Rustic opera moved to Wesley Foundation

Rustic opera moved to Wesley Foundation

Editor's note: Due to advance sales and interest in this production, the venue has been changed from the historic round barn on the University of Illinois campus to the Great Hall of the Wesley Church and Foundation, 1203 W. Green St., U.,

URBANA — For some time, dancer-choreographer Philip Johnston has been enamored of the round barns on the south side of the University of Illinois campus..

He calls the inside of the western-most one along St. Mary's Road an incredible space.

"There's something quite magical — the dome, the sound, the location," said the Belfast native in an accent that has you feeling the magic as well.

So when Chester "Chet" Alwes, musical director of the Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana (BACH) asked Johnston to direct and choreograph the Baroque opera "Dido and Aeneas," Johnston had one of the round barns in mind as the venue.

"We trudged out here over the summer," Johnston recalled. "They kind of looked at it, and I started to make inquiries with Facilities and Services as to what was possible and was not possible."

The upshot:

Inside the historic round barn Sunday evening (May 25), BACH will present  a complete, staged production of "Dido and Aeneas." The opera will feature six principal singers, a small orchestra, a chorus and four dancers.

Soprano Alexandra Nowakowski sings the role of Dido. This spring, the UI senior vocal performance major was a co-winner of the Krannert Center Debut Artist award. She's received other honors as well.

BACH's version of "Dido and Aeneas," first performed in 1689, will be set in the Baroque era, with two stages inside the barn visible to two areas of seating. The dancers will move in the round.

Because the story is dark, the many windows of the barn will be blacked out; there will be lighting projections.

Christopher Carl, who has a UI master's degree in landscape architecture, is the set designer. Despite the rustic setting, Carl aims for a Baroque sensibility as he uses natural materials to build a throne section and a sacred grove.

And he's brought in 150 bales of straw.

"I'm trying to find some interesting ways to stack bales of straw," Carl joked Thursday at the barn.

The bales will be part of the set — not seats. Audience members will instead sit on seats set up inside the barn. Alwes and Johnston expect 150 people.

Because the three-act opera is only 55 minutes long, the musicians will perform three pieces beforehand: two string fantasias by Purcell and a suite of guitar airs by Nicola Matteis, a composer and the earliest notable Italian Baroque violinist in London.

"Dido and Aeneas" is Purcell's only true opera or dramma per musica, meaning everything including the dialogue is sung.

Alwes gives this summary:

"Drawn from the Fourth Book of Virgil's 'Aeneid' and crafted into an operatic libretto by Nahum Tate, the story recounts a doomed romantic encounter between Dido, the queen of Carthage, and Aeneas, hero of the Trojan War, whose return home, obstructed by the gods, tests his perseverance and his resolve to return to the city of Rome, which according to legend he had founded.

"The flirtation with Dido constitutes yet another distraction on his journey. The principal characters are Dido, Aeneas and Dido's lady-in-waiting, Belinda. In addition, the librettist's introduction of a Sorceress and her cohorts represent a dramatic alteration of Virgil's epic and an opportunity for some comic relief."

Tenor Benjamin Krumreig will sing the role of Aeneas; soprano Anastaia Malliaras, Belinda; and mezzo soprano Cynthia Bauder, the Sorceress. Perla Robertson and Sarah Robinson will portray the two witches.

Johnston, a lecturer since 1983 in the UI Department of Dance and an expert in Baroque dance, recruited and trained the four dancers.

He also applied for and received a $5,000 Creative Research Grant from the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts to help pay for the production.

"He was absolutely the perfect person to make this unique blend of dance and drama come to life in perhaps the least likely, but absolutely intriguing of venues," Alwes said.

"Indeed, the rustic simplicity of this setting has served as a catalyst for joining together the musical resources of BACH with the essential elements of dance and drama in a truly collaborative enterprise."

Johnston hopes the collaborative event does more than entertain and enlighten, though.

He hopes it spurs the university to consider further uses for the round barns, which are on the National Register of Historic Places.

They stand on one of the highest points in Champaign-Urbana; over the last century, because of their shape, they have withstood strong winds.

"Obviously, you can't winterize it," Johnston said Thursday as a cold wind whipped around and through the barn. "But there are several months of the year when it could be used for performances and classes."

In fact, Johnston, who a few years ago staged a dance performance inside the barn, has proposed to teach a class next spring, partly inside the barn, for landscape architecture students and dance students.

If you go

What: The Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana, conducted by musical director Chester "Chet" Alwes, will present Henry Purcell's opera "Dido and Aeneas," with four dancers; direction and choreography by Philip Johnston.

When: 7:30 p.m. May 25.

Where: Great Hall, Wesley Church and Foundation, 1203 W. Green St., U.

Tickets: $20 for adults and $10 for students. Available in advance at and at the door. Seating is limited; BACH recommends buying or reserving tickets beforehand via the website.

Note: An ice-cream social will take place starting at 6:45 p.m., before the opera.

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