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Errollyn Wallen: Dido's Ghost

Errollyn Wallen in front of the Barbican tower with radio waves emitting from it

Composer Errollyn Wallen offers some insight into how a new opera is born in the 21st century.

Ideas for operas drop in my email inbox on a weekly basis and I, myself am always dreaming about possibilities for all kinds of dramatic setting.

It is one thing to have a great idea, but quite another to realise that idea to its full potential. Some notions seem so captivating initially but in the cold light of investigation they simply wither away. 

As anyone who has ever created any aspect of any opera, knows, it is a life-shortening exercise – and a task that is never quite over. At each reading, listening, rehearsal and production there is so much more to discover, so much more to adapt for the performer or performing situation. Yet opera is such an addictive artform, not least for the illuminations which collaboration offers.

In December 2019, Paul Keene, then Classical Music Programmer at the Barbican, gave us the green light to turn a ten year old hunch into reality. Wesley Stace (in Philadelphia) and I (in the Scottish Highlands), have spent the last eighteen months hungrily walking back and forth in time, with Virgil, Ovid, Purcell, Tate and Ursula LeGuin by our side – shaking awake the dead until they revealed their secrets. As a composer I am used to interrogating composers long gone (for me that is the essence of composing) but these particular encounters with the past have led us to understand anew the stories which endure across cultures and time.

There has been no better group of people to work with than the team who have brought Dido’s Ghost to life – of all the previous (nineteen) operas I’ve composed I never knew it could be this good. To have had the imagination, support and patience of such remarkable people has opened a door to new possibilities. Together, Wesley Stace, John Butt, Frederic Wake-Walker and I have made a little bit of history. 

You will hear echoes and pre-echoes in the libretto, music and instrumentation which blur the demarcation between antiquity, eighteenth and twenty-first century sensibilities. You will witness the wildest combination of music styles and performance practice from different cultures. You will hear and feel blistering emotion alongside icy detachment. You will apprehend the work of two pairs of librettists and composers with three centuries between them. But all you really have to remember is this: four creators have toiled in the service of commemorating what it is to be human – and what it is to love. 


Programme and Performers


Errollyn Wallen Dido's Ghost* (world premiere, staged concert performance)

Henry Purcell Dido and Aeneas

*Co-commissioned by the Barbican, Buxton International Festival, Dunedin Consort, Edinburgh International Festival, Mahogany Opera, & Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorale

Performers and creative team

Isabelle Peters Dido/Anna

Matthew Brook Aeneas

Nardus Williams Belinda

Allison Cook Spirit/Lavinia

Henry Waddington Sorcerer/Elymas

David Lee Ascanius

Jessica Leary Second Woman

Jessica Gillingwater First Witch

Judy Louie Brown Second Witch

Dunedin Consort

John Butt conductor

Wesley Stace libretto

Frederic Wake-Walker direction

Anna Jones designer

Sarah Playfair casting

Caroline Moores stage manager

Eli Banfield assistant stage manager

April Audiger assistant director

Lucy Pandza wardrobe supervisor

Beth Tarbutt costumer maker

Maya Lohse prop maker

Andrew Kingsmill surtitles

Artist biographies