Emotional Depth in 17th-Century Opera

History has generally been kind to Henry Purcell (1659-95), and especially to his masterwork Dido and Aeneas, which is rightfully considered to be the crowning achievement of early English opera. Using a libretto by Nahum Tate, itself based in part on Virgil’s Aeneid, the opera retells the story of Dido, the Queen of Carthage, and her ill-fated liaison with the Trojan warrior Aeneas. Dido and Aeneas is a masterpiece of sophisticated musical concision that finds room for witches, sailors, a sorceress, nymphs, a bit of dance, and several show-stopping moments of extraordinary emotional depth—and still clocks in at a swift 60 minutes or so. It has long become firmly ensconced in the standard repertoire, in no small part because of the touchstone lament “When I am laid in earth.”

Director Sarah Meyers

(Photo by Kenny Pang)

Conductor Kenneth Weiss

(Photo by Eric Manas)


Undergraduate singers from the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts will present Dido and Aeneas on April 4, 6, 8, and 10 in a program that also features madrigals by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and dialogues (a term often used to denote text settings from the 16th and 17th centuries that involve two or more characters in conversation) by Purcell, Matthew Locke (c. 1621-1677), and John Dowland (1563-c. 1626).

While history has been kind to Purcell himself, it has been decidedly less easy on scholars who have dedicated themselves to studying him. Much remains unknown. Some background: the first performance of Dido was probably given at Josias Priest’s boarding school for girls in London in 1688 or 1689, although the exact date of the performance—and of the composition of the piece itself, for that matter—has never been discovered. The next confirmed performance was included in a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in 1700. The earliest extant score is thought to have been produced sometime after 1775, although its relationship to what the audience may have heard in the 1680s remains a matter of speculation. These performances of Dido will include an unusual, fully scored version of “Pursue thy conquest Love” taken from the Juilliard Manuscript Collection’s 1778 copy of the opera. The music of Purcell, like much 17th-century music, requires good scholarship, a keen interpretive sense, and more than a dash of imagination.

These facts are not lost on Kenneth Weiss, a member of the Historical Performance faculty who is the music director of the Dido and Aeneas. “This is the first time many of the undergraduate singers [will] have sung music of the 17th century,” Weiss wrote in a recent e-mail exchange with The Journal. “There are many interpretive decisions they face: challenges in reading scores devoid of expressive markings and tempi in unfamiliar notation and clefs, movements based on dance forms they are unfamiliar with, nonequal temperament tuning systems, to name a few.”

But, as Sarah Meyers, a stage director at the Metropolitan Opera who is directing the production, noted, there are substantial benefits, especially for young singers. “These special demands have been so fulfilling for the students to work on. They require intense concentration on multiple levels to convey the subtleties and meaning of the text, to master the challenging rhythmic figures,” Meyers said in a recent interview. She also noted that the Monteverdi madrigals, which are far outside the day-to-day musical diet of most Juilliard singers, are particularly thorny. “Perhaps the most challenging [thing] has been to sing in a small and intimately connected ensemble—the cast has to dedicate so much focus and attention to each other. This was, for me at least, one of the primary reasons for wanting to stage the madrigals. Learning how to be attentive and responsive to your fellow performer is such a critical part of stagecraft.”

Several considerations went into choosing music for the performances, which represent the second operatic collaboration this year between the Historical Performance program and the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts. (Instrumentalists will be drawn from Juilliard415, the period-instrument ensemble, and include strings, trumpet, lute, organ, and harpsichord.) From a practical point of view, Weiss wanted to be sure that every undergraduate singer had “an interesting part both musically and theatrically.” Meyers elaborated on the program’s musical links. “Purcell may have been familiar with Monteverdi’s madrigals, and presenting them alongside his opera reveals shared priorities of expression, text setting, and musical gesture. But the madrigals themselves are such masterpieces of emotional expression, and, in my opinion, work beautifully in dramatic settings.” Meyers continued, “all three parts of the program consider what I believe to be one of the essential themes of the opera: the bravery and strength needed to experience emotion, especially after trauma.”

Work on the program began last semester, when the cast met as a group to study Baroque modes of expression. “We looked at images of Baroque painting and performance, and discussed what makes an emotion legible to an audience,” Meyers said. “We also began an ongoing discussion on gesture, and we began developing modern gestures—inspired in part by the Baroque imagery we studied—that the cast will incorporate in the production.” 

In the end, a certain pioneer spirit appeared to be prevailing as preparation for the performances continued. Weiss noted that “the opportunities for a singer or instrumentalist to become interested in 17th-century music are immeasurable.” For Meyers, working with young singers has been a considerable source of inspiration. “At this stage in their development,” she said, “singers can make such incredible transformations. I’ve been pressing them to become their own critics, to find ways to constantly push themselves to be better. It’s very exciting to be at a place with them when anything is still possible.”


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