When you think theatre festival, you don’t really think opera. So when the Cape Consort announced they would be presenting Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas this struck me as very unique and I simply had to find out more. Who better to get the operatic scoop from than Willem Bester who takes on the role of Aeneas!
How did the talented group of Cape Consort come together?
The group was co-founded in 2011 by Hans Huyssen, Lente Louw, and Charles Ainslie, amongst others. I joined in early 2012, having worked with both Hans and Lente before. Beyond a core group of five singers and two continuo players, we are quite flexible in employing musicians. It all depends on the production: We have presented solo concerts, but then also large concerts with 16 singers and an orchestra of equal size. Last year we also secured funding to initiate a cadet programme, under which we sponsor promising university music students for training-in-practice in our productions.
What made Cape Consort tackle Henry Purcell’s tragic opera Dido and Aeneas as a production?
We have been looking forward to doing a fully staged production of an early opera for some years now. We have done some semi-staged work in the Furgard Theatre – I have been shot, killed, and magically brought back to life on stage – but nothing to level of having full stage design, costumes, and lighting.
Obviously, it is quite expensive, and we decided to aim for an opera that we can do with limited resources. In Dido we have only six singers and five instrumentalists on stage, and our off-stage team involved only five people. We hope that a successful production will enable us to do larger works in the future.
Are you staying with the original feel of the production, or does Cape Consort have some surprises in store for the festival goers?
Definitely some surprises, I would say. I am a bit of a Shakespeare nut, so about ten years ago, I made a pilgrimage to the Shakespeare’s Globe theatre in London. One of the lovely guides explained that, just after the theatre got started, they often had to explain whether a particular production was going to be “with tights” or “without tights”, referring to whether it was an old-school or modern production.
In our Dido’s case, it is going to be a bit of both. It is going to be “with tights” in that we still present the music in the historically informed way, that is, under Hans’s leadership, on Baroque instruments and with attention to the style of the period. On the other hand, it is going to be “without tights”, because our stage director, Marí Borstlap, has completely reconceived the story in a modern setting. Marí felt, and we all agreed, that the Dido story as written by Purcell’s librettist Nahum Tate has very little for a modern audience. Indeed, we also know that Dido was not exactly a hit in Purcell’s time, and became popular only later.
Marí solved the conundrum by casting Dido as—instead of Queen of Carthage—an unstable woman, locked up in the Carthage Asylum. There she has terrible hallucinations of her departed lover Aeneas, and also suffers some harsh, but often necessary treatment by the hospital staff. Marí has turned a rather simplistic love story and morality tale into the powerful exploration of a soul fatally damaged by the loss of love.
You are taking on the baritone role of the Trojan Prince, Aeneas. How has the experience been for you?
It has definitely pushed my boundaries. First of all, I am a tenor, so it was quite interesting to explore a different range in my voice.
Then, as a tenor specialising in oratoria and Baroque music, I am more comfortable with the typical Baroque view of the tenor as the narrator, for example, as evangelist in a Bach passion. I would much rather sit on the side and snipe at the other idiots running about than join in the action. But Dido really has me in the thick of things, both vocally and physically.
Marí has worked very hard with us. As singers, when we perform without stage action, as the Consort usually does, we are focused solely on the music, and by our vocal training, we use our bodies in very particular ways to produce sound. When we added action to the mix, we spent a lot of time working on countering what might come naturally to a singer, but does not sit well with the characters’ intentions as conceived of by Marí.
Is there a stand-out moment during the performance for you?
For Aeneas, it is definitely the bit where he is told to leave for Rome immediately, and is then very torn between his love for Dido and his future. Poor Aeneas is treated very unfairly in Tate’s narrative. When he tries to reconcile with Dido, is willing to defy “the gods” and stay, she goes completely berserk, denounces him from on high, chases him away … but still, rather ridiculously, blames him for everything.
The overall stand-out moment, however, is surely the very famous “Dido’s Lament”, which Marí has truly turned into something stunning, very literally stunning. I suspect there will be a lot of tears in the auditorium.
How has the experience been performing opposite soprano Lente Louw as Dido?
Lente is an excellent Dido. Not only does she have the vocal range and stamina, but she has also taken to Marí’s characterisation of Dido swimmingly. It is quite marvellous to see her infuse the character with such fragility on one hand, but also such obstreperousness on the other. At the risk of making her sound crazy, I think Lente has poured a lot of her own soul into Dido. Then again, you never know with a good soprano….
I must also mention that we have a splendid Belinda (Dido’s sister and handmaid in the original version, but matron of the asylum in ours) in Elsabé Richter. We have often joked that the opera should really have been called “Dido and Belinda”, because unlike in Vergil’s Aenead, where he is the main character, Aeneas does not have as much to do in the opera as Dido and Belinda. Elsabé certainly has a lot to do, both in terms of singing and stage action, and she does so with fantastic vocal agility, and the most wonderful attention to detail.
Why do you think Dido and Aeneas is a must see for audiences at the Woordfees?
It is billed as the first full opera ever presented in full at the Woordfees, so there is that. But mostly, I think, Dido and Aeneas is a perfect festival production: It is relatively short (about an hour), has wonderful music, and is not something you will usually have available as option on the typical Friday evening, even in a city with such a vibrant theatrical and musical scene such as Cape Town. Marí has truly come up with a unique take on an old favourite, and even the casual music lover will find something special in our production.
What about performing for audiences do you love most?
Actually, I want to steal an idea, often wrongly attributed to Dorothy Parker, and say: “I hate performing, but I love having performed.” Of course, it is not really true, but I am an introvert, and after a performance, I do need to recharge in peace and quiet.
It is interesting to realise that I have the same issue in my day job. I lecture computer science at Stellenbosch University, and I find that teaching – which is giving a different kind of performance – very energising. But after any lecture, it is lovely to slink back to my office, shut the door, and get lost in my research.
I will say this, however – and it is something all performers know: You get those performances where the planets and the stars simply align, and where there is a palpable energy between the performers and the audience. You feel it, the audience feels it, and everyone present knows he or she is witness to something special. Then, to borrow from Barbra Streisand in The mirror has two faces, “it feels f*king great!” I think the skill of great performers are exactly to create this feeling and energy at almost every performance.
So, if you want to see something truly new and fresh from a festival perspective, and extraordinary from a theatrical perspective – I mean you find Dido in the Carthage Asylum! – then you must book now to catch one of two Cape Consort presented performances of Dido and Aeneas at the Woordfees this Friday (11 March at 6pm) and Sunday (13 March at 5:30pm). Book now at Computicket. You will be #Bly that you did!