||Centre students to perform Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
RELEASED: October 15, 2009
By Leigh Ivey
DANVILLE, KY—Next week, Centre College students will showcase not only their acting talent but also their operatic voices in four performances of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.
This is only the second opera to be staged by students in the College's history. The first took place in 2007, when students performed Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, which was written for television in the 1950's.
Written in 1689, this year’s opera is based on Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Latin epic poem that tells the story of Aeneas and the founding of Rome.
"The opera is one of the most important and performed works of the Baroque era," says producer and conductor Dr. Barbara Hall, chair of the division of arts and humanities and professor of music at Centre.
In writing the opera, Hall says,Purcell and his librettist, Nahum Tate, took some liberties with Virgil's epic, changing names and replacing Greek gods with witches.
Since the work was "originally written for a girls' school," she adds, "Dido's violent suicide of Virgil's tale is changed to her death brought on by sorrow and betrayal."
The three principal roles in the opera are double cast: each of the six lead performers will star in two of the four performances.
Kristen Baumgartner '11 of Louisville and Shannon Bailey '08 of Lexington, Ky., will share the role of Dido, queen of Carthage.
A music major at Centre, Baumgartner is overjoyed that she has the opportunity to star in the opera.
"Singing has always been a part of my life," she says, "and I'm so happy that I get to have this experience. It's been one of my dreams since I was a little girl to sing in an opera, and I got my dream!"
Sharing the role of Aeneas, prince of Troy, are Brian Bowles '10 of Louisville and Sam Yates '11 of Newburgh, Ind.
What Bowles enjoys most about the part, he says, is "taking on the role of another and becoming that person for a little while. Aeneas is the son of Anchises and the goddess Venus. He's the product of a great warrior and the goddess of love and beauty—imagine spending time being that guy every day. It's nice to see life through another's eyes for a little while."
Bethany Carson '13 of Allen, Texas, will be playing Belinda, Dido's sister and attendant, for two performances. Liz McConnaughey '11 of Marietta, Ga., will take on the role for the other shows.
In Purcell's opera, the chorus collectively has a bigger role than any of the soloists. Sixteen Centre students comprise the chorus, which represents the people of Dido’s court as well as "the witches, sailors and their floozies, and a typical Greek chorus which comments on the action," Hall says.
One of the members of the chorus is Niall McCooey, an exchange student from Northern Ireland who sings a solo as the opera's head sailor.
"I'm enjoying the opera immensely," McCooey says. "This is my first experience with opera, either as a spectator or performer, and Dido and Aeneas has offered a powerful introduction. Before this, I hadn't considered opera nor had I any interest in classical music. Being involved in this has changed my mind, and I think everyone who attends the show will enjoy and appreciate it, regardless of what music they're into."
Since the beginning of the fall term, the cast and crew have devoted many hours to rehearsal.
"There's a terrific amount of memorizing to be done," Hall says, "and the soloists have to get comfortable and feel expressive with the recitative in the opera—the part of the text that is sung but needs to have the feel of natural speech."
Many of the cast members agree that feeling comfortable with this style of singing has been difficult—but rewarding.
"I'm still in the process of honing my vocal technique, but I've learned that the key is to let the sound be organic," Baumgartner says. "Preparing for the role of Dido has been quite a gratifying journey."
Learning to sing in the "classical style of the voice," Bowles says, has been the most challenging aspect of playing Aeneas. "I was surprised by how physical and tiring singing could be," he adds. "After an hour, you work up a sweat simply from the act of singing."
"I'm still working on trying to find the grace of the lyrical lines so that my performance can be about Aeneas's story, not about the dotted quarter-note on page 52," he says. "I'm working towards a completely different sound than the one I'm used to producing, and when I hear myself in rehearsal, I'm constantly surprised by how rapidly my vocal technique has changed."
The time they have dedicated to these vocal transformations has paid off, Hall says. "The development of voices through the music and the drama of this work is fantastic."
The cast will take the stage for their first performance, which will be for local schoolchildren, on Oct. 22. The two public performances will be held on Oct. 23 and 24.
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Founded in 1819, Centre College is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges. Consumers Digest ranks Centre No. 1 in educational value among all U.S. liberal arts colleges. Centre alumni, known for their nation-leading loyalty in annual financial support, include two U.S. vice presidents and two Supreme Court justices. For more, visit http://www.centre.edu/web/elevatorspeech/
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