Established and emerging artists in York University’s Faculty of Fine Arts bring their collective talents to a riveting new production of a baroque classic: Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas. This epic story of love and betrayal plays out at the Sandra Faire & Ivan Fecan Theatre on York’s Keele campus for two performances only, March 1 and 2.
Lead artists Joseph Farahat and Charlotte Gagnon
Based on a chapter from The Aeneid, penned by the Roman poet Virgil in the first century BC, Dido and Aeneas recounts the tragic tale of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and the Trojan hero Aeneas. Dido loses her heart to the fierce, handsome warrior Aeneas after he is shipwrecked on her shores, only to be devastated when he abandons her to continue his quest to find Rome.
This story of doomed love has resounded through two millennia. York’s production, a collaboration between faculty and students from the departments of Music, Theatre and Dance, is a strikingly contemporary but timeless re-imagining. Thirty performers play the characters as well as the place, forming a living set on an otherwise empty stage.
“This Dido project is the realization of a dream I’ve had since I joined York,” said Professor Catherine Robbin (left), who heads York’s classical vocal music program. “There’s so much talent and expertise in our performance programs, and it’s a joy to bring it together in an opera production. The experience of combining our creative energies is tremendously exciting and rewarding, both for the students involved and for those of us who teach and work professionally in the field.”
An internationally renowned mezzo soprano, Robbin fills the dual roles of music director and producer for the production. She is no stranger to Dido and Aeneas, having sung the title role in the 1982 Stratford Festival production, which earned her critical accolades as “a voice which is unquestionably the greatest, in its range, that Canada has produced in several decades” (The Globe and Mail). Her discography features many baroque composers, including Purcell, Handel and Vivaldi, in collaborations with leading conductors such as Christopher Hogwood, Trevor Pinnock and John Eliot Gardiner.
Presiding over the orchestra pit for York’s Dido and Aeneas is Robbin’s Music Department colleague, award-winning choral conductor and composer Professor Stephanie Martin (right). Martin, who serves as music director for the historic Church of St. Mary Magdalene and conductor of Toronto’s Pax Christi Chorale, directs the 16- member York University Baroque Ensemble.
The stage director is theatre Professor Gwen Dobie (left), who brings extensive directing credits in contemporary opera and theatre to the table. Dobie‘s most recent productions include Opera Erotique and Sound in Silence for her company, Out of the Box Productions; the Canadian premiere of the Danish opera On this Planet by Anders Nordendoft; and the world premiere of the opera Eyes on the Mountain by Canadian composer Christopher Donison.
Susan Lee (BFA ’90, MFA ’10), an alumna and current faculty member in York’s Department of Dance, brings her long-standing interest in interdisciplinary collaboration to Dido and Aeneas. In a performance career spanning two decades and three continents, Lee has originated roles in almost 50 world premieres by some of Canada’s most highly acclaimed choreographers. Her own choreography has been described as “… a tour de force of magic and mystery” (The Globe and Mail). She brings that magic to bear on this production, contributing original choreography to the work.
Starring in the role of Dido is fourth-year music major Charlotte Gagnon. Gagnon recently won first prize at the Newmarket Voice Festival Senior Scholarship Competition, as well as two awards for opera performance and the prize for outstanding performing ability and career potential in classical singing. She also placed second in her class at the 2011 National Association of Teachers of Singing Ontario chapter competition.
First-year music student Joseph Farahat sings the role of Aeneas. Both young artists are studying with eminent soprano Norma Burrowes in York’s classical vocal performance program.
In total, the cast for Dido and Aeneas features 21 singers, four actors and five dancers. Not only performers, they also play an active role on the production side. Dressed all in white, they have designed their own costumes based on their personae in Purcell’s opera – or in the case of the non-speaking roles, inspired by characters drawn from the classical literature of five centuries, who were betrayed or betrayers in their time.
Eschewing a physical set, Professor Elizabeth Asselstine, chair of the Department of Theatre, and Professor William Mackwood, who teaches design and production in the Department of Dance, have created elaborate lighting and projection designs for the show. Working with a technical team of four theatre students, they paint the white-costumed canvas of the performers with evocative colour and special effects.
Robbin, Martin, Dobie and Lee share their thoughts about the production in The Making of Dido and Aeneas on YouTube, which also includes some rehearsal footage for a behind the scenes peek at the work in progress.
Tickets are $17, or $12 for students and seniors. For tickets, contact the Box Office at 416-736-5888.