In November 2011 we mounted our first production, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido may seem like an obvious choice, but it raised an interesting challenge: how to take a mix of Roman legend and Baroque allegory, and make it attractive to a cast of 12 – 18 year olds? At the same time we wanted to produce an attractive and practical staging, while preserving the integrity of the music.
The key turned out to be in Virgil’s story, as retold by librettist Nahum Tate. We find a noble queen, surrounded by her friends, falling for and then abandoned by a visiting hero. Threatening the queen are a group of witches, self confessed outsiders, who wish her harm for no other reason than that she is successful.
What emerges is remarkably close to the standard story of a teen movie drama. We have the ‘queen bee’ girl and her friends, with their girl politics and adolescent moodiness. Into this little circle, bursts the boy from out of town, desirable because of his difference and glamour. And alongside them outsiders, ostracised by the mainstream, successful group and longing to bring it down. Amazingly, the opera lent itself to this treatment, from Dido’s not so secret crush at the beginning, to the histrionic break-up scene just before the end.
From translating the legendary characters into teenagers, it was just a short step to setting the production in the decade that saw the emergence of teenagers as a cultural force, the 1950s. This gave us a consistent look, while supporting both characterisation and even musical performance – this is music which demands to be moved to in big skirts!
The production was made possible through a generous grant from John Lewis in conjunction with Cambridgeshire Music. We were also hugely supported by Chesterton Community College, who provided us with rehearsal space and substantial administrative support and St Mary’s School, who provided their theatre and considerable technical assistance. Both schools were very supportive in helping with publicity.
Photography by Caroline Coetzee and Anne Taylor