Jonathan Dove, Composer, Swanhunter

The past week has been very exciting. Last Tuesday, I heard the cast of Swanhunter sing through the whole opera for the first time. They are all wonderful! It was very liberating to be able just to listen: I compose operas at the piano, singing all the parts, and I perform it quite often – for the director, the conductor, the designer and the opera company, so that everyone knows how the piece goes. It’s a relief to know I never need to sing it again. It sounds so much better with the real cast!

Yesterday, director Clare Whistler and designer Dody Nash showed us their brilliant designs for the production.

And today we heard the orchestra for the first time. It’s very unusual to get the instrumentalists together so early in the rehearsal period. Normally, they start to rehearse when the staging is nearly complete. With a brand new opera, this means that the singers don’t know what the piece will really sound like: all the rehearsals are accompanied only with piano. It’s like looking at a picture in black and white – then the orchestra turn up and play it in colour.  So now, our cast already have the technicolour version in their heads. This will help them in all sorts of ways.

Because Swanhunter is a folk legend, I wanted the six-piece orchestra to sound a bit like a folk-band. Four of them are instruments you might expect to hear at a dance, like a ceilidh – violin, accordion, double bass and drum kit. In addition, there’s a harp, which often plays folk music, although you wouldn’t expect to find it in a dance-band.  The last instrument is a horn – an outdoor instrument, associated with huntsmen. The hero of Swanhunter doesn’t only hunt a swan: he also has to hunt down the Devil’s Elk and ride the Devil’s Horse. Six instruments is a very small orchestra (a big opera can have ninety instrumentalists) but it can make a big range of sounds – from the quietly shimmering beauty of Louhi’s unseen daughter to the loud, thundering hooves of the Devil’s Horse.

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