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USD Opera Department presents ‘Dido and Aeneas’

Forget New York, California or even Europe. Just stay right here, sit back, relax and enjoy the University of South Dakota Opera Department’s production of “Dido and Aeneas.”

“This is a rare opportunity, especially in the Midwest,” senior Laura Kuschel said. “A lot of people never have the chance to see a full opera. There just aren’t any done around here.”

Since before Christmas break, students and faculty have been preparing for the full-stage production of one of the first and more famous English-only operas of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

This is the first opportunity in a number of years in which a full opera will be staged by the department and the effort has drawn in help from all areas of the Fine Arts program.

Music professor David Holdhusen is directing both the chamber choir and chamber orchestra for the production of “Dido and Aeneas.” Holdhusen said it’s rare to have all the departments – music, theater and art – working together on a single production.

“We’re going to get a very high-quality production, one that is really something that we haven’t seen, at least in my time at USD, from the opera,” Holdhusen said. “It’s a unique opportunity that could not have been done without all those parts working together.”

The opera, composed by Henry Purcell, is best known for the aria “When I am Laid In Earth” or “Dido’s Lament.” It is based upon Book IV of Virgil’s “Aeneid,” which primarily tells the love tale of Trojan noble Aeneas and Dido, the queen of Carthage, though Saturday’s production will take a darker look at the ancient story.

Kuschel, who will portray the Sorceress in the opera, said USD’s version takes a bleaker look at what is generally advertised as simply a tragic love story. She said USD’s reading of the opera includes the story of how the Sorceress and Aeneas were actually lovers before Aeneas left the sorceress for Dido.

“So now I’m just out for revenge and I can’t wait to, well I don’t kill Dido, I make her kill herself,” Kuschel said.

First-year graduate student Natalie Campbell will portray Dido for Saturday’s performance. She said her character is conflicted with emotions and feelings over her first husband, who left her a widow, and her love for Aeneas.

“I can relate to maybe problems with relationships and betrayal, trust issues,” she said. “I don’t ever see myself committing suicide because a guy leaves me.”

Junior Cody Perk, who portrays Aeneas for the opera, said the darker theme of the opera gives it a new human versus historical, perspective. For his character, Perk said the theme really changes the way he looks at his character.

“Aeneas was involved with the sorceress and then he leaves her and it makes him the bad guy as well as her,” he said. “It gives me a whole new perspective on my character. Toward the end of rehearsal, I find myself thinking, ‘I hate this guy.’”

What makes this particular opera unique, in addition to its all-English script, is both the length and the medium of entertainment it provides.

First-year graduate student Laura Bertschinger, who portrays Belinda, Dido’s sister and handmaiden, said the opera is much shorter than typical operas which can run up to three hours long.

“For the audience, you want to make sure it would be easy to understand,” she said. “It’s also very easy to get in touch with as an audience member.”

Operas also provide a chance for audiences to experience a variety of art forms, from the set, to the music, to the dancing.

“This is a great opportunity for people to see something of this caliber,” Bertschinger said. “It’s not every day that you get to see or get to go to the opera or have a night to go out to the opera. It’s going to be a learning experience for those of us on stage as well as for the audience.”

Reach reporter Josie Clarey at [email protected].