Writer Trisha Gupta reviews Mya Kelln’s recent production of Dido and Aeneas by King’s Opera Society, and discusses the vital role of the orchestra with Violist Emily Saunders.
*Content warning: we reference the self-harm, misogyny, and suicide within the opera.
Surrounded by the splendid architecture of the King’s Chapel and shrouded in the dimly lit atmosphere of excitement, anticipation, and hushed murmurs quintessential to live performance, there I sat—an early modern literature master’s student, front row at the renowned early modern opera Dido and Aeneas. One of the first English operas (first performed 1689) and maintaining its role as an integral staple of English classical music and theatre even today, Dido and Aeneas is an important English contribution to the corpus of Italian, German, and French operas that have traditionally dominated the classical stage. To say I was utterly awestruck following the performance would be a sheer understatement; I was astonished by the instrumental, vocal, and acting performances throughout director Mya G. Kelln’s rendition of Henry Purcell’s classic all-sung story based on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid.
Ella Frost and Gilbert Jackson brought passionate, genuinely emotionally stirring performances to the chapel as Queen Dido and her lover, Aeneas, respectively. The opera begins with Belinda (Ellie Blewitt) attempting to comfort Dido, Queen of Carthage, by suggesting that she marry the Trojan hero Aeneas to alleviate Carthage’s issues. Dido accepts Aeneas’ proposal, but it is not long before the witches plot the ruin of Carthage—and subsequently Dido—by sending someone in disguise as Mercury to urge Aeneas to sail to Italy and leave Dido. The plan works and Aeneas agrees to depart Carthage, abiding by what he believes to be the gods’ wishes. Dido is shocked and distraught, and even when Aeneas tells Dido that he will not leave Carthage, she famously rejects him for having even considered leaving her once. Dido then stabs herself and dies, heartbroken.
The chorus and lead cast members presented an incredibly well-rehearsed, beautifully directed, and wonderfully collaborative opera. Having taken vocal lessons as a child, it felt surreal hearing the difficult songs that cast members masterfully performed. The candlelit atmosphere of the chapel added to the haunting tone underlying the more obvious emotion of heartbreak charging the opera. The chorus members wove in and out of the center stage area seamlessly; their flowing movements added to the bleeding of one song into another, one scene into another, and one emotion into another. The singing, movement, and acting of each performer subsequently contributed to the cohesive opera.
Discussing the opera with my friend and classmate, violist Emily Saunders, I learned just how crucial the orchestra’s role is in the opera. She mentions that “the orchestra is often overlooked in the opera world,” and it is essential to remember that “the chorus and orchestra support each other throughout the entire production, and often act as one entity.” She mentions that “the orchestra often sets the tone of the scene,” as exemplified by the overture before Act I, and it is important in conveying emotions throughout non-verbal scenes, including the introduction of the witches in Act II (one of Emily’s personal favorites “because of how ominous it is”). The orchestra foreshadows moods and events throughout the performance by using dynamics such as “changes in volume and bowings” to “emphasize the singers’ words and feelings.” Emily eloquently summarizes that “at times when the singers are silent, we speak for them through our instruments and strive to accurately convey their thoughts, so in a way, we are acting alongside them.” This notion of the orchestra as not simply instrumentalists at the side of the performance but rather as performers themselves acting with and for the singers is a radical one, redefining how we as an audience see not only musicians but also the music itself.
Although my friend and I left the opera stunned at how excellent it was in every way, Emily discusses how numerous hurdles had to be overcome for this perfection to be achieved. One of the challenges the orchestra overcame during the show was coordinating how to play in time with the singers. While I thought of the chapel as a wonderful setting, I had not considered the effect it might have had on the acoustics. Although Emily mentions that “the acoustics in there are amazing because of the high vaulted ceiling” that allows the orchestra and singers to shine, she also mentions the issues that can arise. For example, the singers could easily lag behind the orchestra or the orchestra could rush ahead as a result of these very chapel acoustics that initially “made it difficult for us to hear one another and thus keep in time accordingly.” She asserts that “the orchestra often echoes the singers’ melodies and harmonies, so it is imperative that we remain in sync at all times.” Emily attributes the orchestra’s success to their amazing conductor Riyike Jibowu and her cues to the harpsichordist and singers.
The resulting performance was truly awe-inspiring, and I agree wholeheartedly with Emily’s statement that “Dido’s famous lament and the organ’s final notes will linger with you long after the lights have dimmed.”
Edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.