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Acclaimed 'Flight' comes in for a landing in Austin

British composer brings his critically acclaimed opera about a group stranded in an airport to the Long Center

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

The way Jonathan Dove explains it, he simply wanted to write an opera that he thought was "a good night out" something that was humorous, fun, modern.

That good night out turned into "Flight," a comic opera about a group of people stranded in an airport for the night. And it's melodious, witty, accessible and filled with contemporary humor.

That has turned "Flight" into a veritable hit since its 1998 debut production, something rather rare in the world of opera, where popularity isn't declared until after a work has stewed for a century or so.

Austin Lyric Opera opens its production of "Flight" on Friday at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. And the 51-year-old composer has made the journey to Texas from his London home for a bit of preopening work.

Lanky, with a spike of graying hair, Dove is casually dressed, taking a break at opera headquarters. His manner is relaxed and deferential.

The strange story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri provided the starting point for "Flight."

An Iranian who was expelled from his country, Nasseri could find no European nation that would grant him asylum, and in 1988, en route to the U.K., his papers were stolen in Paris, leaving him stranded in Terminal 1 of the Charles de Gaulle Airport. There the stateless Nasseri would remain, refusing to leave until 2006, when he was evacuated for medical reasons.

Stephen Spielberg co-opted Nasseri's story for the 2004 film "The Terminal," starring Tom Hanks, but the movie post-dates Dove's opera by six years.

And besides, though Dove says he was utterly fascinated by Nasseri's predicament, "I didn't want to tell his particular story. Instead, I found his situation a perfect vehicle to imagine what it is to be trapped between two worlds."

An airport, he and librettist April de Angelis realized, made for a perfect modern microcosm.

"The airport is on one hand a banal location, and yet on the other hand it's an extreme location," says Dove. "It's where you go off to do this seemingly impossible thing, which is to fly.

"And there's all the things that people dream will come out of the flying," he says. "All the change they hope for."

To give his refugee character a heightened sense of otherworldliness, Dove wrote the part for a countertenor, a male who sings in the typically female soprano range. The result is an ethereal voice that offsets the more earth-bound voices of the other characters.

Around the refugee, a comedy of couples unfolds. A long-married pair hopes a vacation will rejuvenate a marriage. An aging woman waits for her much-younger fiancé, who is supposed to arrive on a Wednesday, but she doesn't know which one. A diplomat and his pregnant, fearful wife are about to set off to a faraway land.

Dove's musical language is tonal, direct and full of familiar diatonic sounds and appealing rhythms. There's a kind of natural effervescence to his music that's girded by a propulsive meter reminiscent of the minimalist composers (Steve Reich, Philip Glass) Dove admires. "You can grasp (my music) on first hearing," Dove says.

Bearing an accessible musical silhouette has earned the Cambridge-trained Dove much popularity. He cut his teeth as a young composer on finding ways to make music available to wider audiences through work for the Glyndebourne Festival, including writing a number of community operas intended for nonprofessional performers.

Dove has even penned two operas for television — "Man on the Moon," about Buzz Aldrin (the second man to walk the moon), and "When She Died," about Princess Diana and watched by an estimated 1 million when it was shown on the U.K.'s Channel 4.

And his brave reduction of Wagner's monumental Ring Cycle — condensing the four-opera work to just two evenings of music — was critically acclaimed.

With his first visit to Texas, Dove says he delights in the local fauna — specifically the grackles, the cardinals and yes, the doves.

A fascination with things that fly, including that eponymous cooing bird?

Flying is, after all, "utterly magic," he says.

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699

'Flight'

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, April 14 and April 15; 3 p.m. April 17

Where: Dell Hall, Long Center, 701 W. Riverside Drive

Cost: $20-$200

Information: 472-5992, www.austinlyricopera.