Building the Sorceress – Conductor David Bates & Mezzo-Soprano Madeleine Shaw on a New Approach to Purcell’s Iconic ‘Dido and Aeneas’

By John Vandevert

Perhaps no other figure in the history of the baroque period was so transformative, productive, and instrumental in the development of England’s musical heritage than Henry Purcell. He was a composer whose legacy is, somewhat remarkably, both famous and forgotten the world round.

Having been born into a musical family—beginning his musical career as a boy chorister at the Chapel Royal before moving on to composing at around the age of nine and eventually becoming the organist of Westminster Abbey in 1679—Purcell’s career is one of incredible achievement, not only in the realm of sacred music but in the growth of opera itself. Without Purcell’s experiments in unifying text and emotion into fully sung spaces, giving the music the chance to carry the dramatic through-line in ways not yet experienced, George Frideric Händel may not have had a leg to stand on. Like Händel, Purcell composed for a wide variety of contexts and venues, from the halls of kings and queens, to the public stage, to the liturgical refinement of the cathedral. He consequently had to develop a flexibility in his musical language which would be able to adopt the formalities of the venue yet retain its Purcellian core: an amalgam of English and Italian phraseology, combining the floridity of the Italian with the conservative beauty of the English, and in the process producing fragrant music which lives on to this day.

Among Purcell’s huge body of work, which spanned only two decades, his first all-sung dramatic work “Dido and Aeneas” stands apart as not only one of the earliest English operas known to date, but a great example of the compositional bridge from dramatic theater—sung and spoken—to genuine opera. It owes much of its development to the influence of the Italian cantata: recitative, aria, and chorus. With a libretto by the Irish poet and lyricist Nahum Tate, based on Virgil’s Latin epic “Aeneid,” written in 19 BC, “Dido and Aeneas” pushed the hand of Baroque opera forward. It interpolated 17th century Viennese opera traditions—where prologues were used to ground the performance’s narrative with underlying moral or allegorical allusions—into the English masque tradition of theatrics, dance, and costumes meant to captivate audiences. This set the stage for opera to really mean something and have merit outside of pleasure or facile entertainment. “Dido and Aeneas” is one of the operatic world’s most accessible operas and, with its unique ability to be “reorchestrated” to suit the needs of its performers, Purcell’s first “real” opera and his crucial legacy have never been forgotten.

To celebrate La Nuova Musica’s BBC Proms debut in July with its innovative concert production of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” which seeks to investigate the relationship between the unnamed sorceress and Dido. OperaWire had the unique chance to interview artistic director and conductor David Bates and mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw, who plays the Sorceress, about this upcoming experience.

How it All Began

A British countertenor-turned-conductor, David Bates founded La Nuova Musica (LNM) in 2015 with a desire to execute his own, unique, vision. LNM focuses on promoting unknown and overlooked repertoire from the 17th to 19th centuries, a period when music seems to have been everywhere. Despite this proliferation of music, however, most of what we know as 17th, 18th, and 19th century music today is but a meagre portion of what was truly being made back then. For Bates, the foundation of LNM was a creative experiment to see how the works of composers like Francesco Conti, Agostino Steffani, François Couperin, Claudio Monteverdi, and Henry Purcell—to name but a few—could be reimagined and brought back to life for modern audiences.

Having sung professionally for some time, Bates realized that there was a need to rediscover lesser-known works. Their memories had to be preserved and the audience’s understanding of the universe surrounding their favorite baroque and classical composers had to be enriched. Most important was bringing to audiences the lesser-known contemporaries of the famous composers, whose presence had been forgotten by the cruel trick of history. In a humorous tenor—pun intended—Bates notes that he said, ‘Well let’s try it,’ and jumped headfirst in the project.

There is another aspect of LNM that makes the group unique, and that is its choice to pair early music with contemporary repertoire. LNM have performed pieces from modern composers such as American Nico Muhly, Icelander Anna Thorvaldsdottir, British Edmund Finnis, and Canadian experimental composer Cassandra Miller.

As Bates explained, the process of rediscovering neglected repertoire and premiering novel works are both aspects of “new music.” He noted, ‘The name covers a multitude of options. Every time you make a new phrase, it’s new. That’s what music does, that’s what music is.” Bates highlighted the group’s stance, saying, it’s perfect to pair new music with new music commissions.”

LNM’s dedication to breathing life back into long-forgotten repertoire, along with a passion for promoting the new music of today, fits well together. This happy synthesis has helped LNM stand out as a group with one foot in past and one foot in the present, walking towards the future.

On the performing side of the operatic spectrum is mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw, a dramatic yet highly flexible singer who has participated in everything from Wagner, Shostakovich, and Strauss to contemporary works like Poul Ruders’ “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Elena Langer’s “Rhondda Rips It Up!,” and Katie Mitchell’s “After Dido.” Along with early repertoire like Handel’s “Alcina” and “Il pastor fido,” Shaw demonstrates a proficiency in technique and expression which singers of the 21st century most certainly need to survive.

When asked why one would blend epochs and styles, as opposed to specializing in one or the other, Shaw stated, “For me, it’s just been a question of luck and also… it’s drama driven.”

An ebullient energy, Shaw expressed that her love of character personification led her to take on disparate roles across the operatic and chronological spectrum. Shaw finds deep satisfaction in the process of knowing her characters, their mindsets, and the ways in which they live and respond to the world around them.

She also noted her fortuitous relationship with English National Opera. Here she became involved in all manner of operatic works and projects: a blessing for any young singer looking to enter the world of opera. At the heart of her decision to blend epochs and master operatic literature from across the continuum, Shaw noted in her characteristically punchy and exuberant way, “Why wouldn’t you want to do that? We also don’t [really] have the luxury to do that. But why wouldn’t you want to do everything?”

LNM could be seen as exemplifying this mindset, peering into the folds of music history while fully embracing the exciting present.

The Sorceress

The premise of LNM’s slated debut at the BBC Proms in July with Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” as conceived by Bates, is dedicated towards unearthing the relationship between the Sorceress and Dido: giving this unnamed antagonist the spotlight and in effect recasting how audiences conceive of this opera.

As Bates explained,”In this concert performance, the audience is invited to plumb the depths of the evil sorceress’s lair, to explore the intense hatred that she carries for Queen Dido.”

One will be compelled to ask the perhaps unanswerable but stimulating question, “Why is she so hellbent on destroying Dido’s happiness?” The premise of the opera is superficially clear: Dido, Queen of Carthage, is convinced by Belinda, her handmaid, to soften her heart and allow herself to feel the effects of love for Aeneas, a Trojan prince and warrior. But, sensing the queen’s vulnerable state, the evil Sorceress exploits this and sends a wicked spirit to convince Aeneas to leave Carthage without explanation. This renders Dido heartbroken and inconsolable to the point of taking her own life, which the potent aria “When I am Laid” concerns. Dido sets herself ablaze and bids us to not forget her name as she gives up on the world due to her broken heart at the hands of the Sorceress. LNM’s innovative approach in “rediscovering” the inner working of this operatic tale and providing a glimpse into the subtextual narratives at play, is now a signature for the company and their productions.

When asked if this approach was a new one, Bates noted, “It’s not new at all. It comes from the Italian tradition of having a prologue, beginning in the 17th century, in which a moral situation is often discussed by the gods and they set out a background.”

The approach of LNM is consequently both a restorative and integrative approach towards operatic rediscovery, considering Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” is a blend of Italian lyricism and formal design, along with English temperance and rationality. It makes for an interesting work where one is inclined to read between the lines and truly investigate the music for clues. This is something Bates routinely expressed. Regarding the hidden context of the Sorceress, Bates brilliantly observed that in the original poem by Virgil, the Sorceress is nowhere to be found.

It’s actually Fate who decrees that Aeneas needs to go off and conquer Rome and leave Dido on her own… The mere fact that the personification of Fate, in ‘Dido and Aeneas,‘ becomes this witch [with clear references to witchcraft in 17th century London] adds to the richness of the storytelling. It’s very interesting. It’s always been a fantasy of mine. Why on earth is this sorceress such a witch? And why is she intent on destroying Dido?” Bates admitted.

However, that this question is unanswered within the original opera. ‘There are no answers anywhere. It’s for us and the team to come up with.’ Shaw chimes in with a beautifully-crafted short statement: ‘It will only add clarity’—not only for those onstage, but for the audience as well!

Building the Sorceress

When asked about how she began to conceptualize her character, Shaw made it clear that the Sorceress was not just another no-name operatic villain with a dismal personality and effectively empty story.

She’s kind of the antithesis of Dido. Her sense of pride, strength, quietness, and introversion. She is the opposite of her, isn’t she?”

Shaw added that the characters of Dido and the Sorceress can be thought of as two aspects of the human condition. Two mindsets that, as she later points out, all of us are capable of exhibiting, given the right circumstances and life experiences. More practically speaking, the process of bringing the Sorceress to life was a game of “what is Dido’s personality? Then the Sorceress must be the opposite!”

As Shaw explained, “I like to think about it as unpicking what the opposites are between them. Dido is intense in her thoughtfulness and gentleness, while the sorceress is impulsive, angry, and resentful, and needs people to elevate her, to do her bidding… I think she is riddled with envy and jealousy. That’s quite an easy thing for us all to find within us.”

It is that last sentiment which makes LNM’s process and production so unique. By painting the Sorceress as a symbol of us all, we are allowed to feel more than scorn for her. We feel not only empathy but, in many respects, sympathy. Audiences are therefore more able to understand Purcell’s story. Shaw added, “Maybe she just can’t fathom what love is. So rather than see it, love needs to be ‘the Other.’ Love needs to be away from her. If ever there was a driver, that’s it.”

Bates gave his own views on the process of bringing the Sorceress to life and highlighted the fact that Purcell’s music speaks volumes about his characters, which is one of the main reasons why the opera originally became so famous.

Musically speaking, she has such a specific sound. Dido is always accompanied by a continuo. But you [Madeleine Shaw] are accompanied by the string orchestra. And you have this really consistent, obsessive rhythm,” he succinctly noted before adding, “It’s dangerous music.” Overall, Bates’ sophisticated and adept use of orchestration to elicit emotional responses and underscore the personalities and beliefs of the characters is one of the reasons why Purcell’s opera has become an audience favorite and its music is so instantly recognizable. LNM follows a long tradition of putting music on equal footing as the dramatic narrative, merging the two in a seamless way so to add power to the drama as a physical embodiment of the music. Bates’ knowledge and vision for LNM’s production is clear in his clarity of thought when describing the Sorceress’ musical invocation.

The character comes from the music. The first time she comes in, she has a little prelude of her own. And we are in F minor, dangerous key, a dark key according to Charpentier’s classification. There are also no dynamics, so in that prelude I’ve made real subito changes between forte and piano to try and get this 17th century chiaroscuro effect, to try and show the dangerousness of the character. You never quite know when she’ll shift. Once the prelude finishes it just settles down to this piano when Madeleine gathers her girls togethers.”

Another perspective on the performance was offered by Shaw, who pointed out that in the concert setting, as opposed to a standard stage production, the opportunity for collaboration was appreciably higher. They’re a team. The wonderful way we are going to be doing it, there’s such an opportunity for musical clarity and interaction between the singers and the band. Being able to see one another, to be able to have complicity. That’s what is really lovely about concert stagings.”

One of the benefits of concert productions, according to Shaw, is the potential for clear dramatic choices, “Often there is an opportunity to be more dramatic and more vivid, more clarity of character.”

This sense of unambiguousness and purposefulness in the dramatic choices made is one of the reasons why concert operas are perhaps widely popular today. Audiences feel more involved and aware of the fact that they are watching humans performing, rather than abstracted fictional characters. Shaw continued, “We got a more vivid opportunity to portray what we are trying to do as a group of people. It can ignite the audience’s imaginations in a way that a curtain can’t provide… Text is heightened, themes are heightened.”

Here Bates interjected, ‘There’s no concept. We are not adding an extra layer of regietheater. We are not telling another story. What we are doing is drilling down, actually telling the story that’s in the story. We are concentrating everything done to its absolute core.”

A refreshing point of view, especially nowadays.

The Relatable Sorceress

An aspect of LNM’s production in July is centered around dramatic accessibility and the relationship between the audience and the Sorceress, reworking the idea that opera is only about entertainment.

As Shaw put it, What a character the Sorceress is. Plotting the destruction of a nation and its Queen.”

As both Bates and Shaw explained, however, this is not the entire story. Despite the opera’s one-hour runtime, evocative music, and attainable plot, there is more than meets the eye.

As Bates mentioned, “In this piece, because it’s so compact… I hope that people will see their own selves in the personalities [onstage].’ The running theme in LNM’s production is the human face of mortal suffering, and the human face behind the Sorceress, stripping away the facade of maliciousness to reveal the true intentions of this very misunderstood operatic villain. As Bates continues, ‘[Audiences] will see that sense of jealousy, revenge, and desire to undo someone.”

Shaw also provided her raison d’etre for the production, “It’s really important because if one person comes to the performance and recognizes something, we’ve done our job.”

The true intentions behind asking the question “what happened to the Sorceress?” is thus revealed. Perhaps no answers are to be given, but we can expect to get closer if we look into ourselves and find the reasons why we are pushed to anger, to scorn, to jealousy, and to rage.

This interrelationship between the real world and the operatic world is discussed by Shaw, “With everything going on [currently], you just notice that every time you are singing any text it seems to be [more] relevant and more important than when times felt easier and calmer… Especially in ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ I just notice it even more at the moment: the importance of telling these stories, and for people to recognize the difficult things inside each of us and one another, and the good things too. It magnifies the need to be doing this, it feels all-the-more relevant and all-the-more important.”

Bates went further, noting that in today’s world, audiences want to be taught something. [Every] opera studio is trying to find the humanity in any character. That whole concept of parking and barking, it’s been done. They want to find the humanity for these characters.”

Both Madeleine Shaw and David Bates were asked what part of the preparation process was their favorite. Their choices revealed interesting aspects about how an operatic production is pieced together, from the performer side and from the directorial side. For Shaw, she expressed that it was the process of dramatic discovery that most excited her.

It’s really lovely to think about the text. For me, it’s getting under the skin of the narrative. It’s the talking about it, getting under the skin of who [the Sorceress] is… Often when the music is so beautiful and so direct, it’s easy to think ‘When is the concert?’ The preparation is fun and the excitement is getting under the skin of the story,” she noted. 

For Bates, it is not only the casting but the orchestration that most excites him.

What I’m really excited about is my continuo section, because usually you might have a harpsichord, theorbo, and you’ll have a low bass. Not for this show. I’ve got four theorboes, two guitars, two harps, da gamba, bass violins…” he added. 

Stemming from his love of historically informed performance, this production features period instruments and ensembles that fit the demeanor of the characters as they sing.

I can really create different characterizations within each continuo group, in-line with the 17th century Italian tradition… I’m treating it like a Viennese opera from the same [period]. Being able to make those sonorities and those colors will be thrilling,” he concluded.

All we can do now is wait for July for a performance of “Dido and Aeneas” the likes of which no-one has yet seen: where drama and life tunefully collide. 


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