By Kristina Mast
The Goshen College theater department’s “Loyalty, Love and Loss” season will draw to a close with the spring opera double-bill of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” and Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Old Maid and the Thief,” directed by Deb Brubaker, professor of music, and Scott Hochstetler, assistant professor of music. Both operas are in English, but they were written almost three hundred years apart from each other.
“Dido and Aeneas” is one of the earliest English operas to be written. The story comes from Virgil’s “Aeneid,” a Roman first-century epic poem that tells the story of Aeneas, a hero from Troy, and his travels and adventures. Dido, played by Stephanie Hollenberg, a junior, is the recently-widowed queen of Carthage (a city in modern-day Tunisia) where Aeneas, played by Scott Kempf, a senior, stops during his travels. She and Aeneas fall in love, but there is an evil sorceress who wishes to hurt Dido. The sorceress appears before Aeneas disguised as the god Mercury, commanding him to continue his travels and leave Dido. Dido reacts poorly to Aeneas’ plans to leave, ultimately resulting in a tragic ending.
Hollenberg described Dido as a complicated character with high expectations and a strong sense of queenly duty to her people.
“She can’t have what a normal person might have,” she said. “Part of it is that she’s still grieving and processing the death of her husband.”
Brubaker was drawn to “Dido and Aeneas” because of the simplicity of the Baroque-style music. It also provided an opportunity for many more voices to be involved because of the important role of the chorus. The chorus plays the roles of Dido’s courtiers, Aeneas’ sailors, and the enchantress’ witches.
“The Old Maid and the Thief” was written in 1939 as a radio show. It is the story of Miss Todd, a lonely old woman who takes in Bob, a wandering beggar because he is an attractive young man. Miss Todd, played by Andrea Detweiler, a junior, begins to sacrifice her strict ideals in order to keep Bob, played by Martin Brubaker, a senior, around. When she runs out of money to bribe him to stay, she begins stealing it from her neighbors.
Deb Brubaker decided to stage “The Old Maid and the Thief” as a radio show, creating a play-within-a-play element to the show. Brubaker added five new non-singing characters and created a somewhat improvised script to accompany the opera. These characters—an accompanist, stage manager, two agents, and a sound effects man—create more interest onstage and create new dynamics between the singing characters.
Detweiler found the process of creating two characters—Miss Todd and the opera star who sings Miss Todd’s part—challenging.
“While the music was difficult, I actually had more trouble with my stage personality,” she said.
Her opera star character reflects Miss Todd’s situation as an “aging diva.” She and Amy Hansen’s character, who also portrays town gossip Miss Pinkerton, have an onstage rivalry.
The music for “The Old Maid and the Thief” is extremely difficult.
“I’ve been actively learning this opera since the beginning of December,” said Detweiler. Even now, during dress rehearsals a week before opening night, people are still occasionally missing lines, she said.
Considering the difficulty of the music, Brubaker said she is very proud of the singers for their work. “We’re very lucky to have musicians who have been able to pick it up and roll with it,” she said.
Not sure what to expect with an opera? Brubaker said it’s OK to do your research and read a synopsis beforehand. Knowing the basic storyline will help you understand what’s going on, she said.
“Get yourself committed to it before you go. It makes it so much richer,” she said. “Find a character or two in the opera to identify with.”
The operas open this Friday, April 8 in Umble Center and close next weekend. Performances are April 8, 9, and 16 at 7:30 p.m. and April 10 and 17 at 3 p.m. Tickets are $10, $7 for seniors, and $5 for students and are available at the Welcome Center or at the door.