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Moved by Dickinson to Compose an Opera

January 23, 1998|CHRIS PASLES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FULLERTON — Composer Brent Pierce has long loved the work of Emily Dickinson, and now he's turned that admiration into an opera about the reclusive but powerful 19th century New England poet. "Emily" premieres tonight at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center.

"The opera is based pretty accurately on the life of Emily Dickinson," Pierce said. "We take her from a young girl, then move her from the age of 26 to when she died at the age of 56. We try to stay away from too much poetic license and try to be accurate with her relationships" to her father, sister and others.

The text is by Fullerton poet Shelley Peltier, with whom Pierce has collaborated for several years. The staging is by Gary Krinke, a director at Fullerton College, where Pierce has been the resident composer since 1974.

"I wanted to stay away from her poems because I wanted to tell her life story through recitatives and arias. I didn't want it to be a recital of Emily Dickinson poems," Pierce explained.

Still, he incorporated two--"I'm Nobody" and "Success Is Counted Sweetest"--because they say so much about Dickinson's self-image.

"She really thought of herself as 'nobody.' She only published two poems in her lifetime, one of which was 'Success,' which also reflects how she thought about herself."

Though Pierce describes "Emily" as a "chamber opera," the three-act work lasts about two hours, with intermission. Among the cast of 15, soprano Juliette Singler in the title role handles the lion's share of vocals. A graduate of Claremont Graduate School and USC, she teaches voice at Irvine Valley College.

Singler gets to sing "very tuneful, very romantic, incredibly romantic" music, Pierce said. "This is not an 'avant-garde' opera. It's the best way I could find to portray her and stay true to myself as a composer, without being commercial. This is not a 'Phantom [of the Opera].' It is a contemporary opera."

It took Pierce, who has composed nearly 300 works, including commercial pieces for Disney and Warner Bros., about a year and a half to finish the opera.

"I thought about doing it for three years before I started writing," he said. "I kept putting it off and doing other things. Finally, I said I was just going to go ahead and write it."

The opera will be presented at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, which is housed in a Victorian mansion that accommodates an audience of 65.

"The whole action takes place in and around the audience, so the audience is involved in the whole thing," Pierce said. "People need to be on time. It will be really hard for late-comers to get in until the intermission."

* "Emily" will have its world premiere tonight at 8 p.m. at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Performances continue at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and Jan. 30-Feb. 1. $20 tonight. $15 all other dates. (714) 871-8101.

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