distressingly loquacious. As she is mainly scolding Fanny, this is a thankless task for the singer: if she does it really well, the audience should hate her!

The libretto has a subtlety and sophistication that is unusual for opera. I don’t think you could easily sing this very detailed kind of language in a huge theatre like the Coliseum, but in a smaller space, a more nuanced style of singing is possible.

Watching the opera in country houses, I enjoyed the closeness of the audience to the action, the sense of involvement, and I was pleased with the piano duet accompaniment: unlike other operas performed on a small scale, this was not a reduced version of something else. But seeing the opera subsequently performed in medium-sized theatres, I started to hear other instrumental colours, which I realised were implied in the piano score. Now the Grange Festival is to give the premiere of a new version, for chamber orchestra, with a prominent piano part.   With the little orchestra in a pit, the singers will be free to sing as quietly (or loudly) as they like. 

Mansfield Park is at The Grange Festival on September 16 and 17 at 3pm, tickets: thegrangefestival.co.uk

Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove’s music has filled opera houses with delighted audiences of all ages on five continents. Few, if any, contemporary composers have so successfully or consistently explored the potential of opera to communicate, to create wonder and to enrich people’s lives.

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