Virgil’s star-crossed lovers from his “Aeneid,” introduced to every Columbia College first-year through the Core Curriculum, will come to life in the Bach Society’s production of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” on March 8 at St. Paul’s Chapel.
The student-directed opera will bring to life its namesake’s lovers in a tragedy of infatuation and deception, combining Bach Society’s orchestra and chorus with opera singers from Columbia, Barnard, and the Columbia-Juilliard Exchange Program.
Music director and conductor Kevin Lee, CC ’14, who conducted the Bach Society’s performance of Mozart’s “Requiem” last semester, chose this opera for its relevance to the Core. For Lee, this is his first opera, and he is collaborating with stage director Christopher Browner, CC ’16 and Spectator Opera Critic.
Written in the 1680s, “Dido and Aeneas” is one of the earliest English operas written and draws on Virgil’s story of traveler Aeneas and the queen of Carthage, Dido, whom he leaves to establish the Roman Empire. Lee expands on Purcell, who is a mysterious character in history, but nonetheless one of the most glorified composers of English music.
“We don’t know exactly when it was written,” Lee said. “We don’t even know how to pronounce Purcell’s name.” Lee and Browner focus on making this opera, written hundreds of years ago, accessible and relevant to the Columbia community.
“It’s sort of a story that most people at Columbia are pretty familiar with,” said Devon Mehring, CC-Juilliard ’15, who will play Dido. “It’s almost like coming full circle. We’re reinterpreting a text that we’ve done in a very literary and academic sense.”
Browner’s interpretation of this opera remains faithful to the baroque opera, but he said he wants to dive into character relationships to avoid the potentially static feel of baroque music. Browner highlights visceral aspects of the music on stage, for example, by alluding to the sexual consummation of Dido and Aeneas’ relationship in this production of the opera, which is absent from Purcell’s original work.
“We try to bring in the gritty humanity,” Browner said.
On top of the challenges of interpretation, Lee and Browner face both the pros and cons of a completely student-led ensemble. Orchestra concertmaster William Yu, SEAS ’17, points out that the Bach Society is used to working with a choir, not the individual operatic singers in “Dido and Aeneas.”
“A lot more chamber effort is required where everyone is hyperaware,” Yu said, explaining that the musicians need to be responsive to singers and their timing. Lee said that student performers will always be less polished than professionals but that they allow for a good amount of creative freedom.
“It allows you to shape and mold things more how you like it,” he said. At one point in the musical score, Purcell does not write any notes but instead leaves performers with only the direction “horrid music.” Lee said he enjoys shaping this moment, asking the orchestra to glissando on their instruments or play the final chord flat.
“We’re trying to make it sound evil when the music itself is really gorgeous,” Yu said.
While musicians are allowed a certain amount of freedom with this work, performers also bring their own interpretations to the characters. Christine Rosenblatt, BC ’16, who plays the First Witch, lays out the dynamic between the women in the opera.
“Dido, Belinda, and her Attendant are a trio of courtly women,” she said. “While the First Witch and Second Witch are supernatural women,” Rosenblatt’s witch will be portrayed as almost animalistic, as the two witches compete for the Sorceress’s attention in a chilling duet.
“The two witches are supposed to be evil and ugly and horrid, yet they sing the most beautiful music of the entire opera,” said Lee, describing the intertwining descending and ascending sequences in the duet. “It’s supernaturally beautiful.”
This focus on female relationships presents an interpretative struggle for the entirely male creative team. “Dido and Aeneas” is centered on the strong, feminine character of Queen Dido, and the directing duo is still in the midst of discussing how to portray masculinity in the opera.
“Aeneas is a flimsy character, but really has the most control simply because he is a man,” Browner said. “I think he’s slimy and a weak character, yet she [Dido] has to follow his will.”
The cast, musicians, and creative team behind “Dido and Aeneas” want to present opera to Columbia in a different light. Lee mentioned the sheer energy of the musicians that comes from being young, adding that when Purcell composed the opera, he would have been about the same age as the musicians now.
“People see opera with a capital O,” Browner said. “They think its on a pedestal, old-fashioned, elitist, something removed, and its, like, dead. And boring. And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
Vocalist Rosenblatt agreed.
“Instinct and feelings don’t change much over the years,” Rosenblatt said about the characters’ ability to withstand time.
“Dido and Aeneas” will be presented on March 8 at 6 p.m. in St. Paul’s Chapel. Admission is free.