Kicking off the semester, opera style

Wheaton College’s Opera Music Theater performed “Dido and Aeneas” Wednesday and Thursday evenings in Barrows Auditorium. Final performances will conclude this weekend. This Wheaton College production was directed by professor of communications Kailey Bell and choreographed by stage director Sarah Edgar.

OMT is an academic course that strives to prepare students for further pre-professional study in opera and music theater. OMT is primarily focused upon musical, vocal and dramatic learning but also incorporates set design, lighting, makeup and costuming in its curriculum.

“Dido and Aeneas” was the first opera written by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell with a libretto by Nahum Tate. This play was one among seven composed by Purcell between 1680 and 1688. It premiered at Josias Priest’s school for girls in Chelsea during the summer of 1688. The play consists of a prologue and three acts which tell a tragic story contrasting love and death.

OMT set “Dido and Aeneas” in the Renaissance era, true to the time when Purcell composed it. Their  production this week included a live orchestra, costumes and authentic Baroque choreography.

“Baroque music is a different animal in and of itself that can be strange to those unfamiliar with it. For example, the Sorceress sings an aria in which she decides to not only get Aeneas to leave, but to kill Dido as well. Ironically, this aria is in a major key and sounds rather cheery,” senior Grace Hornok said, a voice performance major who was cast as the Sorceress.

Hornok added, “Baroque music is always a dance, and you will see several dances in this opera. It’s also effective for what we call word painting; often the clues to the character and story are in the music itself.”

Unlike most operas, “Dido and Aeneas” is surprisingly short, running about 50 minutes to an hour. Another distinctive facet of this piece is that the chorus is prominent and solo time is evenly distributed among lead roles. As opposed to typical operas, arias do not dominate this show.

The cast and crew of “Dido and Aeneas” ultimately dedicated their production to God’s glory.  Chorus member sophomore Aimee Stuart-Flunker said, “For me this is using the gifts God gave me and giving 100 percent effort.”

The first act opens in the court of Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dido recounts her love for the Trojan hero Aeneas and grieves over the political troubles currently befalling Carthage. Dido is afraid that her love makes her a weak monarch, but after being prompted by her attendant Belinda, Dido agrees that a marriage between Aeneas and herself would both calm her restless heart and be the solution to Carthage’s troubles. Shortly thereafter, Aeneas enters Dido’s court to propose marriage, and she accepts once she is convinced that his love is sincere.

The second act is comprised of two scenes. The first scene takes place in the cave of the Sorceress, who is plotting the destruction of Carthage and its Queen. The Sorceress hatches an elaborate plot to trick Aeneas into sailing for Italy. The Sorceress knows that this would leave Dido so heartbroken that she would surely die.

In the second scene, Dido and Aeneas stop at a beautiful grove to appreciate its aesthetics. Here the Sorceress uses magic to send a storm that causes Dido to return to her castle for shelter. Meanwhile, Aeneas believes he has received divine instruction from Mercury to leave for Italy. Aeneas obeys, though dismayed, as it is his duty to serve the gods.

The remainder of the play unfolds in tragedy, with a few plot twists along the way that serve to unveil the depths of the protagonists’ sense of love and duty.

Freshman Josh Engelman, part of the chorus, said, “I like this piece because it is not too stressful to perform since the opera is relatively short. I also like this piece because the music is fun to perform with friends as it varies from fast and slow to jubilant and mournful. The contrasts make this opera very fun to perform.”

OMT hopes this performance served to be both entertaining and educational for students. Prior to the production, Engelman said he hoped that “the audience will be predominantly students, because students unfortunately tend to neglect the importance of cultural experience. Attending an opera is one of the best ways to get cultural experience.”

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