NEW YORK — “When I am laid in earth,” the heroine sings just before she dies at the end of Henry Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas.”
Rarely will the aria be heard in a more fittingly sepulchral setting than when the hour-long opera, composed in the 1680s, is performed this week in the catacombs of Brooklyn’s historic Green-Wood Cemetery.
The unusual venue is a 160-foot-long tunnel made of brick and brownstone that burrows into a hillside of the sprawling cemetery. Opening off each side of the passageway are 15 burial vaults, holding the remains of 30 families in all.
Not the most obvious place to stage an opera given the cramped confines. But the acoustics and the ambiance outweigh the drawbacks in the view of producer Andrew Ousley, who has also staged concerts inside the crypt of the Church of the Intercession in Harlem.
Daniela Mack, the mezzo-soprano cast in the role of Dido, agrees. “For a singer it’s awesome,” she said in an interview before a run-through last week. “You can give a lot and it sounds huge and lush or give nothing and people still get it.”
Ousley said pairs of folding chairs will line each side of the tunnel, creating seating for about 120 people. All four performances beginning June 4 are sold out.
A platform stage has been set up near the rear, with musicians (a harpsichordist and string quartet) seated behind. Performers will enter and exit down the central aisle or from side vaults.
Given the unconventional setting, director Alek Shrader, who is married to Mack, said he decided to keep the staging fairly simple and straightforward.
“Rather than do anything too spooky, too macabre, we let the space do that for us,” he said.
But Shrader, an operatic tenor who is directing his first production away from the University of Notre Dame, where he is on the faculty, did take a few liberties with the libretto by Nahum Tate. He added the character of Iarbas, a Numidian chief, and about eight minutes of dialogue from Christopher Marlowe’s play “Dido, Queen of Carthage.”
“He kind of completes a love triangle,” Shrader said. “Without him, it appears she is so sad Aeneas is leaving that she ends her life. And I don’t like that message, especially in today’s climate. With Iarbas, Dido’s decision takes a form that’s more defiant, more in control. ... She chooses death over being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want, despite the threat he could come with his army and destroy her town.”
The “Dido” production is part of the second season of music Ousley has presented at Green-Wood, which was founded in 1838 and is now a National Historic Landmark. The cemetery is the final resting place for numerous well-known figures, famous and infamous, including artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger, abolitionists Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher, mobster Albert Anastasia, Tammany Hall kingpin “Boss” Tweed, and composers Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter and Louis Moreau Gottschalk.
The catacombs date from the 1850s. Harry Weil, director of public programs for the cemetery, said they were built to accommodate families who wanted more than a simple gravestone but couldn’t afford their own mausoleum.