The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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The opera of our time

Tuesday, 2 February 2021, 09:42 Last update: about 4 years ago

As Teatru Manoel prepares for its annual opera, Dido and Aeneas, Laura Bonnici chats with director DENISE MULHOLLAND to find out how the production process has had to adapt to the changing times.

Since Dido and Aeneas was written by English Baroque composer Henry Purcell in the 17th century, the face of the world has changed radically through multiple moments of triumph and tragedy. Yet, the opera's tale of love and loss has remained relevant through it all - even as history continues to be written today through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Indeed, the timeless themes found at the heart of Dido and Aeneas make it the ideal choice as this year's offering for Teatru Manoel's annual opera, which also has had to adapt to a world still struggling with COVID-19. Nevertheless, while the way such operas are staged has necessarily had to adapt, the creatives driving these unique productions are reassuringly experienced. Such is the case for director Denise Mulholland, a name now synonymous with opera in Malta both on stage and behind the scenes.

"I always love having the opportunity to direct opera - it is an art form very close to my heart," shares Mulholland. "I have actually performed in Dido and Aeneas several times, so it was exciting to be asked to direct this piece. With things the way they are in the arts world due to the pandemic, both I and everyone involved in the production also feel extremely privileged to be able to create new work during this unpredictable time. I take my hat off to Teatru Manoel for continuing to programme performances!"

For Mulholland and the opera's production team, the staging process has, this year, required many changes to stay within government protocols designed to halt the virus' spread. "Every aspect of the process has been affected," she confirms. "I believe we are currently on our fourth version of the piece, as every time the safety protocols change, we have had to accommodate those changes within the staging. But I have staged the piece with physical distance between the characters, with very few moments of physical contact. In a way, this has helped make the moments when there is a physical touch even more significant."

While the pandemic may have impacted the way the opera's classic story can be staged, it cannot dampen the power of the story itself, whereby the widowed Queen of Carthage Dido loves - and loses, through the sorcery of witches - the Trojan Prince Aeneas, with tragic consequences.

"The original concept hasn't altered, but we have chosen to tackle it from a slightly different perspective - Dido's," Mulholland continues. "We always knew this should be Dido's story. It's just the telling of it that has changed." And in this endeavour, she has collaborated with some of the best creatives in Malta's art scene. "I am lucky to have the fresh eye and vision of Andrew Borg Wirth and Luke Azzopardi on the creative concept, who bring a wonderful energy and new perspective to the process due to their non-theatre-related backgrounds. Likewise, the exceptional Emma Loftus is our movement coordinator, who has developed a simple yet effective physical vocabulary for the piece that is working beautifully with the music."

While Borg Wirth has created the set and Azzopardi the costumes - which are a mix of Hellenism and contemporary, with North African influences - the lights have been designed by Moritz Zavan Stoeckle. Since Mulholland has opted to include film in the piece, the staging will also include projected images created by cinematographer Matthew Muscat Drago.

The creative talent driving the production's concept is matched by the cast of popular performers taking on the iconic roles on stage. Cliff Zammit Stevens will play Aeneas to Francesca Buhagiar's Dido, joined by a cast that includes Cathy Lawlor, Nadia Vella, Francesca Aquilina, Analise Mifsud, Alison Gatt, Tom Armitage and a chorus of seasoned singers.

Meanwhile, renowned Maestro Marco Mencoboni will lead the musicians from the Valletta Baroque Ensemble through the Baroque music used in the piece. "It's lovely to work with the Monteverdi Project, a group of very talented singers who trains in Baroque music under the baton of the wonderful Marco Mencoboni and Gillian Zammit." smiles Mulholland. "The ensemble is used to working together, which has really helped in rehearsal since they are so familiar with each other. In fact, the same can be said of the entire cast and crew of Dido and Aeneas. I am so lucky to be working with such an extraordinary team, all of whom are contributing to the creative process. Together, we have found new ways to stage a classic production in unprecedented times."


Dido and Aeneas will be staged at Teatru Manoel, Valletta on 23, 24, 26 and 27 February 2021 at 8pm. It is suitable for audiences aged 12 and above. For more information and to book tickets, visit, call on +356 2124 6389 or email on [email protected].


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