The Opera Story will premiere 25-year-old composer Dani Howard’s first opera, Robin Hood, in Peckham on Wednesday 27 February. Performed over three floors in the familiar setting of a café, Robin Hood addresses contemporary issues including capitalism and the environment, the latter a topic Howard will tackle further in orchestral commissions to be performed later in the year by London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Howard’s 2018 composition Argentum, is to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 8 March (International Women’s Day, 2pm), performed by BBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Michael Sea, as part of a programme of works by female composers.
What were the origins of Robin Hood and how did you come to be involved in the project?
I was approached by The Opera Story back in March 2018 by the artistic director Hamish Mackay as they were beginning to look for a composer for their third production. As a company, they commission new operas based on old tales, and already had in mind that Robin Hood was to be their next project. Fortunately, I absolutely love this tale and immediately felt that it would be a story I would love to write an opera on.
How is writing an opera different to what you have written before?
I feel the main difference with this work was the sheer volume of music that was to be written. A 90-minute opera is significantly different to the short two- to 15-minute pieces I have written in the past. The only way I can describe this difference, would be like that of writing a short story versus a novel. This means you need to think very differently about your ideas. Your ideas and themes need to be so incredibly malleable and versatile that they can be sustained over and over again in an interesting way that can tell a story.
Who has influenced you in writing your first opera? How did you prepare to write Robin Hood?
I am influenced by a whole host of composers and artists (John Adams, Debussy, Britten, Brahms, Picasso to name a few). I also love the operatic work of Jonathan Dove, who very fortunately is associated with The Opera Story, and was able to give me some advice which was incredibly helpful.
My approach to instrumental music has always been very much based around story-telling, and therefore it felt very natural to transfer this into the genre of opera. I listened to a wide range of opera at the very early stages, including Mason Bates’ (R)evolution of Steve Jobs which I really enjoyed. However, during my writing process I intentionally stopped listening to opera because I wanted to be focussed on what I was trying to achieve rather than be too influenced by different works.
Something I found the most helpful was to hear recordings of the singers who were going to perform my work, as this gave me more details about their voices that I could then incorporate into the opera.
How does it feel to write a full-length opera at such an early point in your career?
I felt quite overwhelmed when I got handed the final printed score. I must say I have often studied huge scores that are the size of long novels and weigh a tonne, and always hoped that one day I would write something as large and substantial as those. I had not realised how much I had written when it was on my computer screen. But like anything else, you don’t know what you’re capable of until you try it for the first time!
I had not foreseen writing an opera so early on in my career, however, it has been such an incredible process and sped up my learning so much. I am really grateful for the opportunity to produce such a work, let alone see it come into full force with brilliant cast, live musicians, set, costume and lighting.
What does it mean to be a young composer in the operatic sphere today?
To be completely honest, I can’t really say that I know. I have written this opera, and am now attending rehearsals with the fabulous singers. The only opera sphere I feel I am in, is that of this opera, and therefore it is hard to comment on the overall opera world as I am very much a newcomer.
Will the experience of Robin Hood influence how you write in the future?
Absolutely, I have gone through so many thought processes whilst writing this work, that I have learnt such a huge amount about myself in the process. The way I think about story-telling has certainly changed, as well as my knowledge of writing for the voice. I have learned just as much during the rehearsal period as I did whilst writing.
What advice would you give to other young composers interested in writing an opera or their first large-scale work?
I would certainly seek out small opera production companies such as The Opera Story, and approach them with some of your work, showing your interest in operatic writing. I personally would not recommend going ahead and writing a full opera before finding a place where this may be performed, as I believe each company has quite specific ideas in mind when looking to put on a new work. It may help to have written some chamber music including singers, as this will give them a clearer idea of your compositional voice in relation to vocal writing, and always, always get recordings of your work.
What will you do next?
I have recently started my next commission (after a much needed short break from writing). I am now working on two new orchestral commissions (for the LSO and RLPO) which I am extremely excited about. Later on in the year I will also be working on a piece for the European Union Chamber Orchestra, as well as making professional recordings of recent works, and collaborating with three soloists on chamber music projects.