Voicing Emily“A word is dead when it is said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” The words Emily Dickinson penned more than a hundred years ago ring true in the 2007 production, Voicing Emily, a Leider-opera written about her life and art. The mere fact her poetry is being presented on stage makes us think about the woman, her life and times, her passions and fears. Her words are spoken and Emily Dickinson begins to live again.

The program clearly states the rationale behind the opera, starting with Emily’s lifelong fascination with death, her withdrawal from society into the world of poetry, amidst the American civil war, her obsession with Susan, who married her brother, her passion for nature, Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, and her interest in immortality.

The audience walks in and there’s scribble on a board, the sound of a pen scratching and Emily (or a voice which represents Emily) speaking words as she writes them. It’s powerful and sets the scene for the evening ahead. There is no traditional narrative structure, but there are photos, images, words, feelings, mood and meaning, portrayed through Emily’s poetry, much of it put to music. There are three Emily’s, for the different stages of her life, played by Caity Fowler, Theresa Borg and Helen Noonan. The performances are controlled, strong and emotive and, at times, one does get the sense it could be Emily herself sharing her thoughts aloud.

The score, shared by Eddie Perfect, Greg Mason and Jane Hammond, is evocative and occasionally adds great value to the words, poetry and meaning conveyed, but at other times, it doesn’t. There were times I found the music distracting and wanted the emphasis to be on the words; to hear them and savour them. Some of the best moments in the show were when the words were spoken with no musical accompaniment. It begged the question: why set the poems of a ‘strange reclusive woman’ (in the words of the program) to music in the first place? How is the mode consistent with the method? Using three composers to match different musical styles to the three different Emily’s is a nice idea, but isn’t always obvious or used to maximum effect. Sometimes the music was hypnotic, meditative and complemented the poetry, while at other times, it seemed unnecessary, as if it didn’t fit with Emily’s mood or intention.

Generally, the piece takes itself too seriously, which is unfortunate because the subject matter is fascinating, the singing is beyond reproach, the performances are strong, the talent involved in composing and playing the music is first class and the visual design is stunning.

The show feels exclusive rather than inclusive, aimed at a high brow theatre-loving audience. If that was the initial the aim of the author and company, then they have succeeded, but I couldn’t help wondering throughout the piece if Emily Dickinson would have wanted it that way.

Voicing Emily
The life and art of Emily Dickinson

Venue: Beckett Theatre at The Malthouse | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Dates: Wednesday 14 – Saturday 24 November
Times: Wednesday – Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 5pm & 8pm
Tickets: $35 / $28
Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au | 9685 5111 or in person at The Malthouse

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