Dido and Belinda is the first show from Opera Q and Cor Unum Ensemble. It’s a reimagining of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas from Belinda’s perspective and with a decidedly gender fluid twist. Nathum Tate’s libretto is extended by spoken passages which give Belinda’s take on the story and make it very much a story of the two sisters. The back story is Dido’s flight from Tyre rather than Aeneas’ flight from Troy. The future is about Belinda as Queen of Carthage not Aeneas’ “promised Empire”. It works pretty well though I have reservations about interpolating text in the final scene. I think Belinda’s accession as Dido’s successor could have been conveyed without interrupting some of the most sublime music ever composed. That’s a minor quibble though in a story concept that works.
I met yesterday with Ryan McDonald and Camille Rogers to discuss their new project, OperaQ, and its upcoming show Dido and Belinda. The driving idea is that opera needs a space for “queer people to tell queer stories to queer people”. Now I’m sure many peopl’s initial reaction would be close to mine along the lines of “surely there’s no shortage of gay people in the opera world?”; which is ,of course, true but not really the point. Gender presentation in opera is highly conventional, both on and off the stage. There are strong stereotypes about “masculine” heroes. Can an overtly gay man get cast as Otello (or even Hadrian)? There are equally strong stereotypes about how female singers should present. Everybody is supposed to be glamorous à la Maria Callas, an attitude that was brilliantly taken apart in Teiya Kasahara’s Queer of the Night. Transgender issues add another layer onto this where, paradoxically perhaps, operas traditions of cross dressing confine rather than create space for transgender expression. So, opera, lots of queers but not much queerness?