Return of the Opera: Dido and Aeneas

By Javier Burdette

After a five-year hiatus, opera finally made an appearance at UCI last weekend. Winifred Smith Hall, home to all kinds of theatrical and musical productions, opened its doors Friday and Saturday night for a performance of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas” directed by Professor Darryl Taylor.

UCI students are well aware of the school’s reputation: Irvine is a STEM school. That’s what we’re good at. But less well-known, we’ve also got killer dance teams, a penchant for boba and a colorful arts scene.

To say that the arts don’t get enough love at Irvine is something of an overstatement. Anyone will tell you that their student email accounts are constantly being bombarded by promotions for the plethora of arts-centric events that are put on every week. Ring Road is equally littered with promotional paraphernalia.

However, every once in awhile something slips through the cracks. That’s exactly what happened to opera at Claire Trevor. It’s safe to say the average student doesn’t even know Irvine has an opera program, probably due to the fact that the program went underground for half a decade.

At no point during this period did the opera program actually go out of existence, but lack of funding meant opera had to be put on in the “concert style,” which Taylor describes as, “performed with orchestra, but with no sets, or costumes, and minimal stage direction.”

A number of successful performances were put on despite the lack of support, but “Dido and Aeneas” is the first opera that has received proper treatment on a UCI stage in quite some time. But thanks to the efforts of Taylor and music department chair Dr. Michael Dessen, fresh life has been breathed into the program.

“We were determined that we were going to do something,” said Taylor.

Friday’s show started up with some of the creaks and groans characteristic of a machine that hasn’t been operational for a while. Due to the lack of an orchestra pit, the sextet providing the music for the play were forced to cram in front of the stage, and an error during the ticket process forced several attendees to sit in musicians’ spots.

Luckily, there were enough seats left empty for the patrons to disseminate into the crowd. One woman commented in passing that she was relieved she wouldn’t be spending an hour and a half face-to-face with a string instrument.

Later in the show, the lack of resources was painfully apparent when Aeneas, played by Elias Berezin, made a grand entrance by walking down the same aisle everyone else had used to access their seats. It added an interesting layer of audience interaction, but the look of confusion that swept the crowd when the source of his booming voice resounded from the top of the staircase was priceless.

The lack of room onstage was later put to ingenious use when the singers on stage were echoed by several others positioned just outside the doors in a call-and-answer style.

The tale of Dido and Aeneas is one of those myths that’s a little less well-known. But really, it’s just your good ol’, classic girl reluctantly falls for guy, guy gets tricked by witch and is tasked with founding Troy, girl commits suicide despite his willingness to defy the will of the gods, story —  the stuff of romantic comedies.

Despite the many obstacles, the singers, dancers and musicians involved, managed to tell the story quite compellingly. Winifred Smith Hall isn’t exactly characterized by grandeur, but once the twangy harpsichord music and baroque vocals started up, it all came together. Let’s hope this means we’ll be seeing more operas at UCI in the future.