Young Victorian takes a page from the life of Emily Dickinson

July 15, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

Composer Mark Lanz Weiser, writer Peter M. Krask and soprano Elizabeth Knauer sit under a tree in Mount Vernon Place trying to describe "Rendezvous of Light."

"A music theater piece," its composer suggests, attempting to distinguish it from musical comedy or opera.

"Music theater drama," contributes Knauer, who stars as Emily Dickinson in the biographical one-woman show. The first-ever commission by the Young Victorian Theatre Company, "Rendezvous" will receive its world premiere tonight at Bryn Mawr School.

In a sense, it's appropriate that these Peabody Conservatory alumni are discussing Dickinson in a park that dates from the same 19th century period as the American poet. But, in another sense, a park would have been alien to Dickinson -- a recluse who ventured out of her Amherst, Mass., home only once in the last 20 years of her life.

That occasion -- when Dickinson went next door to visit her dying 8-year-old nephew -- is the event recounted in "Rendezvous of Light," which takes place over four days in 1883.

Scored for soprano, cello, piano and clarinet, the hour-long work has a libretto consisting partly of Dickinson's published letters and partly of Krask's original text. None of Dickinson's poetry is included.

"I felt like we were going to do something different," says Krask, explaining that the poems seemed too obvious a choice. "The letters are as beautiful if not more beautiful. . . . The letters are poetry in and of themselves."

And, Weiser points out, "an enormous amount of her poetry has been set [to music]." He lists Aaron Copland, Ned Rorem, George Walker and Baltimore's own Elam Sprenkle among the composers who have created music for Dickinson's poems.

"Rendezvous of Light" is not the first time Krask, Weiser and Knauer have worked with Dickinson's writing. They collaborated two years ago on a piece called "Withdrawn Delight," based on the William Luce one-woman play, "The Belle of Amherst," and used existing music as well as three poems set to new music by Weiser.

Dr. Jesse M. Hellman, president of the Young Vic's board of directors, learned about that piece when he attended the Peabody Opera Theater's 1993 production of "With Blood, With Ink," an opera with music by Daniel Crozier, libretto by Krask and featuring Knauer.

Hellman noticed a reference in the program to "Withdrawn Delight," and considered that for the Young Vic until he learned the rights to the source material were unavailable. "The more we thought about it," he says, "the more we thought, let's look at doing a new show."

Hellman raised the $5,000 commission for "Rendezvous" from friends and relatives, and the creators of "Rendezvous" began work as soon as they received the commission last summer.

Of course, the Young Vic is still primarily a Gilbert and Sullivan company; this season's main production is "Patience," which opened last week and continues through July 23. An operetta about poets, "Patience" was chosen "because it seemed like it would be the best show to go with 'Rendezvous,' " Hellman explains.

The Dickinson piece "came together very quickly," says Krask, 27, who served an internship in music criticism at The Evening Sun in 1990-1991. He estimates he spent two months reading all of Dickinson's letters, as well as several biographies. Weiser and Knauer, who are engaged to be married, also did considerable research. In addition, all three traveled to Dickinson's Amherst home -- only to have the door slammed in their faces because they arrived without an appointment.

Krask says he zeroed in on Dickinson's visit to her nephew because "it crystallized all the issues for me in the letters and the poems -- what happens when you die, and the whole question of love."

Weiser describes his approach to the music as "evocative of the 19th century with a 20th century accent." The 25-year-old composer has also set the words of other poets to music. His opera "Purgatory" is based on a play by William Butler Yeats, and his song cycle "An Anthem for a Doomed Youth" is set to poems by Wilfred Owen.

Knauer, 31, who dyed her blond hair red for the role, says #F audiences will find her Dickinson different from the one popularized in the widely produced Luce play. " 'The Belle of Amherst' made the character a little sweet. I'd describe her as more profound . . . very spirited, a keen intellect and perspective on things."

And, in this work that revolves around a dying child, Knauer also thinks audiences may be surprised by Dickinson's attitude toward death. "One thing about death -- we tend to think of it as something frightening. She looked at it with curiosity," she says. "She was fascinated."

'RENDEZVOUS OF LIGHT'

Where: Centennial Hall, Bryn Mawr School, 109 W. Melrose Ave.

When: 8:15 tonight and Thursday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $8

Call: (410) 323-3077

A LITTLE 'LIGHT' MUSIC

To hear an excerpt of "Rendezvous of Light," a musical theater piece about Emily Dickinson sung by Elizabeth Knauer, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6119 after you hear the greeting.

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