ESSAY: Roger Downey on Dido and Aeneas

All it took to condemn one of the greatest operas ever written to three centuries in shadows were a bare dozen words—“Perform'd at Mr. Josias Priest's Boarding-School at Chelsey. By Young Gentlewomen.”

And the worst of it? It wasn’t even true.

In fact Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas was probably written for performance before the King and Queen of England. But those words, at the head of the libretto published in 1689, have cast such a pall of dainty respectability, of amateur night shenanigans over the work that most listeners have neglected the evidence of their own ears. Dido has been mostly revived professionally when a mezzo-soprano combining musical insight with box-office clout—a Kirsten Flagstad, a Josephine Baker—has insisted on performing it. Paradoxically, Mark Morris's danced version of the piece has probably done more to establish Dido in the repertory than those artists did.