Watch: Interdisciplinary Collaboration Provides Opera with Context and Color

Austen Van Burns '17

The interdisciplinary collaborators, including Austen Van Burns '17, presented a pop-up event called “Between the Notes” in Parrish Parlors that interspersed excerpts from the opera with well-read and witty discussions of the mythology. Photo by Aziz Anderson '17

Students and faculty from the departments of music, art, and classics are joining forces for a seemingly Sisyphusian task: selling a 17th-century opera rooted in Roman mythology to a wide audience.

“It’s a beautiful piece of art, but there’s a lot to process,” Grace Ledbetter, associate professor and department chair of classics and associate professor of philosophy says of the forthcoming Swarthmore production of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas.

Enter five Honors students from the capstone seminar Ledbetter is co-teaching with Associate Professor of Art Patricia Reilly. Immersed in the ancient world that Dido and Aeneas inhabit, the students are suffusing the opera with context and color.

“They’re filling in the background of the iconic mythology,” says Ledbetter. “Once you have that, the opera becomes much more meaningful and enjoyable.”

Lecturer in Music Andrew Hauze ’04 approached Ledbetter with the idea to incorporate classics students in the production. That was fortuitous, since Ledbetter’s Honors students needed a project for which to earn an extra credit.

“It’s been exciting for them, a little beyond the academic norm,” says Ledbetter. “They’re seeing with their own eyes how much classical mythology informs the performing arts of today.”

Last week, the interdisciplinary collaborators presented a pop-up event called “Between the Notes” in Parrish Parlors that interspersed excerpts from the opera with well-read and witty discussions of the mythology.

“We wanted to put works of classical art, the Aeneid, and the opera in conversation,” says Austen Van Burns ’17, an Honors classical studies major from Park City, Utah.

The students created a triptych (an excerpt from the Aeneid in Latin with an English translation, a work of art in the center, and piece of Nahum Tate’s libretto) to be displayed at Between the Notes, and they will hang the posters as stand-alone promotional pieces around campus.

Also generating interest for the opera is a blog the students developed, exploring topics like “Are Dido and Aeneas Married?” and “Weird Sisters: Shakespeare and Opera in the Restoration Era."

“It’s been an exceptionally creative process,” says Ledbetter, “showcasing the students’ various talents and connecting them to their studies.”

“It’s been pretty eye opening to put my classical knowledge to use in an interdisciplinary context,” says Anne Tvetenstrand ’16, Honors classical studies and English literature major from Summit, N.J.

“Most of my work so far has focused on examining classical texts and the sources in the context in which they were created, the ancient world,” she adds. “It’s been an intriguing change of pace to switch my focus to examine how those sources are received post-antiquity.”

It’s also been a crash course in opera. When Ledbetter first asked her students to read the Dido and Aeneas libretto, Van Burns had just one polite question: “What’s a libretto?”

Flash forward a few months, though, and she’s listening to Wagner’s Lohengrin while doing her homework.

“I never would have thought I would spend any time thinking about the opera, but now I have my own interdisciplinary thing going on with opera, ancient and modern history, philosophy, classical art, and German,” says Van Burns. “That’s my biggest takeaway — a whole new interest area to explore that fits the subjects I already love.”

Dido and Aeneas will be performed April 24 and 25 at 7:30 pm in Lang Concert Hall. It is free and open to the public.