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Fiery ‘Dido and Aeneas’ Lights Up The Crucible

By C. Suprynowicz
Friday January 16, 2004

“Virgil struck the chord of modern passions, and it vibrated more powerfully then the minstrel himself expected.” 

John Conington 


The Aeneid was a blockbuster in its day. Virgil wanted it burned at his death, as he hadn’t completed all 12 volumes, but nobody listened. Embraced as the essential epic of the Roman people, The Aeneid resurfaced during the Enlightenment, when it became a hit for the second time. 

There have been more than 60 operas to date inspired by the lover’s tale that twines through the book, but Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas is the one that’s still here. Who knows if it will match the original text for staying power (2000 years is setting the bar pretty high) but The Crucible, with the assistance of the San Francisco Opera and their gifted Adler Fellows, will stage Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas this weekend here in Oakland. Don’t I keep saying you don’t have to leave home? 

The Crucible is a metal shop and sculpture studio—a foundry, to use the old-fashioned term, and a nonprofit, to use a newer one. They offer classes in metal work. This might seem an odd place to put up an opera, and it is. But there’s a connection to Virgil’s story. Dido is queen of Carthage, invested in making the city as productive as she can. In The Crucible’s version, sparks fly in Carthage, and hot metal runs in all directions, a metaphor for Dido’s passion for Aeneas, and the general emotional pitch of things. 

Director Roy Rallo and producer Sturtz have worked hard to make this a compelling production, and the union of their two enterprises promises to be a provocative one. Rallo has done a lot of innovative work as a director with Long Beach Opera, and ruffled some feathers locally with a show he did at the Magic Theater last year (also with SFO’s Adler Fellows). He’s not afraid to take chances, and neither, apparently are his protégés, as there will be cauldrons of boiling metal on hand as the lovers and their entourage let fly with endearments and fury. 

By the way, just to put to rest an obvious concern, I’m told the pyrotechnics take place under a 75-foot ventilation hood: a backdrop for the action.  

Can we digress for just a moment? I’d like to know if you go to the opera. And, if not, why not. There was commentary in the New York Times last week about the astronomical price of tickets to the Metropolitan. Our own San Francisco Opera is not geared to those surviving on a bike messenger’s salary. But somehow I don’t think this gets to the heart of the matter. After all, Rolling Stones tickets get scalped for four figures. 

It seems to me what is more germane is that John Q. Public has almost no exposure to the tradition that is opera, or to our classical music tradition in general (I say “our” tradition because, despite popular misconceptions, there are plenty of American operas). The argument is that if there’s no one around you who is conversant in a particular tongue, there’s not much chance you’ll learn to delight in it. Locally, other than Sarah Cahill’s Sunday night show on KALW, there is a complete vacuum as regards contemporary classical music on the radio dial. And you won’t find out anything by reading People Magazine or watching TV.  

It seems to me that the rise of Clear Channel, Viacom, and Disney has led to what we could call the Diaspora of Western Classical music—a virtual erasing of this cultural legacy. 

This is not dismaying in some abstract, ideological way. It means that hours, days, weeks worth of beautiful, unique music by hundreds of brilliant composers is unavailable except to those that have somehow lucked onto an initiation. For young people, whose notions of hip are often tied to the herd mentality, the problem would seem unassailable (and problem it is: SFO cut its budget by a third last year). Yet the success of Michael Tilson Thomas’ “Mavericks” series with the San Francisco Symphony demonstrates that it doesn’t take a lot of spin to portray composers of modern music as hip. They are. 

Meantime, against all odds, the Oakland Metro and the Berkeley Opera seem to be drawing those with an eye for spectacle and an ear for the new. It will be ironic, and more than a little wonderful, if the East Bay is shaping up to be a haven for this battered art. 

Purcell’s opera is not young, but it is held in high regard, considered the best of Purcell’s stage works, and—by some—the best opera to come out of the 17th century. You can make up your own mind this weekend at The Crucible. 

There’s an opening night Gala on Friday, Jan. 16 (with art auction, champagne, after-show performances by Mark Growden and others), festivities to begin at 6:30 p.m. On Jan. 17 the ticket prices come down, and the show starts at 7:30 p.m. All of this at The Crucible’s 48,000 foot warehouse space in Oakland at 1260 Seventh St. 444-0919. 


Clark Suprynowicz is an opera composer.