The music department at Westminster College will be making school history when it presents Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas this weekend. “This is our first opera and everyone is excited about it,” said Michael Chipman, head of the opera program at the Salt Lake City school.
While the opera program is still in its fledgling state, Chipman is thrilled with the way the music department has grown. “There has always been a music program at Westminster, but never a major,” Chipman said. That changed three years ago when the
school began offering a bachelor of arts degree in music – and attracting students. “The level of students coming here to study music is getting higher,” he said. And the vocal program has definitely benefited from the increase in music students. “We have a ratio of 10 to one in singers to instrumentalists. We have the voices that can do opera now.”
But Chipman knows there are limits as to what the opera program is capable of doing. “All we can really do is baroque chamber opera,” he said. “But that fills a unique niche in the arts scene in Salt Lake City.” And Chipman’s okay with that. “Utah Opera does the top 40 with some occasional baroque stuff, but there are some beautiful undiscovered gems. I’m happy to do operas from the early baroque to Handel. And in a few years I think we can do Mozart.”
Nineteenth century opera will never be part of Westminster’s repertoire, Chipman added. “We’re never going to do Aïda, because we can’t fit the elephants through the door,” he joked.
On the other hand, there is a fairly large body of 20th century chamber operas. “Britten wrote many chamber operas, and it’s great repertoire. In a few years I can see us doing some of his works. We’re just not there yet.”
However, Dido and Aeneas fits the bill right now, because it’s fairly short for an opera and has a small cast, Chipman said. “I love its artistic efficiency. Purcell sets the words without excess. The story is told mostly through recitatives. There are no big arias. The arias are short, and there is a ton of choral music.”
On top of that, the music “is just so beautiful,” Chipman said. “You don’t get tired of it.”
Dido and Aeneas tells the story of the tragic love affair between Dido, queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, a Trojan hero, that eventually leads to Dido’s suicide. Productions of Purcell’s 1689 opera usually focus on Dido. “She’s usually depicted as tormented and depressed, but that didn’t jive with me,” Chipman said. “What I hear in the music makes me believe Dido is driven by an internal demon. Her actions and suicide have nothing to do with Aeneas. The story is much more about her suffering, and her suicide is a result of the pain she is feeling.”
And unlike most productions, Chipman wants to bring Belinda, Dido’s sister and confidant, more into the spotlight. “There is a beautiful aspect between Dido and Belinda. Belinda is cheerful and brings Dido out of her dark place. And it’s Belinda who Dido turns to at the end for comfort.”
While this is an unconventional approach, Chipman takes it one step further. “I think people are going to be shocked by our production, because we’re putting it in a contemporary setting. The story is very current and contemporary, and baroque opera has universal humanity.”
Chipman is pleased with how rehearsals have been going and has nothing but praise for his student cast. “They’ve really stepped up. I’m very proud of them.
“I can tell you this is going to be the start of a long tradition here at Westminster.”
Accompanying the student cast will be a professional ensemble consisting of a string quartet and harpsichord. The instrumentalists are Gerald Elias and Leslie Henrie, violins; Candace Wagner, viola; Cassie Olson, cello and continuo; and Kimi Kawashima, harpsichord.
- PERFORMANCE DETAILS
- What: Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas
- Venue: Jay W. Lees Courage Theatre, Jewett Center for the Performing Arts, Westminster College
- Time and Date: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 11-12
- Tickets: $5 general
- Phone: 801-832-2457
- Web: https://www.ezticketlive.com/checkout/event_view.asp?id=21