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She Wasn't Afraid of Transforming Virginia Woolf Novel Into Opera


LONG BEACH AREA — Most people probably would rather shop for a used car than watch a two-hour opera based on a stream-of-consciousness novel by Virginia Woolf. But that didn't daunt librettist Bonnie Grice.

Grice, who lives in Long Beach, decided 10 years ago to bring "Mrs. Dalloway" to the stage. And in July she did it. In Cleveland.

The Plain Dealer newspaper called Grice's "Mrs. Dalloway" a "strange and riveting piece of music theater." Grice, who worked with composer Libbe Larsen, focused on Woolf's story of an upper-class Englishwoman who re-evaluates her life while planning a party. A parallel plot follows a young man who commits suicide.

Though the woman and man never meet, Woolf ties them together psychologically: "(Mrs. Dalloway) realizes she made choices she has to live with," Grice explained. "And he realizes he made choices he can't live with."

She said the novel captivated her. "I was taken by how musical it was, how deliberately lyrical. It goes straight through for 300 pages with no chapters, but there are breaks in the text that I saw as scenes.

"Some of the audience didn't get it," she said, "but I didn't expect everyone to, because you don't really get it when you read the book. I read the book 35 times and I was still learning about it each time. It's probably a little hard. But isn't art supposed to be challenging?"

Grice, 37, is best known as the voice of classical music for station KUSC, an American Public Radio affiliate. She has made a career of bringing offbeat and eclectic music to listeners, beginning more than a decade ago when she studied music at Miami University in Ohio.

After working in smaller classical music radio markets, she came to KUSC four years ago with a mission: "To expand the notion of classical music. Classical music doesn't have to be stuffy," she said. "It can be fun, it can touch something in everybody. I want to include as many people as I can."

Toward that end, Grice has led listener protests against cutbacks in public school music education and has visited inner-city classrooms with a classical music program. She also has worked to bring recognition to female composers, many of whom have been ignored, she said.

Grice's love of music goes back to her childhood. Her father, a savings and loan executive, moved the family a lot. "Music allowed me to cry," she said. "It allowed me to get my feelings out." As a child, she mostly listened to show tunes. "My parents had classical albums, but they mostly just sat and gathered dust. As a teen-ager, I constantly listened to the radio: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, America, Iron Butterfly, Stevie Wonder. But I was still drawn to classical because I wanted to sing opera.'

After a few years in college, "I realized I didn't have the talent (to perform)." So Grice started volunteering at the university radio station and her career "took off from there."

Grice especially wants to hook young people on classical music. To do this, she introduces students to pieces she hopes will make them imagine. "I'll never forget listening to Rimsky-Korsakov's 'Scheherazade.' I was maybe 7 or 8. The images of exotic lands and faraway places really stuck with me." A particular favorite in the classroom these days, she said, is Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf" sung by Jose Carreras in Spanish and another version in English narrated by Sting.

Grice has no predictions for her own future. There are no set plans for "Mrs. Dalloway" to travel, she said, though there have been suggestions that she create a Woolf cycle. She also is interested in making Bram Stoker's "Dracula" into an opera. "I don't know where I'm going," she said with a laugh. "I leave myself open to it."


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