Dido and Aeneas  
- Sunil Kothari 
e-mail: sunilkothari1933@yahoo.com 

August 7, 2005 

Dido and Aeneas is a passionate love story told through opera and dance. Arriving in Birmingham after attending Ananda Yatra at Lowry at Manchester, organized by never to- give-up-his-dream-come-what-may-to-put-Manchester-on-the-world map-of- entertainment, Prashant Nayak and his Milap Fest, curated by Kathak exponent Gauri Sharma Tripathi and associates, I was in for a pleasant surprise to witness the opera along with dance choreographed by an Indian Diaspora. It was staged on July 21st, 2005 at The Arena Theatre, Mac, Birmingham, UK.  

The first English opera by Henri Purcell based on a story from classical mythology, telling the tragic tale, dwelling upon opera's central theme of love, sorcery and fate, tells the story of Aeneas's passionate but doomed relationship with Dido, Queen of Carthage. 

Dido and Aeneas (Sonia Sabri & Shane Shambu)
Pic: Adrian Burrows
A shot in the dark
Pic: Alan Fletcher 
"A 17th century theatre audience would have been so familiar with classical mythology that Purcell had no need to elaborate on the background to events in Dido and Aeneas," notes Susan Hamlyn in her programme note. "They would have known that Dido's sadness at the start of the opera stems from fleeing her brother's tyranny after he killed her husband, and that Aeneas, battle worn and a refugee from the Trojan War, had lost his wife in the fall of Troy." 

Endorses Piali Ray, honoured with Order of British Empire (OBE), the dynamic, artistic director, heading Sampad, an institution in Birmingham promoting south Asian arts, taking up the challenge of choreographing this tale into dance, when she was approached by MAC Productions to produce this opera with her artistic inputs: "The unique tradition of story telling in Indian classical dance lends itself very well to the dramatic storyline of the opera. The primary inspiration has been the music and narrative of the opera. I have also tried to incorporate an eclectic mix of dance styles-not limited to Indian classical and folk. And of course, the Arena as a performance space always excites me because it has a dramatic character of its own. And it has a strong influence on the choreography." 

A recent trend noticed in the field of the performing arts, is of undertaking fusion between different art forms by the Indian Diaspora artists. It fits/meets the demands of the present agenda of the host country's policy of community harmony by inviting the immigrants to participate in such joint collaborations. It offers scope for young artists to explore, experiment and collaborate with the host country's indigenous cultural expressions. Therefore classical Indian dance and English opera with south Asian dancers, British musicians and singers seek to find a new intercultural expression in this mix of Asian, Classical and English traditions. During my international travels, I look forward to seeing these experiments with a view to see how the Indian Diaspora artists with other cultural forms negotiate, not always succeeding, but at the same time showing courage and respect for respective forms, minus the built in ancient Indian culture superiority. 

I am no expert on opera, even when I have seen some of the best operas in the West. I did not attend the performance with any pretension of preconceived knowledge, but was definitely interested in seeing how Piali Ray had handled the choreography. It was quite fascinating to watch the performance at MAC's open-air, classically conceived Arena Theatre.  Facing the proscenium stage where the orchestra, and the musicians were seated and the opera singers were standing, moving around, at times very close to the main actors and singing and often taking part in the dance, it was indeed fascinating to watch the dancers and the opera singers collaborating in a seamless manner. The seating arrangements were in a semi circle, tiered. The audience was asked to bring cushions and back rests and a shawl or two, taking into account the weather. Fortunately even when the sky looked overcast, the weather gods were kind. And it did not rain. The one-hour duration of the performance was perfect.  

That ace Kathak dancer, the petite and beauteous Sonia Sabri, played the role of Dido. It was sung, as the programme notes have mentioned, by 'outstanding' young soprano Wendy Neiper, who has sung with the Swingle Singers, the Berlin Philharmonic and the Gotenburg Symphony Orchestra; Aeneas played by Shane Shambhu, trained in Bharatanatyam by Pushkala Gopalan, sung by David Heathcote, sorcerer played by Kali Dass, the Malaysian male dancer from Kuala Lumpur, trained in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kalaripyattu at the Temple of Fine Arts, and sung by Ian Gifford, and Belinda, played by  Seeta Patel, with training  in Bharatanatyam and folk dances under local Indian Diaspora dancers in Birmingham and sung by Abigail Kelly, carried the show well with professional showmanship and commendable dance technique. It must be said to the credit of Piali Ray that with her background of having received training in the Uday Shankar Cultural Center in Kolkata under the direct supervision of Amala Shankar, the dancer and wife of the legendary Uday Sankar, and imbibing the overall choreographic sensibilities of the couple, with an unerring eye for groupings, placements of the dancers, alignment and overall vision to dovetail the dance to the opera music, its mood, the evocative feeling succeeded in matching the movements to the music and the drama that unfolded before one’s eyes.  

As a choreographer, she brought in the folk dance elements, a few arresting movements of Bharatanatyam in Dido's group who had diverse training in different forms. Wisely enough knowing the limitations of the available dancers, she did not attempt display of virtuosity on part of the dancers. 

The ones who had technique at their command like Kali Dass, with his towering personality, as a sorcerer, reminding us of the evil character of a sorcerer in Swan Lake, dressed also in a befitting costume and make up, performed with ease, winning rounds of applause at the end when he came to take curtain call. So did Sonia Sabri with her command over the Kathak technique, and varying expressions at her beck and call, her visage, emoting feelings that were expected of her as a tragic character of Dido; Shane Shambhu, another tragic character, at the end of the story, stood aloft a tree, like a heartbroken lover looking across the sea, from the deck of a ship; and Seeta Patel as Belinda, the confidante of Dido, helplessly watching Dido's committing suicide and her body later on being carried away on a bier, covered with  a white sheet. Aeneas's group, the dance of the vicious witches, in their black costumes and horrendous make up ("Destruction is our delight, delight, delight our greatest sorrow," they exult), in contrast to the folk dancers in their pleasant sartorial finery et al, seemed quite natural to the unfolding of the events in quick succession. 

When I read the programme note, before the performance began, I wondered how the director Michel Barry, designer Jennie Cocking, music director Paul Herbert and dance director Piali Ray, were to fulfill the requirements of a mini-opera, full of surprises and mystery! Purcell wrote it for a girls' school in 1689, who then sang the men's parts, especially Aeneas! Another surprise is that it is full of stage effects and spectacle. It has thunder, lightning and horror music, a hunting scene and a cave with vicious witches and magic. 

The music is similarly surprising. We have a song and a dance with an echo, a laughing song, a chorus of courtiers who have gone out hunting and can't wait to get back to town when the rain starts, and another chorus of comically heartless sailors. It is also full of dances-Purcell's score has four, for the courtiers, the witches, the Furies and the sailors. 

No wonder Piali Ray had enough scope to develop this aspect of dance as an integral part of the opera. To wit, the sequence with the troupe going out for hunting is cleverly exploited using Bharatanatyam hasta mudras, Kathakali enactment of riding over horses; shooting arrows with shikhara hasta mudra for holding the bow and kapittha for releasing the arrows. "Certain moments and sequences, such as the sailors and women at the port, have been conceived to add another dimension without moving away from the main story line," adds Piali Ray.  

Take one more example. It is an interesting observation about the dances and singing of the witches. With no other motive other than, perhaps, not unfamiliar one of class envy, they crow over "the Queen of Carthage, whom we hate, as we do all in prosperous state" they destroy Queen, hero and Carthage itself. 

Some of the songs since the opera is in English, can, if one is attentive, be understood even when sung in an opera by a soprano. For instance, when Dido senses from the beginning that her love for Aeneas is doomed, even when he offers to stay, in spite of Jupiter's anger, she says: "It is enough, whate'er you now decree, that you had once a thought of leaving me." Dido commits suicide. Her final dying lament is simple, profound and utterly somber. Sonia performs with élan, dignity, enacting tragic heroine's role with consummate artistry.  

The very fact that the orchestra conducted by Paul Herbert engaged one's attention from the word go, with Harpsichord continuo, cello continuo, violins, violas, double bass and what have you, one walked away from the Arena with an elated feeling of having watched a successful fusion work where dance and opera complimented each other and the narrative element of story telling was highlight of the presentation. 

Dr. Sunil Kothari was Professor of Dance at the Rabindra Bharati University at Calcutta and the first to occupy the Uday Shankar Chair. A dance writer, roving critic, research scholar and author of many books, he is the recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Lifetime Achievement Award conferred by Kalanidhi Fine Arts of Canada, in March 2004.