Music and Beyond: All-star cast to open festival with Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas are imagined here in this Roman fresco.

In the opera world, the story of Dido, the Queen of ancient Carthage, and Aeneas, the Trojan exile who, according to Virgil, would go on to found Rome, is a true Baroque classic. With music by Henry Purcell, it is also one of the very first English operas.

It is also a work that the Ottawa countertenor, choral conductor and music professor Daniel Taylor knows well and loves. So much, in fact, that he has gathered friends, colleagues and former students to open this year’s Music and Beyond festival in a performance of the piece written in 1688 or so.

What makes this performance so interesting, and indeed what should be a matter of pride for an Ottawa audience is the presence of so many talented performers from this community and from this country, including locals, Wallis Giunta who will perform the role of Dido on July 4 and Ellen McAteer who will sing it July 5.

“I have done the piece before,” Taylor said by phone from Rockport, Mass, where he was performing an evening of Handel with the soprano Suzie Leblanc. “But not with this cast specifically. I have worked with everyone save for Wallis.

Taylor knows her from the Canadian Opera Company where both were working. Then they worked on an aria from the Messiah together he said. But “I have tried to book her a couple of times” and it didn’t work until recently.

“I have just been appointed chorusmaster with Opera Atelier (in Toronto) and their vocal consultant. I went to hear her sing Dido in their production.”

Daniel Taylor.

Taylor was in the process of  putting together the show for Music and Beyond, he said, and popped the question. Turns out Giunta was available this time. The story is an example of how many moving parts there can be in a production such as this. And it underscores the value of a network.

“The vast majority of these singers, I have taught, coached or shared a stage.” People such as the young Ottawa soprano Bronwyn Thies-Thompson and the baritone Geoffrey Sirett who will sing Aeneas.

The idea for staging the opera was first raised about a year ago.

“Julian (Armour, the executive director of the festival) is always in touch with me about project ideas. We were looking for something that would appeal to the audience. We spoke about something that would have an operatic feeling about it.”

For Taylor, Dido and Aeneas seemed a natural choice.

“Part of my interest was to take a piece that is dramatic, that was (one of) the first English operas, offering it in a sacred space so that there is an integrity and honesty about the production. I think that is actually what the piece deserves.”

Taylor is all about musical integrity. You can hear it on the recent recordings featuring his Trinity Choir.

“I have seen so many productions recently there will be some I am very involved with and moved by and feel engaged with, and then there are others that I just feel are dated or there is an artifice to them” such as an inappropriate setting created by a director interested in being different for the sake of being different.

“I have been lucky worked with very few of those directors. My first professional opportunity was with Jonathan Miller .” The star of Beyond of Fringe is also an important opera director. Taylor credits him with an understanding of the importance of being true to the music.

“His interest and focus was on human behaviour and relationships. He wasn’t interested in anything meaningless. This is to be true to the text, true to the story. Dido and Aeneas is a tragic tale and it’s a bit like La Boheme because you know from the beginning she will kill herself.”

“I like to think that in any of the concerts I do, I am there to serve the music. And I invite people around me who want to serve the same goal.”

While it is his project, Taylor prefers a more collective approach in a production such as this. It gets better results, he believes.

“It’s presented by Music and Beyond and created by the people who will be performing. I have invited these artists to take part and we share the vision together. Everyone is in a position to speak and is a willing participant. In my work with students at the University of Toronto, I find that if I am excited about an idea and we can have a discussion in which the power dynamic is equal, and I think it should be, they become inspired. And then it builds upon itself.”

Getting one’s ego out of the way leads to a better result, he said. This is part of Taylor’s idea about the importance of community building.

“It’s like a recipe. It’s building something. I think that when we share the challenge and our weaknesses and our difficulties, it actually nourishes us.”

It’s also helpful that the music is beautiful.

“I have had a love affair with Dido and Aeneas for many years,” he said. “There is no noise around it. We get right into the story of the abandonment of Dido by Aeneas. What ups the stakes and makes every moment so important is that she is a Queen and she fell in love with a Trojan hero who was a sailor.

“There is something relevant about the opera to today. This is a relationship with a power dynamic. We are wondering who is manipulating whom? Does Dido expect that Aeneas will be with her for ever because she is a Queen?”

In addition to conducting, Taylor will sing the part of the Sorceress in this concert. It’s a role he has done before including at London’s Wigmore Hall with the legendary mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly singing the role of Dido.

“Since then I have presented this piece with own ensemble a number of times. I love the beauty of it and the intensity of it. It is full of conflict, passion and pain. It makes it a great work of art. Why wouldn’t we do it.”

“The story draws audience” and it clips along too. In all Dido and Aeneas is about 50 minutes long. That allows for the first half of the festival’s opening night gala. The second half will feature The Kruger Brothers, who will play their Americana influenced Appalachian Concerto in an evening of true musical contrasts.

The show will also feature a dance interpretation of Dido and Aeneas by Bill Coleman and Carol Prieur to add an element of drama to the concert recital, Taylor said.

Music and Beyond Opening Gala
Dido and Aeneas / The Kruger Brothers
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: July 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.