Drugs and Drama: The Staging of ‘Dido and Aeneas’

Karine Hetherington recaps 2017’s performance of Dido & Aeneas by the KOFMA choir. 

We are on the eve of our performance of Purcell’s baroque opera ‘Dido and Aeneas’. We’ve been in a dress rehearsal for hours and during a short break I close my eyes, wrap a thick woollen scarf about my neck, and play dead while other members of the choir stare at their mobile phones. Am I nervous? Yes! We all are. Up until now the chorus has had the benefit of numbers. On the night however, there will be no hiding – each and every one of us has been working on this challenging opera for months!

This project is the brainchild of Laura Lamph, our mezzo-soprano, who sang the title role of Dido touring with Sestina, the early music ensemble, in Ireland last year. She, together with our exacting Music Meister, Miles Lallemant, head up our three-year-old choir, Aves Cantantes. Songbirds! We are a mish-mash of twenty individuals of different ages and levels of singing experience. But no matter how different we may appear to the outside world, inside the church we sing as one.

When Father Richard Bastable, who is directing, put it to us nine months ago that we were not only going to sing the opera but to stage it in 1980s drug-fuelled New York, I was astonished. I am not averse to challenges, however I had doubts about the project.

One particular choir practice comes to mind. It was raining heavily one September night and there was a thin turn-out of sopranos. Altos were missing their tricky entries in ‘Thanks to these lonesome vales’. Our smooth-voiced tenor went spectacularly wrong singing Belinda’s part not once but three times! Frustrated, he got up, went to the back of the church to pour himself a beaker of pinot noir. He was no doubt getting himself in character for the song ‘Come Away Fellow Sailors’ which follows. As the drunken sailor in Act three, he leads brilliantly.

The basses – well, the basses just looked a bit bemused that evening. And if that wasn’t enough, our Music Meister despairing with our enunciation and phrasing, also had a leaky church roof to contend with. Raindrops plopped into buckets around the piano, which had almost lost a leg. It was being held together with packing tape!

And then into the church bounced fresh-faced Ashley Stafford our musical director ‘number two’. We have already benefited from his singing training in previous concerts. Now his breathing, yoga-inspired exercises and infectious enthusiasm for the score did much to open up our voices and raise our spirits. With sweeping arms he carried us to the next level, allowing Miles, Music Meister one, to concentrate on the details of the score.

Just a few days ago our morale was boosted by the influx of young professionals. These are mostly post grad music students to join us older songbirds. Tall, broad-shouldered Aeneas, Edward Kay, is the perfect romantic lead with a powerful, sensitive, high baritone. His voice melds beautifully with Laura’s controlled, strong, sweet, sad mezzo-soprano. I defy anyone not to shed a tear during a rendering of a drug-induced ‘When I am laid’.

In this transposition of the classical tale of ‘Dido and Aeneas’, her enemy number one is her own self-inflicted drink and drug addiction. Our adaptation however has retained the witches, who in true Shakespeare fashion, wreak havoc and cast spells on Aeneas. Our own red-haired Bonnie O’Callaghan is excellent in her witch-like malevolence, and so is witch number two, Heidi Jost. The Sorceress played by counter-tenor, Alexander Pullinger, is equally arresting and impressive. All the soloists are strong and it is their star presence and vocal brilliance which raises our game.

So here we are with just one day to go. The strings are tuning up around Miles’s harpsichord. Father Richard, director, takes one last look at the New York skyline on stage and then hastily reviews his notes. The pressure is on, for him and for all the performers. We have only had two rehearsals in the magnificent gothic-style, Church of the Holy Innocents near Ravenscourt Park.

I adjust my shoulder pads just wondering whether we can pull it off. Can our amateur/professional collaboration make the impact we hope it will? Yes! I believe we’ve conjured something out of thin air and the gods are smiling on us tonight…

‘Dido & Aeneas’ by Henry Purcell was performed on Friday 6th October 2017. Find out about KOFMA’s upcoming events here.

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