Tag Archives: Errollyn Wallen

Dunedin Consort: Dido’s Ghost

Barbican, London

This Mahogany Opera collaboration at the Barbican, with San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque and Chorale now also onboard as co-commissioners, is a radical step for Edinburgh’s Dunedin Consort. Yes, it is built around a performance of Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which is in the group’s familiar repertoire range, but composer Errollyn Wallen and librettist Wesley Stace have gone far beyond the original masque in creating a three-act contemporary opera where the music of Purcell, and the story he told, is just one element.

This is a concert performance, conducted by John Butt and directed by Frederic Wake-Walker, with elements of staging and the orchestra and chorus sharing the platform, and it works well in that form, even if the filming of it for the live stream is not of the high standard we have seen elsewhere during the pandemic. However, it is not difficult to imagine a fully-realised production, and it is desirable beyond argument that Dido’s Ghost becomes a repertoire work.

Wallen’s music ranges far and wide in its material. In what is the score’s best trick, and eventually the coup de theatre of the work, the famous Lament of the Queen of Carthage seems about to appear at many points before we eventually hear it. But the composer is not merely responding to the baroque era – there is jazz and blues in the mix as well, and the instrumentation ranges from Elizabeth Kenny’s lute and theorbo to Fender bass guitar, with a little Caribbean hand-pan tuned drumming in there as well.

Stace’s words are richly poetic, from the early image of a society “confused as bees without a queen”. Those words are sung by Isabelle Peters, who stepped up to the title role from covering it, following the withdrawal of South African soprano Golda Schultz. She is quite superb, in what is surely a career-establishing performance – but she is far from alone in filing a personal best.

Dunedin stalwart Matthew Brook has never been better than he is here, as Aeneas, his acting performance matching the nuance of hers, and his voice finding new areas of upper register gentleness. Nardus Williams as the supportive Belinda is also a powerful presence, and Scots mezzo Allison Cook is fearsome as Lavinia, with a voice to match her disturbingly Aleister Crowley-esque stage business.

The narrative, musically and theatrically, is compelling, and the underlying subject matter – guilt and its status as a feeling without a statute of limitations – could hardly be more appropriate for our times. Towards the end of the work, there is some gorgeous filmic writing for the strings before a virtuosic solo from Peters and then the sucker-punch appearance of that Purcell aria, succeeded by a lovely chorus and instrumental coda.

Structurally – and perhaps not intended at all – there are similarities between this profound new work, now on the road to Buxton and then Edinburgh, and Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, which will also have a star-studded concert performance at August’s Festival. Despite all that has happened this past year, the EIF’s 2021 opera programme is looking very exciting indeed.

Keith Bruce

Reviving Dido for Dunedin Consort

Errollyn Wallen talks to KEITH BRUCE about writing a sequel to Purcell from her new home on Scotland’s North coast

There is an irresistible irony in the genesis of composer Errollyn Wallen’s new Purcell-resurrecting chamber opera, Dido’s Ghost, tracing back to a Scottish tour of her song-cycle Are You Worried About the Rising Cost of Funerals?.

It was the suggestion of former co-director of Dunedin Consort soprano Susan Hamilton, who performed that work with McFall’s Chamber in 2015, that a companion piece for Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas might be a useful addition to the repertoire.

“It stayed on the wish-list,” explains the composer, “and in December 2019 Jo Buckley, the current chief executive of the Dunedin Consort, included it on a list of proposals to the Barbican.”

The London venue liked the idea and other partners came onboard with a project that Wallen is delighted has survived the vicissitudes of the pandemic.

“It has been safeguarded through all this, when other things have been cut, but it didn’t give us a huge amount of time to get the libretto and the score ready with little chance of any face-to-face workshops.

“It has been written in lockdown, but on the plus side Wesley Stace and I have had all this thinking time for it, and began with Wesley producing the libretto. We had one little workshop last October which was just enough for me to hear some of the soundworld.”

That McFall’s Chamber tour – with a string quartet joining the singer – had a lasting impact on Wallen in other ways, in particular her residence at Strathy Point lighthouse, bang in the middle of Scotland’s North coast, which is where I have called her.

“I was forging connections before I moved here. I’d been working with [composer and multi-instrumentalist] Mike Vass and I was invited to mentor on the Distil course by Simon Thoumire, with Scottish traditional musicians, as well as working with Mr McFalls Chamber, which toured around Scotland. It was in a break during that that I nipped over to Tiree to see a little house and then ran up here, and found this.

“I’ve been coming here every month, splitting my time between here and London, since 2016 when I got it, but since the pandemic I’ve  pretty much been here all the time, apart from a couple of trips to London. It has become my primary residence and it has everything I need really. It is an incredible location and it is so conducive to work. I am under pressure all the time to produce a lot of music, and here is just the right place.

“I had criteria when I was looking for a place. It had to be right on top of the sea and a place that wasn’t near people. I wanted it to be remote, and where no one could hear me playing. I wasn’t planning on Scotland, or a lighthouse, but it seems we were meant for each other.

“Through personal connections I’ve widened my knowledge of the richness and variety of music-making in Scotland. I’ve worked with the RSNO, the BBC SSO, and the RCS invited me to be a visiting professor of composition. We’ve only managed to have one concert, when I met David Watkins and Oliver Searle, and that was a magical few days. The Scottish music scene seems very friendly and warm. London is a very big city, so although I grew up there, studied there and began my career there, it can be quite daunting.”

Wallen moved to the UK with her family from Belize when she was two years old, and remembers her sister announcing when she was around 4 or 5 that she felt Scottish and was going to say she was from Scotland.

“And I’ve recently learned that during the Second World War loggers from Belize came over and helped with tree-cutting as part of the war effort – and they were based in Ullapool.”

The solitude the composer enjoys at Strathy has been put to particularly productive use since the start of 2021.

“I have written eight or nine works since January. I’m never not writing something, but I have sort of lost track at the moment! I have written an opera for Graeae theatre company that we think will go on next Spring, and immediately I’ve finished with Dido’s Ghost I start an opera for Chicago Opera Theatre. It is set in London in the 18th century, a period drama with a black cast, set in the years just after the American revolution.

“Because opportunities have presented themselves, I’ve had to work fast. There seem to have been so many opportunities recently – but I will have to slow down soon and have a holiday!”

“I also wrote music for [choreographer] Cathy Marston at Joffrey Ballet in Chicago for a short film. It uses violin and handpan, and that instrument will also be used in Dido’s Ghost. The handpan is a beaten metal instrument and I don’t think it has ever been used in classical music, but it has this lovely mellow sound with overtones. And there was a solo viola piece in February, called Lavinia, commissioned by Riot Ensemble, and Lavinia is one of the characters in Dido’s Ghost. So a lot of things have been preparation for writing this.

“I really love composing operas because you get swept away by the world you enter. Everything you do is in the service of drama and atmosphere. Not every composer has an instinct for the stage and I didn’t know I did, but the more I compose these things, the more magical it seems. You are dealing with vision and sound together as you write.”

“I’ve been obsessed by Dido’s story since studying Virgil as a schoolkid aged 13. I wasn’t that good at Latin, but these myths emerged from my bumbling translation and it stayed with me.

“After our initial conversation, Wesley went off and found a story in Ovid’s writing that is the perfect sequel, so we’ve based it on that. Wesley and I want to amplify the characters that are already there in the Purcell, and our opera starts after Aeneus has left Carthage. It is funny how these things evolve: you have an idea and then gradually the work starts to dictate what it should be. You’ll get the sense of a conversation across the centuries.”

That, Wallen intends, will be as true of the score as it is of the drama. And she was not at all daunted by following Purcell’s Dido’s Lament, a work which has influenced composers working in every field of music in the centuries since.

“I don’t think of it in terms of being bold. The more I worked on it, it became this wonderful conversation with music of the past. The Lament is possibly the best aria ever written, and it has been sung by singers of all genres because it is so expressive. I have referred to the Lament in other works of mine, and I feel very comfortable exploring it. 

“Composing this opera has taken me to a world where tonality isn’t the same as we know it now, but there are some things that remain in music that are part of the fabric of our emotional understanding, and the descending bass is one of those.

“The way it has worked out is that the two operas intertwine and started to blend into each other. You’ll hear echoes of Purcell’s music from the beginning. Sometimes they are hidden and sometimes more explicit, but I’d like to think that everything has grown out of dramatic necessity.”

Dido’s Ghost is at London’s Barbican on June 6, and Buxton Opera House on July 11, 14 & 17.

Errollyn Wallen at RCS

With a residence in a lighthouse on the North Coast of Scotland and a view to the Orkneys, Belize-born, London-raised Errollyn Wallen has been appointed Visiting Professor of Composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

Wallen, who was appointed a CBE in the New Year Honours at the start of this year, found herself at the centre of some controversy with her instrumental arrangement of Parry’s Jerusalem for this year’s Last Night of the Proms, which she dedicated to the Windrush generation.

She has been working in Glasgow with the RCS String Orchestra and Teresa Riveiro Böhm, RCS Leverhulme Conducting Fellow, on her cello concerto, and will mentor students writing work for Plug, the Conservatoire’s annual festival of new music.

Wallen’s orchestral work The Frame is Part of the Painting was played at the 2019 BBC Proms by the BBC NOW under the baton of Elim Chan, with Scottish mezzo and RCS alumnus Catriona Morison as soloist.The current Principal Conductor of the Welsh orchestra, Ryan Bancroft, is also an RCS graduate and he will conduct her earlier work Mighty River in the RSNO’s current digital season, on January 15.

Image: Errollyn Wallen CBE ©Robert McFadzean