Home Archives Sections Business Directory ForumContact Us 

Contributor: Juwon Ogungbe
Dido & Aeneas

One of the highlights of 1995 for black arts in the UK has to be the new production of Purcell?s Opera ?Dido and Aeneas? by Ariya, Britain?s leading black opera company.
Purcell was and probably still is Britain?s greatest composer. He lived on the cusp of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and died three hundred years ago. The mainstream music establishment has marked the tercentenary of his death by mounting several productions and concert programmes of his work. Ariya?s production is a revival of a production staged by Sola Oyeleye when she lead Black Swan - Britain?s first black opera company - two years ago.
I met Sola Oyeleye. Ariya?s artistic director for a chat during a rehearsal just a few days before the opening night. Managing a company of thirty- three performers on a shoe- string budget is no mean feat and she has had to use all her not inconsiderable resources to keep going.
What attracted Sola to Dido? ?The opera is set in Africa and it occurred to me that it would be interesting to produce it within a real African setting, marrying the music style and expression of the baroque era in Europe to the equivalent African arts. At that time African culture was very fluid. I wanted to hear a piece sung by Black classical singers who could bring something of themselves to it. As a result of the last production, several of our principal singers have found work with major opera groups so this means that they are unavailable for this new production. The new company is more racially mixed than before.?
In the world of musical theatre there is a growing number of critics who suggest that opera as an art form still hasn?t moved into the twentieth century. It is a fact that the bulk majority of opera fans are attracted to operas from the time of Mozart up until the end of the nineteenth century.
What message does Sola think ?Dido and Aeneas? has for a 1990?s audience? ?The story should remind people how close Greece was to Africa. North Africa was the administrative centre of the mediterranean at that point in time and in some ways, the world was smaller. The story is African in origin. It was then translated into Greek mythology and eventually set by Purcell to English barque music. By setting this production in its original habitat we are bringing things round full cycle, thus enriching the piece?
In its nation of origin - Italy - opera as we know it today is a popular art form, singers who use what is described as the Belcanto (beautiful singing) technique such as Maria Callas, Jessye Norman and Luciano Pavarotti are ten a penny in Italy, However, in the UK, opera is regarded as elitist, hence the complaints of the tabloid press when a historic national building such as the Royal Opera House is given substantial funds for renovation itself. What does the opera have to give Black British audiences? According to Sola ?Part of the work of our company is to present the diversity of our talents. Many of our singers are equally at home with Jazz, blues, soul or gospel. Many African cultures have strong music drama traditions. What we aim to show is a wider range of possibilities for Black people. Several of my friends who saw the last production were seeing a live opera performance for the first time ever and they want to see and hear more, so we are creating a new audience for opera generally. I would like to present opera in venues which are not primarily opera houses and hopefully through this accessibility attract new audiences.?
Even though singers such as Willard White are recognised as major international opera stars, it is still an uphill struggle for many young black classical singers to get much needed experience of singing principal roles and building their repertoire. What are the prospects for Black classical singers in the UK?
In Sola?s view, ?prospects are good for singers. It?s all to do with control and who decides (who does the work). Employers in the UK have a tendency to look for singers outside the UK rather than within. Ariya has a role to play in making it possible for singers to be noticed.? The company also runs workshops and master classes where singers have the chance to work on their technique with more experienced professionals.
One remarkable example of Ariya?s work in providing opportunities for singers is that of Gwen Sampe, the African- American singer. Gwen comes from a jazz, gospel and blues background and has a special interest in what is described as free jazz. Some months ago Ariya presented an evening of song and poetry which featured mainly classical singers. Gwen gave a performance in her own inimitable style and brought the house down. She received a standing ovation. She is now performing in ?Dido and Aeneas?
For her, as a singer with a very different technique to opera singers, the experience has been an eye opener. ?I?m having to use a type of voice which I don?t use very often. Now when I use this area of my voice, I feel a lot more comfortable than before.?
Would she regard this experience as a ?vocal breakthrough?? ?yes?. And would she be interested in singing other operatic roles? ?I would sing other roles just for the challenge (Gwen sat in on rehearsals which she wasn?t part of to learn more about this principal approach to singing). ?I realised that opera as an art form is a lot more feasible than I previously thought.
I asked Sola about her ultimate vision for the company. ?Ariya will work with international composers. We will work with musicians and composers of African descent on both concert and music drama thus creating a new repertoire. Opera means combining all artforms and we hope to use performers in a multi disciplinary way. With this production, the process has been creative and stimulating for the performers. With opera, people sometimes get disconnected from their spiritual selves. We aim to give people opportunities to do this work and bring of themselves to the work.
© 2004. All Rights Reserved