24 Reinterpreting opera
24.2 How we made ‘Dido & Belinda’
Ella Marchment (director, Helios Collective) had taken some of my classes as a student at King’s College London, and when she approached me in 2015 about Helios working with King’s I suggested that we might develop a production of a well-loved opera in which the reading of the score was as creative as the staging of the text. There could be an opportunity to stage it at King’s College’s Arts and Humanities Festival in 2016 whose theme was to be ‘Play’.
My initial idea was that we start from the ‘Dido’ score, and treat the lament as a love duet, somewhat along the lines of Benedetto Ferrari’s ending to Monteverdi’s ‘Poppea’ (‘Pur ti miro’), and then see what other reworkings would be necessary to make a coherent whole. Ella brought in conductor and composer Leo Geyer, and in October 2015 we ran a workshop with two sopranos and a continuo group in which we tried extracts from the opera in a lesbian reading, with considerable improvisation in acting and music-making. Though not without its difficulties this encouraged Ella, Leo and me to meet shortly after for a long and enjoyable session around a piano in which we worked through the whole score, exchanging and testing ideas.
Our original idea had been to use the standard score and work collaboratively with the performers to develop an appropriate performance in rehearsal that aligned with our rethinking of the plot. We were unable to raise enough money to pay for the many weeks of workshopping that that was going to need, and so Leo produced a complete score which we then used as the starting-point for further development in the three weeks of rehearsal we could afford. Ella and I made further suggestions (Ella: ‘Aeneas can be made to seem like a real horrible prig. I think that when he means he’s gone off hunting he is hunting vulnerable women. He’s one of those disgusting cat calling men. Number 24 can be read in a totally different way.’ Dan: ‘The 2nd Woman … What’s her back story? Is she the palace’s PR officer? Head of External Relations? Suit, clipboard? Conducting the chorus? Cheerleader? … How does the chorus in 40 know [Dido’s] dead since 39, and what became of the body?!’ Leo: ‘I’ll leave the situation of the body in Ella’s safe hands!’)
Many more details were adjusted during rehearsals, and also between the four performances (12–14 October 2016, at King’s), including in one performance a horrifying alteration which they were careful not to warn me of. More of that in Chapter 24.3 when we look at the performers’ feedback. I will say here, though, that that is exactly what performers should feel free to do; and so as a demonstration of my case it could not have been more effective or more pleasing.
‘Dido & Belinda’ was a group production, then, with performers enjoying as much agency as the available money allowed. That the money and the agency proportionally interlocked was all-too irritatingly unavoidable, illustrating as clearly as one could (not) wish how normativity in performance is the cheapest option. Equally, on a modest budget (£37,000), we (Leo and Ella most of all) were able to make something (I think) remarkably original and effective, using nothing more than a canonical score and fertile dramatic and musical imaginations. Given those imaginations, it’s not so difficult: any team could try it. Certainly it’s well within the financial and (with the right attitudes) the musical reach of an established opera house.
A link to the video of the whole opera follows (filmed, and edited from two performances, by Heathcliff Blair), but you may find it helpful first to look at the more detailed synopsis of this reading of the story. Lists of cast and production team members are provided on the separate ‘Dido & Belinda’ section of the Challenging Performance website.
‘Dido & Belinda’: the video [NB the performance begins at 8:00 minutes, so feel free to skip the opening interview which introduces the concept for YouTube viewers.]
 Emails: EM to LG & DLW 31/08/2016; DLW to LG & EM 09/08/16 and 31/08/16; LG to EM & DLW 31/08/16.