Voicing Emily

Three women in white dresses walk out from behind the large screens and take a seat on the backless chairs on each level of the three tiered stage. Cursive handwriting floats across the screens and we hear the nib of a pen scrawling on paper. Then we hear a voice — an older, seasoned voice — speak the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Each woman represents Dickinson at a stage in her life: young, middle years, and end-of-life. The eldest (Noonan), sitting centre and back of stage rises from her chair to sing:

She died— this was the way she died.
And when her breath was done
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun.
Her little figure at the gate
The Angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.

Even as the tired end-of-life Emily, Noonan demands the ears and eyes of the audience: strength-sapping notes finish on a sharp breath, others are held, and hold a quiet strength, as her eyes linger but never fix on the faces of her younger self. The young Emily (Fowler) sings the same song through an anxious smile. Middle years Emily (Borg) has the most powerful voice of all three and affects a willfulness and concentrated energy that borders on stubborn.

And so, the Lieder-opera, Voicing Emily, moves through these moods of age. Dickinson, known for only leaving her house on rare occasions after she turned thirty, provides scant biographical action or a connection with historical events (such as the civil war) to propel the story in any other way. The images projected onto the screen are rather cursory; a scrapbook attempting to provide a semblance of a biographical visual narrative.

All three composers (Hammond, Mason & Perfect) provide something slightly different. I’m particularly enamored of the down and gritty arrangement of guitar (Murray) and cello (Vains) on Mason’s Exhultation that under-scores the building wail of the trio. There were what a novice like me would call straight opera songs where the words became secondary to the voice, but on the whole this was uncommon. Noonan’s use of Dickinson’s letters in her libretto creates a powerful moment where all three women repeatedly sing, “We would like you to come, Mr. Bowles”. It is a small request at the end of a letter, almost inconsequential, to a married man who is unavailable to Emily. The line, sung over and over, grows from a hopeful request, to an anxious plea, a near desperate denial, and then a quiet realisation. A yellow light slowly dawns on the audience and we are all captured in its glow. It is truly warming, then the light turns away.

Noonan’s end-of-life Emily ends the opera; her assured voice speaks the final lyric:

A word is dead
When it is said,
Some say.

I say it just
begins to live
That day.

Go check out the Voicing Emily website. Listen to songs here.

Libretto and Concept Helen Noonan
Direction David Myles
Musical Direction Jane Hammond
Composers Jane Hammond, Greg Mason, Eddie Perfect
Performers Helen Noonan, Theresa Borg, Caitlin Fowler
Stage Design and Video James Verdon
Lighting Design Richard Vabre
Costume Design Marg Horwell
Musicians Jane Hammond (piano), Ken Murray (guitar), Josephine Vains (cello)