It’s quite the sideways leap: from champion of new Australian theatre writing to director of an English baroque opera that saw that first saw the light in 1689.

For nearly a decade, Lucy Clements has been one of the prime movers in Sydney’s independent theatre scene. She founded New Ghosts Theatre Company in 2015, which has since produced well-received productions in Sydney ever since. She also created the IGNITE Collective in 2019, formed with the mission of putting new women-driven stories on Australian stages.

Last year, Clements was announced as the Artistic Director of the Old Fitzroy Theatre, one of the country’s most important crucibles of emerging theatre talent. Now, she’s directing Pinchgut Opera‘s upcoming production of Purcell’s Dido & Aeneas.

So, why the leap into a work more than 300 years old?

Lucy Clements (right) and Sara Macliver in rehearsal. Photo © Adam Grubner

“The whole reason I love doing new work is that I’m really passionate about the storytelling,” Clements tells Limelight. “I love to bring a new story to the stage and do it in a way that I believe tells that story in the best and clearest way. I’m approaching Dido & Aeneas in exactly the same way I would a new work. Really, it’s the only way I know.”

At first glance, says Clements, the libretto struck her as skimpy compared to what she was accustomed to receiving in a stage play. “Basically, it’s only one chapter from a woman’s life. She enters and she’s depressed. You don’t really understand why she’s depressed, but she’s complaining a lot. Then she falls in love and later kills herself. That’s it in a nutshell.”

In order to fill in some of the blanks, Clements went back to the source material: Book IV of Virgil’s Aeneid. “As a director, I love that research process, the going back into older stories to find out more about who this woman is.”

Dido & Aeneas is the star-crossed love story of the Trojan hero Aeneas and Queen Dido, the founder of the North African city of Carthage. Allegorical according to some experts (who read in it parallels to British monarchs of the era), the story and parts of the text are drawn from an earlier play by Purcell’s librettist Nahum Tate (his The Enchanted Lovers of 1678) as well as Virgil’s poem.

After her immersion in research, Clements says she’s come out the other side impressed by Dido. “I don’t think Virgil gave her anything like the respect she deserved.”

David Greco and Valda Wilson in rehearsal. Photo © Adam Grubner

One of the earliest known English operas, Dido & Aeneas is Purcell’s only true opera. Today it’s best known as the source of Dido’s Lament, an aria frequently performed by artists outside of the operatic tradition, such as Klaus Nomi, Jeff Buckley and Annie Lennox. To this day, it is played by a military band at the annual Cenotaph remembrance ceremony in London’s Whitehall. It was also featured in the final season of the hit HBO series The White Lotus.

After it was first performed, Dido & Aeneas fell into obscurity, vanishing from stages until 1895 in part because much of the original music, its entire prologue and many dances were lost. When a new critical editions of the score appeared relatively recently, and with the revival of interest in Baroque music, the opera has found favour once again.

Pinchgut’s new production, which opens at the City Recital Hall on 30 May, stars soprano Valda Wilson as Dido, David Greco as Aeneas with Kanen Breen and Sara Macliver in supporting roles and Erin Helyard conducting. It also feature a new prologue commissioned from Australian playwright and actor Kate Mulvany, who describes her input as “a deep diva dive” into Dido’s life.

“What I found,” Mulvany says, “was an extraordinary life of love and loss and legacy and extreme bravery from this refugee queen.” The prologue, she says, will be spoken by the character of the Sorceress, played by Kanen Breen.

Kanen Breen, Olivia Payne and Valda Wilson in rehearsal. Photo © Adam Grubner

As Baroque operas go, Clements notes, Dido & Aeneas is a short one. Audiences expect to be in and out in under 80 minutes. “Usually they’re three hours and in Italian,” she laughs. “It really is a gift for a theatre director who is dipping her toes in the world of opera for the first time.”

What will that world look like? During their research, both Clements and Mulvany were drawn to the fact that the world in which the opera was composed had recently undergone a massive upheaval in the form of the explosion of Mt Etna in 1669, the largest eruption of that volcano recorded to date. Reports of the calamity were the talk of the taverns and coffee houses of Europe and Purcell and librettist Tate would have certainly heard all about it.

“It must have seemed a really elemental time, they could see that the world could suddenly change,” says Clements. “So we have images of ash, of molten lava running through this production as a contrast with the images of the court, which is all very architectural and orderly, very man-made.”

Clements says she’s against the drawing of modern day parallels. “When I first got into the text it was a real challenge to imagine it set in any kind of contemporary world, so I decided to not try to re-contextualise Dido in a modern setting, to make her a 21st century politician or something like that. It’s too reductive. In the end, I think her’s is a story that is and should feel timeless.”

Pinchgut Opera’s Dido & Aeneas plays at the City Recital Hall, Sydney, 30 May–3 June.

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