CONTACT: Diane Manuel, News Service (650) 725-1945;
Purcell opera to be performed at Stanford May 1-3
Thus on the fatal banks of Nile,
As Queen Dido begins to sing of her doomed love affair from the center of Arrillaga basketball court, two coaches emerge from an office on the second-floor hallway of the sports center.
Clearly startled, they step up to the glass wall for a closer look. But the scene being rehearsed below them already has shifted, and several dozen students are swaggering toward the half-court line, hoisting imaginary tankards for a love 'em and leave 'em drinking song, with one sailor-soloist exhorting them all to "take a boozy short leave of your nymphs on the shore."
Like wandering minstrels of old, the sailors, maidens, witches and molls of Dido and Aeneas have been schlepping from the terrazzo lobby of Memorial Auditorium to the hardwood courts of Arrillaga in recent weeks, in search of rehearsal space large enough to accommodate a cast of 45, a slew of stage assistants and miles of masking tape. Coordinated by almost a dozen faculty members from the departments of music and drama, this is opera as only Stanford can stage it complete with an all-day musicological conference.
Dido and Aeneas, Henry Purcell's Baroque opera based on the fourth book of Virgil's Aeneid, will be performed at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 1 and 2, and at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, May 3, in Dinkelspiel Auditorium. Tickets are $15 general admission, $8 students, and can be purchased at Stanford Ticket Office.
Directed by Jennifer Lane, senior lecturer in voice, and conducted by J. Karla Lemon, associate professor and director of orchestras, the production marks the culmination of the music department's year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary.
"Our voice instructors and several of our musicologists are committed to opera, and it was felt that it was high time to revive a Stanford tradition of doing opera," says Stephen Hinton, chair of the music department.
"Productions are costly and time-consuming, but given the dedication of faculty and students alike, and the support of the community, I have every hope that opera productions will feature regularly on our performance schedules. The current production has generated much excitement and anticipation."
The department staged operas from 1947 through the mid-1980s, including a 1954 production of Dido and Aeneas. But where those earlier shows tended to import professionals, the nine lead roles in the new production are all performed by students. Completing the cast are 23 members of the Chamber Chorale, under the direction of Stephen Sano, assistant professor of music, and 13 members of the Early Music Singers, directed by William Mahrt, associate professor of music.
The Stanford Chamber Orchestra, directed by Lemon, will be in the pit on violins, violas, cellos and contrabass as continuo players strum and pluck such period instruments as the lute and theorbo. John Dornenburg, lecturer in music, will play the gamba, a six-string viol that looks like a contemporary cello.
"The gamba is Dido's instrument and accompanies her arias, producing a mournful sound that is not as resonant as the modern cello," Lemon says. "And in quiet moments, like that just before Dido's death, you'll also hear the lute, like a slight glimmer of sound."
Purcell wrote the hour-long opera in English, as a 1689 graduation exercise for the "young gentlewomen" of Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding-School at Chelsea. The libretto by Nahum Tate depicts Dido's abandonment by Aeneas and her resulting suicide.
"It was a morality play for a girls school: 'Don't make the mistake Dido did,'" says Lane, a mezzo-soprano who sang the role of Dido as a college student and who has performed in more than 10 different productions of the opera since then. "Dido clearly carries on with Aeneas, and it turns out that was a big mistake, because she dies."
Lane says the opera's length and English libretto make it particularly accessible for today's audiences, and that it is "a fantastic piece which is not 'dummied down' in any way." She has recorded it twice on CD, and performed in a video for BRAVO with the Mark Morris Dance Group.
The early part of the 17th century saw the emergence of monody melody over a bass line, in which the inner lines of counterpoint are hidden and improvised and some 400 operas were produced in Venice during a 30-year explosion of creativity. The wave traveled across Europe and by the time Purcell wrote Dido and Aeneas, each country was developing its own style.
"The libretto can be kind of goofy sounding, apart from the music," Lane says. "But it's very, very beautiful when sung, mainly because of the many long English vowels.
"Tate took a lot of care with 'Ah, Belinda, I am pressed with torment' and 'shake the cloud from off your brow.' It's lovely. And then there's my favorite: 'So far the game, so rich the sport.' "
The story line is carried forward by 39 distinct arias, recitatives, choruses and dances. As conductor of the opera, Lemon started thinking about the pacing and interpretive delivery of each musical movement last summer, and she has been rehearsing the principal players and choruses for several months.
At the recent run-through in Arrillaga, Lemon set her music stand squarely on the half-court line. Snapping her fingers in tempo for the accompanist on harpsichord, she called out an occasional "crescendo" or "fortissimo" to members of the Chamber Chorale and urged them not to walk in time to the music as they roamed from basket to basket.
"We're presenting a kind of music that is rarely done at Stanford," Lemon says. "It's wonderful music, especially in the dances and choruses, and has the most famous component of Purcell's writing the ground bass, four bars that repeat over and over while the chords above change.
"There's the feeling of something being repeated, but with constant variation harmonically and in terms of phrase lengths. It's just fantastic."
The production will be choreographed by Linda J. Tomko, co-director of the Stanford Baroque Dance Workshop, and will feature the University of California-Riverside Baroque Dance Ensemble, under her direction. Bonnie Kruger, director of design in the department of performing arts at Washington University, has designed the period costumes, and Anna Pasquale, an assistant designer at the California Institute of the Arts, is lighting the stage.
The backdrop and the side flats of Greek columns and disappearing ship prows were designed by Stephanie Felton, designer for Dance Through Time, and assembled by students working with Alexander Stewart, technical director in the Department of Drama. The sets were inspired by the Castle Theatre at Czesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic, the only intact original Baroque opera house in the world, which Lane visited during a recent opera tour.
"To our eyes and ears, the late 17th-century world of clothing and set design is a very artificial setting, so one of the challenges is to bring out the emotions that the characters are feeling in a very direct way," Lane says. "I've been concentrating on getting them to be specific about what they feel and what they think on stage, in order that everything be sharp and clean."
That means that actors have studied and practiced, in front of mirrors, the stylized vocabulary of hand gestures and stances of Baroque opera. They've learned how to hold drinking cups, how to show contempt, how to suggest a melancholy muse.
There are other lessons Lane also hopes the players will take with them from Dido and Aeneas.
"Uppermost, as they go out and become lawyers and engineers, I want them to learn that the arts are really hard work," she says. "And I want them to know that the arts are to be utterly respected."
Lane says that Stanford students who are artistically inclined often have to struggle against considerable pressures to make the choice to be artists.
"They hear the voice all the time of the doctor who plays the oboe," she adds. "But to hear the voice of the oboist who was a doctor or who considered being a doctor that's another voice they need to hear."
In conjunction with the production, a public symposium will be sponsored by the Humanities Center Opera Workshop from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 2, in Campbell Recital Hall. Organized by Heather Hadlock, assistant professor of music, "The Mirror of Monarchs: Representing Royal Power in Baroque Opera, Masque and Dance" will feature discussions by a panel that includes Stephen Orgel, professor of English, and faculty from the University of California-Santa Cruz, Columbia University and Washington University.
By Diane Manuel