The opera Dido and Aeneas was written in the 1680s by English composer Henry Purcell. The libretto — the text for the opera — was written by the playwright Nahum Tate.
The story comes from Greek and Roman mythology, in particular the Aeneid, an epic poem written by the Roman poet Virgil around 20 BCE.
Because it’s an opera, all of the text is sung by the main characters and the chorus. The chorus can act as various characters, or they can comment on the action more impartially.
We don’t know exactly when Dido and Aeneas was written, or when it was first performed. The first recorded performance took place at a girls’ school in London around 1688. However, it’s possible that the opera had been performed previously at the English court, for either King Charles II or King James II.
Because we don’t have an autograph score (the original score as written out by the composer) today there are many re-constructed versions of Dido and Aeneas—but no one knows exactly what the first performance might have been like.
This gives musicians and directors a certain amount of freedom to make decisions about how they will present Dido and Aeneas — which is exactly why we chose it for our first project!
In the Baroque era (1600-1750) composers often used two different groupings of instruments, known as the continuo group and the orchestra. You might be familiar with the orchestra, which is made up of string instruments including violins, viola, and cello, and sometimes wind instruments like oboes and bassoons.
Baroque composers also used a smaller group of instruments called the continuo. This group includes plucked instruments like lute, guitar, or theorbo, keyboard instruments like harpsichord or organ, and usually a bass instrument such as a cello. This smaller group usually plays when just one soloist is singing, so their voice doesn’t have to work as hard to project. Because the continuo group is smaller, it is also easier for them to follow the singer as they express the words, giving the singer more freedom in their dramatic interpretation.
There may be some instruments at the performance which you have never seen before. Feel free to talk to the players after the show if you have any questions! Here’s a short explanation of two of those instruments:
The harpsichord is a historical keyboard instrument, an ancestor of the modern piano. But unlike a piano, which sounds when a hammer strikes a string, the harpsichord uses tiny hooks called plectra to pluck the strings. This is what gives a harpsichord its distinctive sound, in some ways similar to a guitar or a harp.
The theorbo is a relative of the lute and the guitar, but it has more strings and a much longer neck, which allows for a larger range including lower notes. If you want to learn more about the theorbo, here’s a great video:
The next few sections will tell you everything you need to know about the story of Dido and Aeneas — not just what happens during the opera, but also the mythological background, so you know what happened before the plot of the opera begins.
We recommend reading the sections on mythology before watching the opera — in the 1600s, when the opera was written, most audiences would have been familiar with Greek and Roman mythology, as well as Virgil’s Aeneid. So, the playwright didn’t feel the need to include very much background in the opera itself.
As for the summary, that’s up to you — if you want to know what will happen in the opera before you see it, read up! But if you would rather be surprised, feel free to stop after section #2.
1) Mythology: Before Carthage
2) Mythology: After Carthage
3) Synopsis: Act I, Scene 1—The Palace
4) Synopsis: Act II, Scene 1—The Witches’ Cave
5) Synopsis: Act II, Scene 2—The Grove
6) Synopsis: Act III, Scene 1—The Harbour
7) Synopsis: Act III, Scene 2—The Palace
When she was young, Queen Dido was known as Princess Elissa of Tyre — this is why she is sometimes referred to in the opera as Elissa. She was married to Sychaeus, the high priest of Jupiter, king of the Roman gods.
When Dido’s father died, he wanted his two eldest children, Dido and her brother Pygmalion, to rule Tyre together. But Pygmalion staged a coup and took control of the throne all for himself. He also had Dido’s husband Sychaeus assasinated, because he was too powerful an enemy.
Dido was forced to flee her homeland of Tyre with a few loyal supporters, including her younger sister Belinda. This was when she took the name Dido, which means “wanderer”. She also took a vow of chastity, swearing to never remarry and to remain faithful to her deceased husband.
After travelling for many months, Dido and her followers landed on the shores of Libya. Through her charm and wits, she was able to convince the king of these lands, Iarbas, to grant her and her people some land on a hill overlooking the sea. On this land, Dido and her people founded the city of Carthage, of which Dido became queen. Years passed, and the city began to flourish.
After a terrible storm, Prince Aeneas of Troy appeared at Dido’s door, asking her to take him in, along with his shipwrecked crew. They had been travelling for many months, ever since Troy had been captured by the Greeks. Dido graciously offered them Carthage’s hospitality.
Gradually, Aeneas’s gratitude turned to affection, and he expressed his love for Dido. Dido, faithful to her vow, refused him. However, against her will, Dido also began to develop feelings for Aeneas. She could empathize with him and his men, who like her had been forced to flee their homeland. But by breaking her vow of chastity, Dido would risk not only offending the gods, but also angering the neighbouring King Iarbas, who had been pressuring her to marry him. So, Dido resolved to reject Aeneas for the sake of her sacred vow, and for the good of her city and her people.
Dido’s Palace in Carthage
Dido’s sister Belinda attempts to reassure Dido, who is feeling restless and distressed. After much cajoling from Belinda, Dido admits that she has begun to fall for the Trojan Prince Aeneas. Belinda and Dido’s other attendants reassure Dido that a marriage between the two of them would bring joy and prosperity to the kingdom.
Aeneas enters and once again expresses his love for Dido. At first Dido rejects his advances, but after some encouragement from Belinda, relents and decides to embrace her own feelings for Aeneas.
The courtiers are overjoyed, and plan a hunting trip to the nearby countryside in order to celebrate.
The Witches’ Cave
Three witches appear from the mist and express their hatred towards Queen Dido.
Their leader, a powerful sorceress, reveals her plan to destroy Dido’s happiness. She will disguise one of her spirits as the god Mercury, and this false messenger will order Aeneas to leave Carthage and abandon Dido.
The witches retreat to their cave to cast an evil spell, which will cause a storm and ruin the royal court’s hunting excursion.
A Grove in the Hills Outside Carthage
After spending the night together, Dido and Aeneas wake to a beautiful morning in the countryside. Aeneas departs to go hunting, and Belinda, along with Dido’s attendants, prepares Dido for the day.
Aeneas returns triumphant from a successful hunt, but Dido warns that a storm is coming. Dido and Belinda quickly depart for the palace, while Aeneas stays behind to gather their belongings.
The witches’ spirit, in disguise as the god Mercury, appears and announces that Jupiter—the king of the gods—has commanded Aeneas to leave Carthage immediately and continue on his quest to found the city of Rome. Although he regrets having to leave Dido, Aeneas resolves to set sail that night.
The Harbour of Carthage
A group of sailors prepares to depart from Carthage with Aeneas.
The Sorceress and her coven of witches, seeing Aeneas’s ships preparing to leave, celebrate their victory.
The Sorceress predicts the inevitable fall of Dido, vowing that she will see Carthage burn.
Aeneas appears before Dido and attempts to apologize for abandoning her. Dido rejects his words, telling him to leave at once. Distressed, Aeneas offers to disobey the gods and stay with Dido, but she dismisses him once and for all.
Dido sends Belinda away in order to be alone with her thoughts. Tormented by the shame which will now fall upon her because she has broken her vow of chastity, Dido resolves to take her own life.
Returning too late, Belinda arrives to find Dido already gone. The court gathers around her to crown her as the new queen of Carthage.