Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas will be presented in the Catacombs of the Green-Wood Cemetery, in Brooklyn, New York, with performances from 4 – 8 June. The run will launch the second season of the The Angel's Share series, which continues until October.
Tenor Alek Shrader will be directing and he's chosen to incorporate spoken dialogue from Christopher Marlowe's play Dido, Queen of Carthage, introducing new characters that Purcell's librettist, Nahum Tate, omitted. This is the third opera he's directed, and his second Dido & Aeneas. I asked him why he is directing when he has such a successful singing career.
Really, I just want to tell stories. I've wanted to direct for a while now, and when opportunity knocks… I'll ask it for the password through a little slot in the door.
So what story are you telling with this opera?
Dido is this: respect women and their choices; respect their position, their emotions, their bodies, their burdens. In Dido, I see a story of privileged men challenging a woman in authority. A king expects her to comply. A hero excuses his behaviour via pious faith.
Meanwhile, another driven woman seeks Dido's destruction because her “prosperity” is deemed undeserved. Through it all, Dido maintains her integrity and avoids violent conflict. And perhaps due to both of those things, she chooses to sacrifice herself. Her suicide is self-sacrifice – a choice she makes for honour and respect, not of broken-hearted despair. Sure, she's wounded, but she is in control.
Daniela Mack – who is Shrader's wife and leading lady – will sing the role of Dido, with Paul La Rosa as Aeneas, Molly Quinn as Belinda, and Vanessa Cariddi as the Sorceress, and they'll be singing their roles in the Catacombs, one of the oldest structures in Green-Wood, a 478-acre National Historic Landmark. They were built in the 1850s, and are normally closed to the public.
Has the location influenced your ideas for the piece?
Utterly. It's a 10-foot wide hallway that's 120 feet or so long. I wouldn't say it influenced the staging but rather commanded it. What we lose in adaptability we gain in ambience tenfold. There is a spooky quality that enhances the drama and the music. Plus, dead people!
At dusk, the audience will follow a candle-lit pathway down to the Catacombs for the performance. Spooky indeed!
We played around with various avant-garde set-ups and thought we were just so cool. But it seemed to me, closer to traditional would serve us best. In hindsight, a raked stage might have helped us even more. But hey, it's an opera in a catacomb… c'mon.
The performances will feature a Baroque string ensemble led from the harpsichord by Music Director, Elliot Figg.
We've got the band behind our playing space, then about 120 seats for the audience, all the way to the entrance. The front row is the splash zone. It's all in the 10-foot wide hallway – we use some of the side vaults for “stage” entrances.
And the acoustics?
The acoustic is boomy like a bathroom – possibly too boomy if our singers really let rip – so we can access many colours and echoes. Finally, a set with actual walls! They said it couldn't be done!
Shrader is charming and fun, but witty and smart too. I asked him about the idea to include some of Marlowe's text.
Marlowe was part of my consuming all the non-opera versions of Dido I could find. And then I didn't have a choreographer to stage all the dances, so I cherry-picked pertinent passages that would overlay all the instrumental music… how dare I!
It was all timed-out wonderfully but then we decided to isolate the spoken passages for clarity, but I couldn't bear to lose them entirely. After I knew Dido's story – the oldest complete account as given by Justin – I felt pretty cheated by Tate and Purcell. I'm sure they had their reasons, and I read books about those likely reasons, but I can't forgive the exclusion of Iarbas. He's vital to Dido's romantic reluctance versus her rulership and integrity. He makes her choose between herself and her obligation. Aeneas, on the other hand, is all reaction and potential.
I wanted to restore as much as I could, including, briefly, Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, but in the end I found a happy balance: absent gods (as in Purcell), present Iarbas and Anna (sister of Dido). Everything I added is meant to remove implied shame from Dido's death. There is no shame in what she does.
Shrader loves the rehearsal process and being that he has taken direction he has an insight of which approach works best.
I attempt to communicate with jokes and references, but then I remember we're doing a drama. Seriously though, we joke around. We get good energy flowing and then dive into text and intention. We compare to other characters we all can reference – Game of Thrones was a big one.
Do you become a performer and show your cast what you have in mind?
Sometimes I demonstrate if words fail me, but only as a mannerism, not that they should copy me. Being a singer, I know when a performer takes ownership. As a director, I'm always looking for that moment of mutual understanding of a moment, and then the performer gets that look like “this is mine,” then I can just watch.
What has working with many directors taught you?
Being too rigid in the vision, being too stubborn to let the story shift is a big problem. At the same time, not having much to say is irresponsible and frustrating for the performers. I like directors who give me the rules, then let me play. That's how I try to direct.
Is it more difficult or easier directing a singer who happens to be your wife?
I wouldn't be directing if not for Daniela. By the way, she was offered the role before I was attached, so I'm absolutely on her coattails here. As her director, we've had not one argument. I think she's just easy to work with. We also share a vocabulary and have similar taste!
Shrader will soon be putting his singer's cap back on when he sings Candide with The Philadelphia Orchestra for the finale of its season on 20-22 June as part of a starry cast which includes narrators Bradley Cooper and Carey Mulligan.
Any more directing jobs?
I certainly hope to direct again! If nobody asks, I'll do it myself.
The Angel's Share presents Henry Purcell's Dido & Aeneas in the Catacombs of The Green-Wood Cemetery, June 4, 5, 7 & 8
Directed by Alek Shrader
Lighting by Tláloc López-Watermann
Costumes by Fay Eva
Dancing/Choreography by Liana Kleinman
Daniela Mack, Dido
Paul La Rosa, Aeneas
Molly Quinn, Belinda
Vanessa Cariddi, Sorceress
Marc Molomot, Achates
Brooke Larimer, Anna
Alyssa Martin, Witch Crone
Erin Moll, Witch Maiden
Kannan Vasudevan, Misenus/Ilioneus
Blake Burroughs, King Iarbas
Elliot Figg, Music Director and Harpsichord
Jude Ziliak, Violin
Isabelle Seula Lee, Violin
Danika Paskvan, Viola
Anthony Albrecht, Cello
Arnie Tanimoto, Viola da Gamba
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.