I was in a rehearsal in early 2019 when I missed a call from OAE Chief Executive Crispin. 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, OAE’s Digital Officer, 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.