- Interrogating King Arthur: A contrapuntal prologue
CC: My intellectual journey with Dryden’s and Purcell’s King Arthur over the last eighteenth months could be compared to that of Emmeline, the blind captive of Oswald and his evil magician Osmond. Having been comfortably at home in the late eighteenth-century operatic world of Haydn’s Eszterháza for many years, I was invited to experience the magical spell of late-seventeenth-century “dramatick opera” in London by my colleague and conference collaborator, Brian Corman, in conjunction with a symposium we co-hosted at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto in April 2009. Having had limited experience with English-language semi-opera, I knew I was primed to learn much through our planned interdisciplinary probing—a two-day conference, “Interrogating King Arthur”, which coincided with an enchanting production by the Toronto Masque Theatre (TMT) at the Macmillan Theatre, Faculty of Music. Something I could not have predicted, however, was the way in which this interrogation of earlier opera would work to ‘expand backwards’ my interest in the interdisciplinary study of opera. With scales falling from my eyes and ears, I have made many new and intriguing discoveries, most of which are probably already familiar to readers of Restoration—including the dramatic stage genius cultivated by the incomparably creative collaborative duo, Dryden and Purcell, and the profound historical and interpretive potential unleashed by their political allegory, King Arthur. To say that I’ve undergone a magical transformation of sorts would be an understatement, since the power of Arthurian legend allied to intellectual probing—especially in conjunction with an imaginative performance on stage—has the potential to foment intellectual change at many levels. And change it has, for as the articles [End Page 1] assembled here attest, King Arthur is a richly textured and malleable work that continues to yield up provocative and challenging critical insights. So while King Arthur may be the main subject under scrutiny, it is the Emmeline story of ‘(in)sight’ that is most illuminating, since the essays collected here are an informed response to the “sad critical history” and a welcome corrective to the call for “a more well-informed criticism” (to cite Brian Corman).
BC: The conference, and this collection of essays, was the result of a close five-year association with the Toronto Masque Theatre. Larry Beckwith invited me join the TMT Board in 2004 as he was about to begin producing all of Purcell’s operas, one each year, beginning with The Fairy Queen in 2005. It was an opportunity not to be refused, and I gladly signed on. I was familiar with the music and with the theatrical context, but I had not seen complete productions, that is, of dramatic text and music, except for the anomalous Dido and Aeneas. Thanks to TMT, I have now seen them all.
The productions improved each year as the company became increasingly familiar with the special challenges involved with performing dramatic (semi-) operas. The major dailies in Toronto reviewed the entire series, always favorably, and the reviewers, like the audiences, became increasingly sophisticated in their responses, as they too, increased acquaintance with an unfamiliar genre. (Dido and Aeneas, the third in the cycle, did not, of course, present the same challenges.) TMT’s mandate is to produce works in the masque tradition, a tradition combining drama, music, dance, and spectacle, from the early modern period to the present, including commissioned pieces such as the Aeneas and Dido that accompanied Purcell’s opera on the story. Our collective excitement at seeing how well the various artistic disciplines could come together was integral to the experience of each work’s production.
King Arthur was planned as the climatic event in the cycle, coinciding with the 2009 anniversary year. Larry and I thought it would be well-served by a conference that would bring together scholars of the various artistic disciplines to reflect on the central questions raised by King Arthur, with a special focus on performance. When Caryl Clark agreed to co-host the conference, we were on our way to achieving the interdisciplinary meeting we wanted this to be. Our...