OpenStages – Dido and Aeneas

Putting on an opera in a week was always going to be a challenge, putting on an opera in a week from scratch with a cast, chorus and musicians largely inexperienced in opera even more so….but then we’re never known to shy away from a challenge at MWO and we’ve been absolutely blown away by the success of our first OpenStages project.

Our production of Dido and Aeneas in St Andrew’s Church, Presteigne began rehearsals on Bank Holiday Monday, April 22nd, and was performed to two sold out audiences the following Saturday, April 27th. By midnight on Saturday evening the church was once again a church, ready for Sunday worship, and only a few smatterings of gold leaf remained.

The principle behind the production was part of MWO’s mission to share our passion for opera, building audiences and creating connections in the communities where we work. Our Artistic Director Richard Studer and Music Director Jonathan Lyness had planned for years to create a week-long community opera project and Easter 2019 in Presteigne felt like the right time and place for our pilot event.

We aimed to work with amateur singers and musicians from across Wales and the borders, together with a good splash of young students and just one or two professionals, ready to give their time in key roles.

The production exceeded our expectations in every possible way. It was exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure and the dedication and professionalism of everyone involved was exemplary. And, just as we hoped, it was great fun! Our Artistic Team even let the Exec Director join the chorus..

It’s been an emotional week..as our Artistic Director Richard Studer put it:

“From meeting the company for the first time on Monday morning to the final performances this project has been an absolute joy to work on. 

“Highlights of the week have come in unexpected moments (I’ve cried a lot!) but my enduring memory will be the anonymous stream of visitors who sat quietly at the back of the church with their mothers, friends, grandchildren, partners etc who simply took time out of their day to listen and watch as we created this performance”

Dido and Aeneas was the perfect production for our first OpenStages project, a full opera in just over 50 minutes with plenty of choruses and the opportunity to stage the work in a simple, unfussy setting with minimal set and costume.

It also had a range of great roles for our young singers to perform. At the start of the planning process we had cast only Dido (Monique Simone), Belinda (Organ Prawang) and Aeneas (Kiefer Jones) – all young singers who have worked with MWO on Gala performances but never in staged work – and we had recruited a local violin teacher, Ceri Essex, as leader for the orchestra. Everyone else arrived by open call and casting was done based on CVs and requests – incredibly it worked perfectly and we had just the right people in the right roles. Rehearsals ran each day in the church and church hall, with a shared evening meal prepared by the marvellous Pandora each day – assisted by her wonderful team of volunteers.

Thursday night’s HausMusik performance at the Judge’s Lodgings gave our young soloists the chance to showcase their talents in a unique and atmospheric setting, with a mix of performances spread through the building from Gloria Chan’s glorious Queen of the Night to Emyr Jones’ Canu werin in the cellar. The evening ended with Dido’s Lament in the courtroom – a perfect opportunity to perform Dido and Aeneas’ moving conclusion in public for the first time.

By Saturday the show was ready for its debut – with simple but effective costumes, real gold leaf painted on to faces to add a splash of drama and turbans tied at jaunty angles by the chorus’ now expert team.

Both shows had sold out by Saturday morning despite our efforts to add extra seats, and the audience feedback was unanimous and positive, the cast and band delighted and the buckets shaken outside the church to support our education work filled up nicely! The cries of “can we do it all again” are being taken very seriously indeed. Watch this space…

Audience feedback

“Excellent, well-coordinated and imaginative, bravo”

“Beautiful, moving and very effective, beautiful simple staging”

“Wonderfully spine tingling, hugely impressive in a week, simple but stunning staging. Loved it”

Thank you

There are far too many people we need to thank:

  • The good folks of Presteigne and of St Andrew’s Church for their welcome and hospitality – including hosting some singers
  • Andrew and Alison Giles and Presteigne Festival for their support, loan of staging and brilliant work doing Front of House and running a bar
  • Pandora and team for the catering
  • and everyone who signed up to perform and support this first ever OpenStages project. You are all superstars!
  • …and MWO’s own incredible technical and logistical team led by Bridget Wallbank (including those fortunate enough to be related to, or friends with us and dragged in to do stage work/count cash/wash up/hoover etc. …the list is endless…)

Participant feedback

Andrew – chorus member “It was an absolute privilege to sing with all that young talent – loads of respect now for their commitment to their art. Overall, it was an incredible experience which I thoroughly enjoyed. I hope there will be similar opportunities in the future. All power to your collective elbows – it was a well-conceived and well-delivered production – I have had only very positive feedback from those I knew in the audience.”

Ros – Viola “Loved it all.…The opportunity to participate, the friendly atmosphere, the attention to detail- I felt that we were being well looked after on every level. Lovely food, music stands always ready, we were encouraged to play better all the time, but never beyond what we could reasonably achieve. There was enough rehearsal time & repetition of the music to feel confident about performing, & we never felt at all personally criticised..”

Corinna – chorus member “I had a fantastic week and am very grateful to MWO for arranging this event. We were treated in an unfussy, friendly and inclusive way and our energies simply focused on producing a worthwhile performance.”

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