A Side of Emily Dickinson (and Opera) Seldom Seen in Thompson Street’s Season Opener

  It’s possible you’ve not seen opera quite like this. Thompson Street Opera Company opened its second season last night with a regional premiere of Eva Kendrick’s chamber opera “Emily,” a satisfying peek into the family dynamics and dramatic social life of one of America’s most intriguing foundational poets. Staged in the as-yet-unfinished theater at Vault 1031, a new performance space on the edge of Old Louisville (1031 S. 6th Street), this is opera stripped down to its bare essentials – powerful voices and beautiful music – that’s right-sized for the intimate, dressed-down space.

Directed by Julane Havens and conducted by Katy Vaitkevicius, with Adrienne Fontenot on piano, “Emily” runs for two more performances, tonight (Saturday) at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2.

Kendrick weaves Dickinson’s poems seamlessly through her own original music and libretto, creating natural moments for characters to read aloud from Emily’s work in the context of a scene. The music is appealing in its simplicity with just enough moments of operatic flourish to thrill the audience in the small space with its marvelous acoustics.

Thompson Street is focused on living composers, but it’s also clear that founder and producing director Clair DiVizio has an eye for the type of production that will work well on a small, spare stage. “Emily” is an opera that could as easily scale up, with sumptuous sets and costumes to outfit the well-heeled Dickinson family in 19th century Amherst, Massachusetts society. But it works equally well in Vault 1031. With only a piano for accompaniment and the most Spartan of sets, there’s a satisfying New England period simplicity about the production, with little to distract from the polished performances given by the excellent company of singers DiVizio has assembled.

Far from the pensive recluse she’s often been painted, Kristina Bachrach’s Emily is feisty and proud, with close friendships and a strong will to choose her own destiny rather than be married off to one or another family friend and to be in control of how and where her groundbreaking poems are published. Her voice is strong and clear, and she delivers a performance full of good humor and, at times, heartbreaking ambivalence about her family (excellent performances by Haley DeWitt as sister Lavinia and Louisville veteran Judith Youngblood and Peter Morgan as her parents), her work and its place in the world.

Preston Orr (Austin Dickinson) and Lisa Perry (the scandalous Mabel Loomis Todd, who played a key role in getting Dickinson’s poems published) deliver stand-out acting and vocal performances as Emily’s brother and his mistress, an ardent fan of Emily’s writing. (Things are pretty hot and heavy in Amherst, Puritan lineage be damned.) I imagine it’s an adjustment for many opera singers to downscale their acting to fit such an intimate theater (the front row of the audience is close enough to reach out and touch a singer), and Orr and Perry rose quite charismatically to the challenge. As Austin’s wife and Emily’s confidante Susan, Jilian McGreen handles the vocal part of her role with grace and ease, but her acting performance was ramped up for a much larger room.

Portraying a family friend of the Dickinsons, Matthew Peckham’s spirited tenor injects a note of bright optimism to the stately New England home scenes. Andrew Munn’s rich, velvety bass (billing accidentally absent from opening night’s program, but the character, a minister, is presumably based on Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s close friend and literary mentor) is a delightful, if brief, presence. Kendrick’s dramatic ensemble numbers make excellent use of counterpoint and, in the case of a particularly lovely rendering of The Lord’s Prayer, a cappella. Her deft inclusion of humor is not to go unnoticed, either, especially in Samuel Soto’s delightful turn as a would-be suitor to Emily who finds himself spurned before he can even say hello.

The one-act opera runs a bit over an hour with no intermission, just the right amount of time and space to explore Emily’s social world, which was quite complex for a woman who rarely left the house. Fairly unheralded in her own time, the few editors who published her work took great license with Dickinson’s poems, flattening her groundbreaking style and removing much of what was revolutionary about her poems. And so it’s fitting that the final line of this show is a mournful “That’s not how I wrote it.” Kendrick’s opera might take some dramatic license with the private, inner workings of the Dickinson clan and sphere, but the result is a fair honoring of the spirit of Dickinson’s life and work.

Thompson Street’s season continues next weekend with a double bill of comic operas, Yvonne Freckman’s “Rootabaga Stories” and Ronnie Reshef’s “Requiem for the Living.” They close their season June 6-8 with Ezra Donner’s whaling tale “Ile,” based on the Eugene O’Neill one-act play. 

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