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Versatile mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte draws on matriarchal heritage in portraying Dido in The Queen of Carthage

Cecilia Duarte. Ashkan Image.
As an immigrant to the United States, Mexican-born Cecilia Duarte has built a life in a new country, which gives her something in common with her character Dido in The Queen of Carthage. Ashkan Image.

Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Duarte knows that she comes from a long line of strong women. So it’s no surprise that the versatile Houston-based singer is relishing the challenge of performing the title role in The Queen of Carthage. It celebrates Dido’s legacy of founding the capital of the Punic Empire in the first millennium BC.

“What I love about this project is that it’s right up my alley,” Duarte tells Pancouver over Zoom from her home in Houston. “My singing career consists mostly of singing early and contemporary music. And this piece has it all.”

The world premiere of The Queen of Carthage will come on opening night of the Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival on July 27.

Co-produced by Early Music Vancouver and re:Naissance Opera with SFU Woodward’s Cultural Programs, this interdisciplinary show includes dance by Marissa Gold and Joulin Lee. Contemporary composers Jessica McMann, Robyn Jacob, and Afarin Mansouri created new musical works. And The Queen of Carthage incorporates pieces by baroque composers Henry Purcell and John Dowland.

Even though Duarte will do all the singing, she doesn’t describe The Queen of Carthage as a one-woman show.

“The dancers are like the other half of the whole performance,” she says. “I love it.”

Moreover, The Queen of Carthage includes projections by production designer Camilla Tassi.

Dr. Debi Wong by Dahlia Katz
Co-stage director Dr. Debi Wong says that the show rediscovers Dido. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Duarte embraces many sides of Dido

In the program notes, co-stage director Dr. Debi Wong states that creating The Queen of Carthage “has been a journey of rediscovering Dido”. The founding artistic director of re:Naissance also characterizes the ancient ruler “not as the tragic figure she has so often been depicted as in Western European Art”.

Rather, Wong views Dido “as a powerful, multi-faceted leader who shaped Western Civilizations and history”.

Dido moved to Carthage, in what is now Tunisia, after fleeing from the city of Tyre on the Eastern Mediterranean coast.

Through music, the program explores various facets of Dido’s inner world. It casts this leader, likely a woman of colour, as our ancestor, the emperor, the lover, the outcast, and the dreamer.

“What if our understanding of Western European civilizations extended beyond Rome, reaching back to Carthage, to Dido, to a woman from Tyre (modern-day Lebanon)?” Wong asks in the program notes. “What if she was depicted in our histories and mythologies as fully represented and nuanced as most of her male contemporaries?”

Meanwhile, Duarte expresses excitement that Wong and the other stage director, Stephanie Wong, are focusing on a powerful woman who carried the weight of an entire country on her shoulders.

“We can see a lot of different colours in her personality—the strong and the brave but also the one that’s breaking, that’s full of pain, and that is vulnerable,” the singer says. “I love acting. I love the stage. So being able to bring all these different colours through my acting and my voice is very, very exciting.”

Watch the trailer for Cecilia Duarte’s solo album, Reencuantros.

Mexican ancestry informs stage performances

She can relate to several aspects of the story, including Dido’s migration. Duarte was born in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. And she believes that immigrant women may be tempted to erase aspects of themselves in order to be accepted and fit into a new place.

However, her 20 years in the United States have taught her the value of embracing her heritage.

“Sometimes, the life of an immigrant is proving yourself,” She says. “Prove that you are up to the level that they ask—but also understanding that everything that happened in my past is informing the way I perform right now. It’s not just what I’ve learned here, but who I am.”

Moreover, the singer comes from a family of musicians. And she grew up listening to the Latin American singer-songwriters from the 1940s and ’50s whom her mother loves. Many were women whose poetry made them wonderful storytellers.

“It’s something that has definitely helped me express myself as an artist,” Duarte says.

She also acknowledges that she’s a product of her ancestry—and a matriarchal culture going back many generations. Duarte is certain that this strength was passed down to her great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother, who all influenced her.

“There’s been a lot of power that’s been transmitted,” she says. “I think all of that is carried through. I believe in that.”

It’s a great fit for this year’s Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival. The theme, WOMENinSight, reflects its emphasis on concerts featuring works by and for women.

Early Music Vancouver artistic and executive director Suzy LeBlanc speaks about the summer festival.

Singing in an orthopedic boot

Perhaps Duarte’s matriarchal ancestry also offers insights her resilience. In May, she underwent surgery after breaking her ankle after a bad fall. Yet it didn’t prevent her from singing the role of Melissa in Francesca Caccini’s Alcina in the Boston Early Music Festival.

Duarte followed that up by singing in a concert on the same day.

“I was performing with an orthopedic boot,” she reveals.

Luckily, the artistic and executive director of Early Music Vancouver, Suzy LeBlanc, approached her after one of these performances. LeBlanc told her about a new project—The Queen of Carthage—which would premiere at the Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival.

Duarte says that she’s extremely thankful for the opportunity to sing in this production.

In the meantime, Duarte cites the Boston Early Music Festival as one of her career highlights. Another came when she performed in the first operas with mariachi music, which premiered with the Houston Grand Opera.

She’s also thrilled over last November’s release of her solo album, Reencuentros (Spanish for re-encounters). It’s a compilation of heartfelt Latin American music that harkens back to the 1940s and ’50s.

“It’s been a wonderful ride,” Duarte says of her career. “I think the clue is being grateful as I go, because I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the other gigs.”

Early Music Vancouver and re:Naissance Opera will present the world premiere of The Queen of Carthage at 8 p.m. on July 27 at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts. It will be performed on the opening night of the 2023 Early Music Vancouver Summer Festival. Tickets are available on the EMV website. You can order Cecilia Duarte’s album, Reencuentros, from her websiteFollow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.