Composer Errollyn Wallen discusses Dido’s Ghost

Composer Errollyn Wallen has been discussing her latest opera Dido’s Ghost, in an interview with retired BBC broadcaster Gerry Northam.

It is being performed at Buxton Opera House on Sun 11 July, Wed 14 and Sat 17 July at 7.15pm. Book seats here.

  • Can you remember when you first heard Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas and what you made of it then?

I came across Dido’s Lament first and I’ve been obsessed with it since I was 13 years old. When I later wrote songs I realised that the Lament is one of the most complete, artful and masterful arias ever written which, with its economy, conveys the deepest emotion. This music had a massive impact on me when I first heard a recording by Janet Baker.

  • So what went through your mind when you were asked to compose a work around Purcell’s opera?

The original idea came about ten years ago and it was to compose a companion piece for Dido and Aeneas. But soon we decided to weave the two works together into the same world and that was very appealing to me.

I have written several pieces where I meditate on another composer’s work (Concerto Grosso, Spirit Symphony, Louis’ Loops, The Girl in My Alphabet). Working with music of other times opens up the most wonderful compositional conversations and, for me, illuminates the work of the composer like nothing else. I find I can get very close to another composer this way.

The original score of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is missing and I understand now how opera scholars will continue for hundreds of years talking about the relationship between the libretto and the score and the differences between the final libretto and the musical score. In my own case, setting a libretto to music means that there are lots of adjustments, repetitions and many small changes to the text because of how words sound when sung and because of practical dramaturgical demands which become most clear when composing. In each step of the journey of an opera — from concept, to page, to rehearsal, then to the stage there are many adjustments being made, which continue with each production of the opera. Those changes don’t often make it back to the libretto and if they did the libretto might even look strange. It would be wonderful to have the original score of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to see firsthand what decisions and changes he made.

  • You said you like a challenge. Have you been at any point over- awed?

Not over-awed but I always ask “have I done enough? Have I considered every aspect?”. There is so much to take care of when composing an opera and you have to be aware of all the threads you are unravelling and have to decide which to tie up and which to keep floating in the air. I always dive optimistically into an opera but in successive drafts there always comes a point where I have to take myself to task and remind myself that the crucial point is to bring the characters and situation to life and to make the emotional and psychological journey absolutely clear. That is easier said than done. Dido’s Ghost must both the continue and illuminate Purcell’s opera. In each opera it is for me to find the truth and the logic specific to that particular world.

Purcell’s work is constructed very differently to mine, it proceeds in formal closed numbers, many of which have repeated sections and  through which emerges a unique musical voice which, centuries later, we are still moved by. My opera has a variety of forms some of which are inspired by Purcell and some of which are purely my own. I try to burst through the printed score and imagine Purcell sitting down, absorbing and reacting to the words of Nahum Tate. There are so many enchanting surprises.

  • Have you tried to compose in contrast to his baroque style or do you incorporate baroque elements into your writing?

It’s interesting how composing this opera has revealed to me how indebted I am to the baroque anyway – the power of the bass lines, the love of triads – but what I have brought to it is modern dissonance.  Several moments pre-echo the Purcell and in a duet with Dido’s ghost and Aeneas I consciously blur and blend both musical languages. Then at other times my music is in stark contrast to Purcell, particularly when I push the wildness of extreme psychological states.  Librettist Wesley Stace and I have given Aeneas a lot more to sing than he has in the Purcell. Our new opera provides the opportunity for Aeneas to look back on his past and to confront the consequences of his actions as both a mortal and as a prisoner of fate. At its heart this new opera, Dido’s Ghost, through combining the old with the new, speaks to the timeless, universal emotions of monumental love, loss and sorrow.

  • How does writing for period instruments compare with what you have usually composed?

It is different. The majority of my music is conceived for big fat modern sounds with plenty of vibrato in my string writing, so this opera provided me with more unusual textures to consider before starting composing. However this isn’t the first time of composing for Dunedin Consort. Comfort Me with Apples was a commission for voices and ensemble. Matthew Brook sang the solo baritone part in that work and I’m thrilled that he is singing the part of Aeneas in Dido’s Ghost because I can return to the sound of his expressive, rich voice.  I have added electric bass guitar and percussion to the ensemble. The bass guitar, performed by the inimitable Tim Harries, provides a soundscape — not just rock’n’roll. It is very important to me to allude to the sound of North Africa, Dido’s world, and, at times, to convey  a sense of the dreamworld. I have included a pair of hand pans, instruments rarely encountered in classical music. I believe the combination of instruments I’ve chosen brings forth fascinating new textures.

  • The range of your compositions is wide, so where are you happiest as a composer?

I think I am happiest when I’m trying something new — and making life difficult for myself! I relish composing instrumental music but I do have an innate dramatic instinct and what I love about composing operas is that this collaborative form combines every artistic and technical skill. Composing an opera forces a composer to dig deeply into so many areas of life’s experiences. I am truly blessed to be working with this team on Dido’s Ghost and we are all delighted to bringing this new opera to Buxton International Festival.