Wonder and enchantment
25 June 2015

Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra in “The Monster in the Maze” by Jonathan Dove – with spectacularly swaying choirs.

By Wolfgang Schreiber

Legions of children’s and teenage choirs occupied the podiums and platforms of the Berlin Philharmonic, scaled the steps of the concert hall and sang their hearts out for an hour under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle and three assistant conductors. Scharoun’s Philharmonic Hall was turned into an adventure playground for a community opera, the highlight of the Philharmonic’s education work this year. And the youthful audience cheered and stamped for minutes at the end, applauding a piece of musical theatre combining a legendary piece from Greek mythology with dramatically rousing music, entitled: The Monster in the Maze.

The composer of this opera, with a libretto by Alasdair Middleton, is Jonathan Dove, born in London in 1959, accompanist, répétiteur, animator and arranger. And having already composed over twenty pieces, he has years of experience in musical theatre. Dove believes that opera can appeal to everyone: “After all, it’s a place of beauty, of wonder, delight and enchantment.” Apart from the airport comedy Flight, Jonathan Dove has also composed two TV operas: When She Died in 2002, which depicts the reaction of three couples to Princess Diana’s death, and Man on the Moon, a fantasy about the moon landing. The Adventures of Pinocchio became very well known in Germany.

Moving solos, numerous choirs, good dramatic structure and exciting sequences skillfully coordinated by director Annechien Koerselman all combine to make up Jonathan Dove’s children’s opera. It’s based on the Greek legend of Theseus who sets off for Crete to kill the man-eating Minotaur, half man and half bull, who lures seven young men and seven young women to its deadly cave each year. All this is engagingly portrayed in The Monster in the Maze, a two-act, hour-long piece commissioned by the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, catchily divided into exuberant recitative and ariosi by soloists and choirs.

The opera opens with the wild spoken prologue by Minos (Götz Schubert), the murderous king of Crete. Theseus (Florian Hoffmann), the daredevil rescuer of children in the maze, and his mother (Eva Vogel) appear along with Daedalus (Pavlo Hunka), followed by the barbaric Minotaur itself, performed by the dancer Gabriel Frimpong.

But most spectacular of all are the melodically and rhythmically swaying choirs: singing, shouting and screaming, they embody the helpless Athenians, the fearless youth of Athens, the uncomprehending children of Athens, and the sadistic Cretans – and of course, there is a happy ending.
What choral director Simon Halsey and his colleagues have achieved in months of rehearsals with the “Vocal Heroes Project Choir”, consisting of amateur singers and school choirs from Neukölln, Moabit and Schönberg, in clarity of intonation and rhythmic precision is most impressive.

And the orchestra comprising the Berlin Philharmonic, Academy scholars and Berlin schoolchildren sang, played and acted their hearts out on the raised podium in the midst of the choirs, encouraged and inspired by Sir Simon Rattle. The youthful effervescence in the hall is possibly the clearest possible indication that classical music and opera are perhaps not the sole preserve of the mature educated classes after all.

Youth projects, education, children’s operas – today’s great maestri no longer find such things beneath them. Daniel Barenboim recently conducted a “mini children’s opera” lasting just 20 minutes with a libretto by Daniel Kehlmann and music composed by Dieter Schnebel. The piece was performed by pre-schoolers at the “Musical Kindergarten” founded by Barenboim ten years ago.

©SZ 26.06.2015

Originally available in German in Suddeutsche Zeitung

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