Fri 29 Dec 2017

How did we extract a complete theatre piece out of a four minute aria?

Taster DIDO DIDO, an interview with Nicole Beutler and Romain Bischoff

DIDO DIDO is the new music theatre production by director Nicole Beutler and the innovative opera ensemble Silbersee, in collaboration with Ulrike Quade Company. The starting point is the most famous aria from the baroque opera Dido and Aeneas; the masterpiece by English composer Henry Purcell (1659-1695). 'Dido's Lament' is Dido's final lamentation before she chooses to die, abandoned by her beloved Aeneas. What inspired Nicole Beutler and her musical counterpart Romain Bischoff to create an entire performance from just one aria that takes up roughly four minutes in the original?

By Mayke Klomp

Dido and Aeneas, that's an opera with an age-long tradition. What prompted you to sink your teeth into this well-known piece?

Romain Bischoff: I had been walking around with his opera in my head for some time. Nicole and I first met some 3.5 years ago when we were both nominated for the Amsterdamprijs voor de Kunst. We immediately had a click. Knowing in the back of my head that there are many dance scenes in the original Dido and Aeneas – and that Nicole is known for her dance performances – I broached the subject to her.

Nicole Beutler: When Romain asked me, I studied the whole opera and thought about what I consider to be its core. Clearly that was the final aria 'Dido's Lament'. The song is very sad. Here we see a woman who sings before she takes her own life. I also find that a peculiar opera cliché: after all, who sings before deciding to leave this world? It's quite common in opera that inexpressible emotions are sung. Melodies are found that express those deep feelings that are actually quite hard to define. That really touches me.

R: So Nicole was really only interested in the final aria. "That's okay", I said. "Then let's do that." Of course it's an unusual job: that aria only lasts for something like four minutes max. 'Dido's Lament' has this incredible purity. There are very few notes and no ostentation or embellishment. I prefer to call it a song as opposed to an aria, for traditional opera arias are often more lavish with dynamic contrasts. Purcell has an original simplicity. Even amateur singers could sing this song. I think that that's one reason why it appeals to so many people.

N: I find that Purcell also fits really well into the present. His texts are accessible and understandable – because in English. Underneath the baroque melody there's a bass line that always continues minimalistically, like in present-day electronic music.

Romain asked Nicole on account of her background as a dance director. Is there much dance in the performance?

N: Ultimately, there's indeed one dancer in the performance, but the focus is very much on listening. And I'm not only a choreographer. In each project I look at which means are most suited to what I wish to tell. This time we're starting out with a musical piece and working with singers. That's how the focus came to be on the auditive aspect relatively early on.

R: In the original opera there's a lot of dance, it is true, but it isn't in the style of Silbersee to do an opera the way most people know it. I'm drawn to movement, with the physical aspect of the singing. Traditional opera is stately and conceived as images. With Silbersee I have been busy for years trying to innovate that.

N: As soon as the performers play an instrument, that also constitutes a movement to me. The dance in the performance emerges in an organic way from the movements that are already present on the stage.

R: DIDO DIDO is a work of art in which every movement of the body, every breath taken and every note produced forms a choreography. I love the way Nicole stays faithful to that principle. I hope the public will also look at it that way.

In DIDO DIDO you both want to come closer to Dido than ever. Why are you so keen on crawling under her skin and how do you go about it?

R: So, by choosing to use only the aria, everything turns around that brief moment before someone dies. It's a parting moment that we stretch out a very long way. Everyone in the auditorium has actually got just over an hour to bid farewell to Dido. At the same time, any one of us has had loved ones who have passed away. I'm convinced that many people will be remembering their own deceased during the performance. Because the aria stands on its own and is no longer part of a protracted story, what remains is a universal and recognizable emotion.

N: We give room to the essence of the message that is hidden in the aria. Naturally that then takes you very close to Dido. We also stay with Dido longer, as in the opera she only appears very briefly. We recognize a pearl in the aria and we want to highlight it from all sides. We place the song under a microscope, as it were. We analyze the text and the music and slowly fit the pieces of the puzzle back together. It'll be a surprising experience for fans of Purcell. For instance, we sing the aria backwards, which sounds almost Slavonic. The aria becomes a field on which we move around. But fear not: the piece as you know it will also emerge, absolutely.

What would Purcell think of what you're doing to his aria?

R: The source of everything you hear in DIDO DIDO is Purcell. We treat that with great respect. I always see it like this: if Purcell would rise again and have the means at his disposal that are around today, then he too would adopt a new approach. I'm sure of it.

N: I see it as a homage to the piece. Not just to the music, but also to the text. "When I am laid in earth... Remember me but forget my fate". That describes a very human fear: the fear of being forgotten. In the opera it is touched upon briefly; in DIDO DIDO everything turns about this emotion.

What are you thinking when you're confronted by Dido's farewell?

N: I am struck by her tremendous willpower. You need a lot of willpower to choose suicide. To decide that you no longer wish to be part of this society.

R: It also reminds me very much of a long deathbed. There are few people who die all of a sudden. That is a beautiful way to die that is granted to only a few people. I'm thinking of my own mother, for example. Her final struggle was a terrible experience. After we had all said our farewells, she continued to fight on her own for one and a half days. That's what this moment is about, and that's what we're turning into music. We revive Dido for a brief moment so that we can keep her with us for a little while. When you go to bury someone and you hold a service, then that person is in the centre of attention and comes back to life in our minds. That's more or less all that happens in DIDO DIDO.

You call Dido, a centuries-old mythological character, back to life for a while. How do you do that?

R: We literally breathe life into Dido using breath. All the instruments that occur in DIDO DIDO are controlled by breath. Even the string instrument we use, the Oriental kemenche, sounds like the vocal cords of a female soul.

N: Pretty early on we came up with the idea of collaborating with Ulrike Quade again. I had worked with her before in the production Antigone and was then introduced to the art of the Japanese bunraku puppet theatre. I became fascinated by how choreographic the puppetry is and I also learned that puppets are exceptionally good at dying. An actor can only rob himself of his life in a tragic fake way and then he gets up again to take a bow. If a puppeteer's hands are withdrawn from the puppet, it actually reverts to a piece of wood. So I decided that we needed a puppet that we can animate, and then let die again.

Isn't it going to be a terribly sad performance?

N: I don't think so at all. It's poignant, absolutely, and you're also confronted with the notion of dying. But there's a lot of life, inventiveness and creativity in the performance This bringing to life is the happier counterpart to parting.

R: The life is literally found in the people on the stage. You hear, see and feel an enormous force coming from them. The way they stand there body and soul and build the music together gives a lot of energy.