The sun was setting as I hurried into the Chapel and slung down my book bag on a pew near the back. It was an April evening in 1992, and I had somehow gotten roped into seeing the Reed choir and chamber orchestra perform Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell. I didn’t care for opera and knew nothing of Purcell. Having put in an appearance, I was secretly hoping to glide toward the exit after a decent interval.
But when the first haunting chords of the overture began to echo through the Chapel, something came over me. The clock stopped. I sat spellbound as Purcell’s witches plotted the destruction of Carthage, Dido’s downfall, and Aeneas’ cruel farewell. By the time Dido sang her last lament (“When I am laid in earth”) and the choir sounded their final cadence, my eyes were wet with tears.
Every discipline at Reed has its own kind of power—a power that to untutored eyes sometimes looks like magic. I remember how Prof. Les Squier [psychology 1953–88] once hypnotized an entire psych class and convinced us that there was a phantom fly buzzing around the room. For her first physics lecture of the year, Prof. Mary James [physics 1988–] holds a giant pendulum (made from a bowling ball and some rope) next to her head, releases the ball on its trajectory, and keeps perfectly still as it swings away, then rushes back with seemingly lethal force, relenting just as it reaches her head. Wizardry? No, physics.
The performing arts—music, theatre, dance—are no different. They have unrivalled power to astonish the audience, but this has nothing to do with hocus-pocus. Rather, it depends on knowledge, practice, teamwork, and sweat. With the opening of the new Performing Arts Building, I thought it fitting to celebrate those disciplines—and explore that power—in this issue of Reed.
That performance in the Chapel opened up a new world for me. I bought an LP of Dido and Aeneas and listened to it obsessively. That led me to Purcell’s other work, which in turn led me as far afield as Handel, Wagner, and Nixon in China. Many years later, I started singing and playing folk music with a group of friends in Portland, and finally understood one of the deeper reasons to pursue the performing arts. Yes, they transform the audience. But they also transform the performers.