Katie Mitchell explains to Henrietta Bredin how she is creating a parallel film world with Purcell’s opera
It is 350 years since Henry Purcell was born and his music is, gloriously, being played and sung all around the country. And there are a lot of different Didos about: Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage at the National Theatre; Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas pretty much all day on BBC Radio Three a couple of weekends ago; at the Royal Opera House in a joint venture by the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet directed and choreographed by Wayne McGregor (see review page 38); and, in another joint venture, by English National Opera and the Young Vic, as After Dido, directed by Katie Mitchell.
Gerard Manley Hopkins rhymes Purcell with rehearsal but I don’t think he could have imagined the space in which I meet Katie Mitchell during a break in the sixth week of a seven-week preparation period. There are banks of video and sound recording equipment and, fitted in like pieces of a jigsaw, three miniature film sets — a kitchen, a bedroom and a study with slatted blinds.
Smiling seraphically, a still point in the midst of all this, Mitchell explains that the idea for After Dido came about when ENO’s artistic director, John Berry, contacted her after seeing her production of The Waves in 2006. She had used live film and sound to reflect the way in which, in Virginia Woolf’s novel, key moments are captured in a series of recurring images. ‘He initiated a conversation about whether there might be a way of using some of those techniques in the presentation of an opera. That was a wonderfully brave and experimental gesture and, when I thought about it, the first piece that came to my mind was Dido.’
Knowing that Mitchell loves dance and often includes it in her theatre work, most recently in Euripides’ The Trojan Women (Hecuba, Andromache et al fabulously glamorous in ballgowns, dancing on the edge of extinction), I have brought her a copy of Gustav Holst’s gentle and perceptive remarks about ‘the joy of moving to Purcell’s music’. She reads with intent concentration then looks up and laughs. ‘That’s wonderful but there’s not actually much dance in this production. We do have one dance, a tiny one, and we were going to have much more but there’s a technical problem when you’re working with live film, a time lag which means you can’t precisely synchronise action with music. If I wanted to show a filmed close-up of hands, tapping a rhythm to the live music that’s being performed, by the time it hit the screen it would be out of synch. So we haven’t been able to do that.’
But I feel as if I am dancing with Mitchell now, or that she is dancing me around the subject, in a supremely courteous and graceful fashion, trying to be precise about her work but not wanting to reveal too much before the event. As I ask her about the opera, about Dido’s predicament, her raw anguish in abandonment, she takes a deep breath. ‘We don’t ever present the opera as a staged piece. What the audience will witness is the piece being played and sung as if it was a concert, but one of those amazing concerts when all the psychology and motivation is there in the singing but without the action. Simultaneously with that there are three stories of people living in London now, in 2009, who turn on the radio to listen to a live broadcast of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Each of them needs solace in one way or another and we see how music in our private lives can help and heal. It’s a piece about listening to music, about the power of music. And the performers film those stories as they unfold.’
The performers are filming? ‘Yes. Everything’s generated live. They’re singing, creating sound effects, moving cameras and lights. What they’re doing is astonishing, because of the complexity and the concentration. They have to deliver the score perfectly, with enormously high musical quality, and at the same time generate a sustained film edit of over an hour.’
This is clearly a challenge for all those concerned and could not be managed without creating an atmosphere of unquestioning trust and collaboration. Susan Bickley, who is singing Dido, says, ‘Those are the exact two words I would use to sum up this process. Trust and collaboration. It’s incredibly demanding and it requires exceptional levels of goodwill, but we’ve had that. We’ve all been looking after each other and I’ve noticed that, if anyone comes in at the beginning of the day feeling out of sorts or not quite on form, other people cushion them, try to make things easier. And that’s just as well, because none of us has ever done anything like this before. We’re running quite big sections now, trying to put it all together, and it’s like being in a dream world. Everyone moving silently, cables everywhere, stepping over them, ducking under them — sometimes it’s a relief to start singing because then I know I don’t have to move as well!
‘In the parallel film world,’ Mitchell continues to explain, ‘we’ve tried to create characters that speak to different aspects of Dido. Dido has just lost her husband, so one of our characters from 2009 has just lost hers; Dido committed suicide, so one of the contemporary characters is contemplating suicide; and the final two characters are in a marriage that’s breaking up in the same way as Dido and Aeneas’ relationship breaks up.’
This technique will create a multi-layered, intriguingly fragmented piece for audiences to focus on. ‘What came as a complete revelation to me when I started working on this was that the opera is broken, like a vase — there are missing pieces. We’re missing a prologue, two sections right in the middle, at the end of act two, and we’re missing an epilogue. If Purcell had written all the music it wouldn’t have been the short, concentrated piece that we’re used to, that we find so powerful; it would have been considerably longer. If you look at the text for the prologue alone, that would have been at least 20 minutes, maybe half-an-hour of music. That’s given us an opportunity — there are gaps for us to slip into. And we’re doing that with the guidance of the conductor, Christian Curnyn, making sure that the interpolations are made very sensitively so that they support the existing musical structures.’
Katie Mitchell, seen by many as a lone auteur, an interventionist, uses the word ‘we’ with great frequency. She is, in fact, a team-player, someone who has established a group of creative collaborators with whom she works on a regular basis. As a result, she offers a working environment in which performers can, thrillingly, feel supported and free both to take and relish artistic risks.
After Dido is at the Young Vic from 15 April. Box Office: 020 7922 2922.