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Opera Atelier’s production stars Toronto-based soprano Meghan Lindsay as Dido.Handout

The performing arts must indeed have returned to Toronto, because Opera Atelier is back at the Elgin Theatre this fall. The specialist opera company is Canada’s leader in producing stage works from the baroque and classical eras – complete with an orchestra of period instruments, set and costume designs of the time, and a full corps de ballet.

This month, Opera Atelier offers Dido and Aeneas, the 1689 opera by Henry Purcell. The work is one of the most popular from the baroque opera canon, based on the Greek myth of Dido, Queen of Carthage, and her troubled love for Aeneas, the Prince of Troy. When Aeneas abandons her, the opera ends with Dido’s famous aria, When I am laid in Earth, as she dies of a broken heart.

Bringing Dido to a modern audience, the star of the show is thinking about the paradox of women in power, and the value of allyship among women.

“Historically, women have been forced into a binary of ‘powerful’ or ‘domestic,’” says Toronto-based soprano Meghan Lindsay in the title role, her first time portraying the tragic Dido. “Female leaders are expected to sacrifice their worthiness for love. Regretfully, these are tensions women still struggle with today.”

Lindsay also points to the trust and camaraderie between Dido and her handmaiden, Belinda.

“So often you think of Dido as the relationship between Dido and Aeneas and heartbreak, but I think this is one of the most important throughlines of the work: Belinda offers solace, companionship, care, and guidance.”

Lindsay spoke with The Globe about performing old works, what value they still carry for today’s audiences and the elements of opera that she finds most personally conflicting:

Is Dido a cautionary tale? What does the opera have to say about women, love and power?

In some ways, [Dido] demonstrates how women in literature, theatre and opera have been historically punished for love. I come back to this false binary between duty, or work, and romance. The expectation that these two aspects of life can’t co-exist without chaos is a trope within opera and more often than not, it ends with a woman dying.

As an interpreter of these characters, I find this so complicated. On one hand, I question what it means to embody these women. What am I contributing to by telling these stories? On the other hand, I see the importance in sharing the history of this struggle. There is a deep care that is involved in portraying any human going through emotional struggle – sharing it through full-body, deep-bones screaming that takes up space, fills a room and forces attention.

Dido and Aeneas premiered in 1689. Yet expectations of decorum, of morality, of duty, of femininity still penetrate modern society. Showing how this is ongoing and historical is important.

Meghan Lindsey also runs New Art/New Media, a grassroots collective that tries to tease through ideas about creation and collaboration. Bruce Zinger/Handout

What do you think are some of opera’s precarious or problematic elements?

The precarity, as we see in the wake of COVID-19, is the volatility of the industry – how vulnerable our sector is to shifts in audience comfort, to public-health crises, to changes in politics, funding and philanthropy. The current model for the opera industry is fundamentally unsustainable and the health of the industry directly affects the emotional, financial and mental well-being of so many people.

This dilemma has really influenced my career path. When I’m not on stage, I work to explore new models and practices in the arts. I co-run a grassroots collective, New Art/New Media, that tries to tease through ideas about creation and collaboration. I work with a digital magazine, Newest, that looks at the intersection of art and social justice in Canada. I’m also doing my PhD in cultural studies [at Queen’s University], looking at how the social impact of the arts is co-constructed between artists and the state.

It’s a ton of work, but I’m bored with the old-world notion that opera singers only sing. I’m a mom, a partner, a daughter, a friend. There are so many sides to myself that I bring to my work.

As for the problematic elements, I think issues of systemic inequality in classical music are deeply rooted, from harmful representation of people of colour in operatic characters, to harmful industry practices. I’m happy to see Canadian opera companies addressing the complex issues of presenting these works in 2022, but there is much on a systemic front that needs to evolve – and fast.

How can we talk about representation and have blind orchestra auditions? How can we talk about precarity and expect musicians to travel across the country for the potential of getting work? It’s a bizarre model and I’m excited to see a lot of younger musicians working to make things more creative, fun and sustainable.

What does an old opera – like Dido – have to offer a modern audience?

I’m so grateful for the work that Opera Atelier does, because not many companies bring repertoire from the baroque and classical era to the public in such an exciting and accessible way. Older repertoire means a chance to explore different ways of communicating, different ways of seeing or understanding the world. It allows us to look at histories and see what they mean to us today. It allows us to consider what has changed, what hasn’t, what may need to.

Of course, opera is by no means universal. Nothing is. But what baroque opera does – especially those based in myth or legend – is it allows us to explore big emotions and big sensations in a safe way.

What role does opera have in your own life? How has that role changed over the last two years?

One of the things I learned during the pandemic was how healing it is for me to sing. I need it in my body and my spirit. Embodying a character, being in community with other artists, working through a score and all of the non-verbal communication that goes along with the process – this is invaluable for me. This love for making music has grown even deeper since 2020. Being an artist is in my bones.

As for opera’s role in society, I’m curious to see opera take a step away from prescribing its impact. There’s a missionary zeal behind the traditional “transcendence through opera” conversation that I hope to see taper. It presumes that all people want to see the opera, have access to it or feel comfortable gathering in our halls.

I never want to predict or prescribe what someone may feel when they come to the opera, but I can promise that I will show up with my full self and give them my all.

Are the arts essential? What happens to the arts if we don’t consider them as essential?

I’ve thought about this question a lot. I don’t think it is an either/or situation. I think the arts have a deep capacity to change and challenge our ways of knowing, understanding and thinking. Artistic practice – making music, creating an original work, writing a book – goes beyond the job. It is about community and imagining alternative realities. Artists are individuals, with lives, loves, rents, families, challenges. I hope that by pointing to the lived realities of artists, it is a reminder that they are worthy of care and love.

I think the essential-or-not argument obscures the broader question: What would it look like if we had a world without art? There would be no design, no stories, no dance, no music, no fashion, no architecture. The structures and systems we’ve put around art in Canada, I hope those change. They have to. But I never want to imagine a world without art.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Opera Atelier’s production of Dido and Aeneas runs October 20-23, 2022, at the Elgin Theatre, starring Meghan Lindsay as Dido, and featuring award-winning Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman-Lee as the Sorceress.