Dylan Sauerwald and Zoe Weiss, co-directors of the newly-founded Helios Early Opera group, are planning to introduce the ensemble to the public with a concert of opera scenes from works of Handel, Rameau, Strozzi, Purcell and Mozart on Saturday, November 19th at 7:30 at Friends House (5 Longfellow Park) in Cambridge. The singers include: Erika Vogel, soprano; Claire Raphaelson, soprano; Owen McIntosh, tenor and Jacob Cooper, bass. The co-directors were recently interviewed by Joel Schwindt, writer for BMInt, who will be serving as “resident musicologist” for the group’s production of Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas in January.
JS: Let’s jump right in: why did you decide to start Helios?
ZW: Before we met, both of us had independently formed an interest in creating new ensembles, and each of us had directed operas as undergraduates. The Boston Early Music Festival puts on rigorously historical performances of operas, and other groups are offering innovative combinations of historical and modern elements in the production of smaller works. We thought: why not try taking a different approach with larger works?
JS: So what is this “different approach” that you hope to offer to the Early Music scene here in Boston?DS: Early Music is undergoing a dramatic shift in focus. Early pioneers of the movement had to prove that the extra time and effort required to use period instruments was worthwhile in the pursuit of a “sonar approximation” of period sound. Now that the movement and its literature are well established, we have the flexibility to be less traditional in our approach. For this reason, we are attempting to integrate the historical and the modern. We like to think of ourselves as facilitators mediating a conversation between the work and our audience, rather than “re-presenters.”
What is the philosophy or approach behind this decision to offer “modern” staging?
DS: Our goal is to make our operas resonate with contemporary audiences. We’re not interested in trying to force a modern concept on a historical story. We think a well-crafted modern staging is on some level “historical,” since was “modern” in its own century. Period staging can be beautiful but has the potential to be subtly alienating too, because it emphasizes details and conventions today’s audience may not relate to. We want the drama to feel immediate, and we want the jokes to be funny without the footnotes.
Both of you are veterans of the Early Music scene, often working together. How have your experiences as a performer and director informed your process as a producer, including casting, scheduling, rehearsal direction, etc?
DS: For me, it’s mostly on a logistical level. Being a performer shows you what it is to be managed more or less successfully, what to do and what not to do in the day-to-day of the process.
ZW: This is my fifth year in Boston and I’ve been constantly surprised and impressed by the wealth of talent here. I’ve seen many of my colleagues and friends start ensembles, and there’s an amazing amount of enthusiasm for new ventures, a great willingness to try new things. I wanted Helios to be a musician-based project, something people could get excited about and really put their whole heart into. I think we’re on to something, because the response has been overwhelming!
Why the name Helios?
ZW: We went with Helios because of its allusion to the Greek pantheon, a culture whose mythology was the inspiration for so much of the early operatic repertoire. We also liked the reference to the Sun, which calls to mind Apollo, the first musician and the god of music, whose son Orpheus was the subject of so many of the earliest operas.
Your first production will be Marc-Antoine Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, playing Thursday and Friday, January 26 and 27 at First Church, Cambridge. What led both of you to this work?
DS: We spent a lot of time in libraries looking at scores before deciding on David et Jonathas. We wanted our first opera to be something most people wouldn’t have seen before, but by a composer familiar to concertgoers. When we found this work, we were excited not only by the music, which is sublime and unusual, but also the characterizations, which are wonderfully complex: Saul is a powerful king, but the opera opens with him seeking the aid of the Witch of Endor, a soothsayer, to ease his fear that the prophecy of his death —as well as of his son Jonathan — is coming to pass. On the other hand, the composer’s treatment of the love between David and Jonathan is both tender and nuanced, culminating in a pair of deeply moving musical dialogues in the final act, one as Jonathan is dying. We think audiences are going to be surprised and delighted by this piece when they see and hear it.
Would you be willing to share the names of any works that are being considered for future productions, just to give our readers a preview?
ZW: We want to lay out the breadth of our ambitions in our first few seasons, so we’re looking to perform pieces in a wide range of styles and languages. Next season will feature Artemisia by Pier Francesco Cavalli, written for the Venetian public opera houses in the 1650s. After that we’re diving into the repertoire of the eighteenth century. We chose the designation, “Early Opera” over “Baroque Opera,” in fact, because we didn’t want to limit ourselves to a particular era or style. We are also considering Chevalier St. George’s L’Amant Anonyme, Reinhard Keiser’s Coresus and Franz Joseph Haydn’s Lo Speziale. And of course, we’re still looking.
JS: Speaking of previews, you are planning to put on a concert of opera scenes on Saturday, November 19th at 7:30 at Friends House, 5 Longfellow Park, in Cambridge. What can we expect to see on that program?
DS: There are more amazing operas than one company could ever produce, so we’ve decided to start a yearly tradition of a performance of staged scenes that we love, taken from operas both beloved and obscure. Like a tasting menu at a restaurant, it gives us room to experiment, and show our audience all the different things we can do. We’re also hoping this performance will get people excited about our approach to opera. We’ll be performing an assortment of scenes from the tragic to the hilarious: a scene from Rameau’s Hippolyte et Aricie, the famous “drunken poet” scene from Purcell’s Fairy Queen, a very dramatic Barbara Strozzi cantata, a great scene from Handel’s Agrippina, and a scene from Mozart’s fragment Zaide.
JS: Tickets are available through your website?
ZW: Yes; it’s www.HeliosOpera.com
JS: Thanks so much for your time, and best of luck with this great endeavor.