Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed
I met with the two key creatives of Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed, opening at the Basement Theatre next week. Based on Purcell’s original opera, this version unapologetically thrusts the piece into the modern world with influences from the likes of Stravinsky, jazz, and even Beyoncé.
Musical Director and (re)Composer, Alex Taylor is one of New Zealand’s most successful young composers, having his works performed around the world and by big names such as the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Director Frances Moore is trained in theatre directing, classical singing and was a recipient of the Fulbright Scholarship.
Beyond the many more achievements these two have under their belts, there’s a certain electricity in speaking with them both. This project is clearly a passion piece for both of them, and it’s exciting to talk about something that pushes the boundaries of what we think of as opera. After a successful season last year at Te Uru Contemporary Art Gallery in Waitakare, Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed will inhabit the entirety of the Basement space as a promenade piece. With an audience of only 65, every seat is the best seat in the house. The following is an abridged version of the interview.
What bought you two together as a creative duo?
Alex Taylor: Frances approached me at the end of 2014 about putting together a production of Dido and Aeneas. She said, “here’s this fantastic baroque opera and I want you to turn it into something a bit weird and fantastical and crazy, do some modern shit to it. Make it a bit wacko.” So I was like, “Yep, great.”
Frances Moore: I was doing my Masters in theatre directing at Toi Whakaari and I’d known Alex for a couple of years. I’d always been impressed by Alex’s work, especially his sense of scale. And for opera you really need a lot of ambition and a sense of the theatrical and Alex has that in spades.
Dido is such a fantastic score. It’s about really big emotions, like love and death and the deliciousness of falling in love for the first time. It’s the perfect storm and Alex was willing to…
Alex: Have a hoon?
Frances: Yeah! Have a hoon and be the perfect partner to jump into the deep end with.
So you guys have worked very collaboratively on this?
Alex: Yeah, Frances and the creative team along with [producer] Justin Gregory. It’s been a really fruitful partnership that we hope will continue for a long time.
Why Dido and Aeneas specifically as opposed to the many other operas out there?
Frances: Well it has a lot of things going for it in that it’s an hour long. In that way it’s a really good thing for young people to sink their teeth into because we’re not asking you to stay and be a part of a three hour experience. It’s short and it’s sharp and it’s infinitely variable.
Alex: [Dido and Aeneas] was quite radical for its time so it sort of lends itself to a reinterpretation, and I think Purcell would be quite excited about what we’ve done with it both musically and theatrically.
Frances: A lot of people have been, I suppose, weary or curious of our radical reading of it.
Alex: We did an interview with Wallace Chapman the other day on Radio New Zealand and after the interview, one of his listeners wrote in and said ‘“would these people just leave Purcell alone?!”
Frances: And we loved it! It’s what we wanted. Part of the joy of this opera is that you can have a sense of humour. You don’t play the tragedy from woe to go. For most of the opera, its really fun and funny and potentially a bit shocking. As well as that, it’s incredibly beautiful and incredibly moving, only because it has real engagement with the characters before that.
Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed will take place all over the Basement Theatre space. Frances talked about what that experience is like for an audience member.
Frances: There’s something extraordinary about having a singer like Amy Jensen (who plays Dido) only a meter away from you, singing these incredible lines. The effect is that the music shivers through your body. The music is being created live in front of you the entire time is really special, in a way that’s so immediate, intimate and invasive. Opera, where it really wins most, is the fact it’s live music and that’s so exciting.
Alex: Even by it’s sheer proximity, we bring people that much closer to the art.
For someone who’s never seen opera and are thinking of coming along to Dido and Aeneas, what would you like them to know?
Frances: First and foremost, it’s a hugely emotional, powerful show. It’s relevant. It’s incredibly sexy and funny…
Alex: And outrageous and quite unafraid to throw out the etiquette and the rules of everything.
Frances: Young people are intelligent and they’re smart. This isn’t a beginners opera. This is an opera that we’ve made for our friends. It’s an opera that I want to see as a young theatre maker who engages in the world around me.
Alex: Having said that, someone coming to opera who has never been to opera, from our experience with the last season, is that they loved it. That they were like “why isn’t opera always like this?” Not that it isn’t great in other forms, but there was something about the spacial intimacy that they love.
Both Alex and Frances are in the show, with Alex playing the violin, conducting and playing the role of Sorceress (red leather corset and all), and Frances appears in a small cameo. It’s all hands on deck, all the time.
We talked a bit about what’s next for the company. Frances said the main mission of the company is to champion contemporary New Zealand composers. UnstuckOpera has already commissioned Alex to write a brand new piece, called “The Delirium of Arthur Rimbaud”, about the 19th century French poet Rimbaud meets Angels in America. It’ll be put on towards the end of this year.
If your looking for something innovative, intimate, absurd and altogether brilliant in your theatre-going life, you needn’t look further than Dido and Aeneas.
Dido and Aeneas: Recomposed plays at the Basement Theatre from the 17th - 21th of May.