Video of the Day: Learning to sing Dido's Lament ... backwards

Helen Charlston
Friday, February 19, 2021

Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston on the making of the OAE's new Purcell video

Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, in OAE's new video of Dido's Lament
Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston, in OAE's new video of Dido's Lament

I was in a rehearsal in early 2019 when I missed a call from Crispin [Woodhead, Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Chief Executive]. A text soon followed:

'Helen, do you sing Dido’s Lament? Do you like singing it?'

The answer was of course, yes!

'Great. Would you be willing to turn it into a video based on Coldplay’s The Scientist? You would have to learn to sing it backwards.'

Sounds intriguing, why not?

I had not watched the Coldplay video for years, so when I got home, I had another watch to check out what I had just signed up to. I started imagining adding the Purcell to the video, and it began to make a lot of sense. I had no idea how it would come together, but putting Dido in a world where everything other than her was going in the right direction seemed a perfect analogy of her misfortune with Aeneas.

Filming took quite a while – Crispin and Zen had lined up a series of scenes that would take us all around London. We took several willing extras (Crispin’s very patient family, and a couple of cyclists) along for the ride as we see Dido’s world unravel around her. The ‘Instagram perfect’ existence she was trying to portray was clearly just an act: the hustle and bustle of the city excludes her.

The most important, (and complicated) aspect of filming was to line up the music I had previously recorded with my journey around the city. Any footage was going to be reversed which meant that to make sure my words could be understood, I would have to mouth them backwards. We quickly discovered that this was not just a case of writing the words out backwards and trying to say them (we tried that: it did NOT work!) But in fact, we needed to think about how the words were formed backwards. I spent longer than I care to remember sitting in my living room filming myself saying the words backwards and then reversing the film on an app I had found online, to see if the words it created were anything like the real one. Once I’d worked it out, I memorised these new phrases and we were set to go.

Whilst this was never planned as a pandemic release, in hindsight it seems rather fitting. At a time when the hustle and bustle of the city has completely disappeared, seeing what London looked like on a series of rather cold winter nights in 2019 has been rather moving. The finished product is of course a love letter to Purcell’s amazing aria and to the Queen of Carthage, but also to London: the city I and the OAE call home, the city that is currently silent, its artists and audience left abandoned without a trace.

Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston is a member of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s Rising Stars Scheme for talented, emerging artists. 'Being a part of the Rising Stars scheme is to be welcomed into the technicolour OAE extended family. It has been wonderful to get to know this orchestra and be spurred on by their enthusiasm for the music we have made together, and for my own personal journey as a singer. I knew I wanted to be a part of a group who fought so strongly to celebrate the power of music and have learnt so much being thrown in at the deep end with these brilliant musicians.'

The OAE's film is sponsored by Mark Allen Group, publishers of Gramophone

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