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Carthage to Cambridge: Dido & Aeneas at Harvard


Detail of Dido (Nathaniel Dace-Holland)
Detail of Dido (Nathaniel Dace-Holland)

Harvard Early Music Society returns this Thursday through Saturday with Henry Purcell’s 1688 masterwork Dido and Aeneas. Based on Book IV of Virgil’s Roman epic The Aeneid, Purcell’s opera, with a libretto by Nahum Tate, is enduring and beloved; its hallmark aria, “When I am laid in earth,” also known as Dido’s lament, is among the entire canon’s most emotionally intense. The production team of undergraduates and theater professionals brings the work with a “simple staging” to an audience of 50-60 at the intimate Horner Ballroom of Aggasiz House, a decidedly non-traditional space for opera.

Over the weekend, I had to opportunity to conduct an interview with Giselle Ty, the production’s stage director and an emerging star in her own right on Boston’s operatic horizon. She told me that “Opera can be thrilling, profound, and very sexy.” 

Joseph E. Morgan: How did you get started in directing?

Giselle Ty: After finishing my bachelor’s in the Chicago area, I arrived in Cambridge with a background in classical music and art history and no idea what to do with it. I began exploring theater and was lucky enough to develop my obsession with the medium through the influence of the teachers and artists associated with the American Repertory Theater. I observed rehearsals, audited courses and lectures, watched archival videos, assistant directed productions with the resident directors, and worked as a teaching assistant with members of the acting company. I invested almost all of my time in the early years in straight theater. Then I worked as an AD with the Gotham Chamber Opera and Opera Boston, two wonderfully bold organizations that gave me opportunities to build my operatic directing chops and shaped my expectations of what opera can be.

How does directing a play differ from directing an opera?

The most profound difference is that in a straight play, the director and the actors can manipulate time. Silence is a dramatic tool that is free and readily available to everyone. In opera, the music controls the time. It drives the momentum and shape of the narrative and often precisely dictates everything from the characters’ moods to the amount of time you have to execute a scene change. Typically, dense, recit-driven scores need to be rehearsed like a play whereas others need a sparser, more choreographic approach. In a way, it makes the director’s job easier. The music gives you a tremendous amount of information and does a lot of the heavy lifting. In an instant, it can unearth the sensation of longing, heartbreak, transcendence, redemption, ecstasy, etcetera…While that definitely takes the drama to unmatched heights, this also means that it is difficult to play with subtext or emotional counterpoint.

The deathtrap for opera is when artists get complacent and rely exclusively on the beauty of the music without a hunger for deeper investigation. Then the moments onstage carry only one meaning instead of a thousand violently complex and contradictory ones.

Also, the rehearsal culture of opera is vastly different from that of theater. Singers devote an incredible amount of time and energy to developing their instruments and therefore might not have had the time to fully cultivate the other facets of their performance like physical engagement and spontaneity, rigorous character analysis, and a sharp responsiveness to the ensemble. Directors often are expected to tell the singers where to move and what to think, which keeps singers from taking ownership of these other skills. I think the most successful opera singers are also phenomenal actors and I love working with artists who come to the rehearsal room with strong ideas and enough courage to boldly make both good and bad choices.

Your production of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia (Opera Brittenica, review here) was riveting, violent and controversial, is this something we should expect of Dido and Aeneas?

I think every production should respond sensitively to its material, collaborators, and environment. Purcell’s score is gentler than Britten’s. I am also working with a cast whose average age is a bit younger and that naturally brings out a different energy in the work. There is more mischief, more wonder, and more lightness in Dido & Aeneas. There is certainly a raw and ugly violence in the lovers’ separation and loss that I hope we achieve, but it is of a different color than Lucretia.

What you should expect is a unique intimacy that is rare for audiences to experience in opera. It is being staged in the Horner Room in Radcliffe Yard, a little gem of a space on Harvard’s Campus with massive windows, fireplaces, and original chandeliers. I am lucky to be working with an imaginative design team that can take on the challenge of making fantastic worlds come to life with simple design in a non-traditional environment. There are only 50-60 seats for each performance. There is no “perfect” vantage point and each seat will have a different experience of the event.

Which is your favorite moment and what is the biggest challenge in directing Dido and Aeneas?

Spiritual challenge: Dido and Aeneas have so little time to fall in love! Epic love and seismic heartbreak in under an hour? Yikes.

Logistical challenge: The space does not have the technical infrastructure of a theater. This, combined with the intentionally challenging and unconventional configuration, means that you don’t achieve the same crispness that might come with a proscenium presentation. But sometimes chaos means it is more fun and more magical. Think of the difference between a quirky antique store and Crate & Barrel.

Favorite moment: maybe when Dido & Aeneas see each other for the last time. It is heartbreaking. They self-destruct.

Considering the long history of Dido’s famous lament, how did you approach a number with such a history?

By trying to explode it from its history and discover new possibilities about what the raw emotional event is about. A crucial step was to cast a Dido (Heather Gallagher) who was willing to take risks and abandon the preciousness one might cling to when performing something so iconic. She is really invested in exploring the psychology of a character and brave enough to try on the messy, ugly side of grief.

I understand that this is your second production with the Harvard Early Music Ensemble, what is it like to work with them? What is the current status of the society, and what is their relationship with the Harvard-Radcliff Drama Club?

I directed a production of La Calisto for The Harvard Early Music Society in 2011 and had a wonderful experience creating that opera with the music director at the time, a lute player named Ryaan Ahmed who is now at Eastman.  The organization has a complicated identity on Harvard’s campus. It is technically an undergraduate organization, and a relatively young one, but because opera and early music are such niche endeavors that require a level of expertise often acquired in later years, it regularly engages artists from Boston’s classical music community. Our production involves professional singers, professional designers working alongside a talented student team, bright-eyed freshmen, an incredibly gifted and mature senior (Liv Redpath, a soprano who will have an undoubtedly bright future in opera), recent conservatory and college grads, and a medievalist fellow in the English department. Negotiating demanding day jobs, tech weeks for other shows, audition season, midterms, problem sets, Harvard-Yale weekend, and “Harvard time” (classes start 7 minutes past the scheduled time) has been a rollercoaster, but this vibrant cross-pollination is one of the most valuable things that HEMS has to offer.

It faces unbelievable challenges. There is constant turnover in leadership and each wave of students has a different set of priorities and skill sets. Musical theater is generally more popular on campus, and it is difficult for an organization run mostly by classical musicians to compete for space and technical staff. The Office of the Arts, a tremendous asset to the college, supports them on a case-by-case basis with space, some money and gentle guidance, but a good deal of HEMS’ funding comes from outside sources. (Support this production by attending the show or donating)

The organization can only survive if there are members of the student body interested, organized, and passionate enough to keep it going. The current music director, Jess Rucinski (a very talented collaborative pianist who has worked with festivals and organizations outside of Harvard), was the last member of HEMS after a dormant year and wanted to make sure it did not die after she graduated.  With Dido & Aeneas, HEMS continues its presence as an opera organization on campus and connects early music with the campus’ theater community (HRDC is the umbrella organization for theatrical events).

Opera can be thrilling, profound, and very sexy.  For me, the rollercoaster is well worthwhile if we can involve some of the brightest young minds in the country and convince them that this is true.

Your last production was composed by the other great English opera composer, Benjamin Britten. What, in your opinion, characterizes the English style of opera?

My sample size of English opera is not deep enough for me to really speak to large trends. However, what I find to be fascinating in both the Rape of Lucretia and Dido & Aeneas is the complex weaving of different registers of consciousness through the narrative and the role that the chorus plays within that. They shift from directly participating in the action to offering seemingly detached commentary on major events to functioning as the audience’s empathetic compass through the emotional journey of the tragedy.

What was it like to serve as a “Nibelung” for Robert LePage on the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Das Rheingold?

I left a trail of gold glitter everywhere I went for weeks!

Given your druthers, which opera would you most like to direct?

Berg’s Lulu or Wozzeck! Or early French opera–Charpentier’s Médée or something from the Lully canon.

What do you think characterizes a successful staging of an opera?

1. It is staged with musical sensitivity and understanding.

2. There is equal investment in visual, physical, and dramatic resources.

3. The director and performers understand that movement is visual music.

4. The characters and performers sincerely care about each other.

5. It has some combination of: brutal honesty, wild imagination, sublime beauty, intellectual depth, fearlessness, irreverence, intensity (while not taking itself too seriously).

6. The audience leaves more painfully aware of their own humanity.

What has been the impact of the Met’s “Live in HD Program” on local opera productions?

I have no idea. I would guess that the audience base for the Live in HD programs is not the same as the traditional opera audience. Gathering in a place to experience a live performance brings an electricity and communion that a screen could never replicate, and live opera-goers know that. Hopefully the Met’s wide reach helps integrate the art form into the “mainstream,” reintroduces it into our country’s contemporary cultural diet, and plants the seed for people to seek out live productions.

What do you think is the future of opera in Boston?

Boston is a city that is so intellectually and musically rich. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be one of the country’s major opera capitals. Audiences, producers, and supporters have to be more adventurous, more open-minded, and more demanding of the art form for it to survive. It is definitely a vulnerable environment, but that means it is an excellent time for different paradigms to explode onto the scene. It can be pristine grand opera in a jewel-box theatre, raw and messy chamber opera in a black box, historically-informed or wildly fantastic. It can be a hybrid of dance-theater, devised-opera/theater, or any permutation of the above.

I hope that people will step up to build local companies that can have enough infrastructure to do daring work. It is an exciting moment to be generous and liberal with our imaginations.

What is next for Giselle Ty?

I’ll be directing a short, bilingual, touring version of Rapunzel for Houston Grand Opera’s “Opera to Go!” Program. Then spending some time overseas.

What is next for the Harvard Early Music Society?

That’s up to the next generation of passionate students. Hopefully great things for a long time to come.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you!

Giselle Ty (file photo)
Giselle Ty (file photo)

Dido and Aeneas

Music by Henry Purcell
Libretto by Nahum Tate
Directed by Giselle Ty
Produced by Schuyler Berland and Jared Sleisenger


Thursday, December 5th at 8 p.m.
Friday, December 6th at 8 p.m.
Saturday, December 7th at 8 p.m.

Horner Room, Agassiz House, 10 Garden St. Cambridge

$12 regular admission
$8 students/senior


The Cast:

Dido: Heather Gallagher
Aeneas: Jason Ryan
Belinda: Liv Redpath
Sorceress: Julia Cavallaro
First Witch: Tamara Ryan
Second Witch: Roselin Osser
Second Woman: Jessica Jacobs
Spirit: Von Bringhurst
First Sailor: Andy Troska


Jonathan Alvarez-Guiterrez, Christina Bianco, Connor Harris, Jon Oakes, Steven Rozenski, Sara Weaver


3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Is this open to the public? Are tickets required? Details, please.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — December 3, 2013 at 12:28 am

  2. Thanks for the interest! It is absolutely open to the public. Classical music lovers are the organization’s primary audience!

    It will also be an excellent show for children. It is lively, playful, interesting to look at, and only an hour long. And unlike some of my other shows, this is easily “Rated G”.

    I just wanted to make sure that everyone has the correct information:


    Comment by Giselle — December 3, 2013 at 2:35 am

  3. Sorry for the dearth of logistical information. Fixed now.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — December 3, 2013 at 8:14 am

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