Poe's writings inspire opera called 'Ligeia'


The life and work of Edgar Allan Poe sing out for an opera, says composer Augusta Read Thomas. So she has written one.

"I think that everything Poe ever wrote, almost, it just screams opera. It's just so dramatic and has so many layers of fantasy and reality and different types of human experience ranging from horror to love," says the 29-year-old composer, a professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.

She is due in Baltimore tonight to introduce the first public performance of excerpts from "Ligeia," her opera based on a semi-autobiographical Poe short story.

The performance comes as part of the Edgar Allan Poe Birthday Celebration weekend, the world's largest annual salute to the American author. Poe lived and wrote in Baltimore from about 1831 to 1835, and died and was buried here in 1849. Wednesday was the 185th anniversary of his birth.

Members of the Peabody Opera Theatre will sing parts of "Ligeia" during an 8 p.m. program at Westminster Hall, at Fayette and Greene streets. (The presentation follows the one-man play, "Poe . . . A Visit to the Haunted Palace." David Keltz will portray Poe during his career as a public lecturer.)

"It is a very tiny sample of the opera," says Ms. Thomas. She collaborated with librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer to create the opera.

The full opera, commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich for the Evian-les-bains Spring Festival in France in May, will debut in a preview performance at the Peabody's Miriam A. Friedburg Concert Hall on Feb. 20.

"It's a wonderful story," says Ms. Thomas, who credits Ms. Dunton-Downer with choosing Poe as inspiration for the Rostropovich commission.

"My sense was that her music was suited to the dark, uncanny and lyrical world of Poe," writes the librettist in the current issue of Peabody News.

"My music is definitely serious," agrees Ms. Thomas.

"I don't write light music. I try to write a rich, harmonic, serious work. My music is chromatic [but] I wouldn't say that it's dissonant."

She readily accepted the idea of using Poe, and the pair began poring through his writings.

"I love Poe. I've loved him from my early childhood, from stories my father used to tell us," says Ms. Thomas. She was born in New York, studied at Northwestern University, Yale University and the Royal Academy of Music.

L Most recently she was a Junior Fellow at Harvard University.

The centerpiece of the opera is the story of the same name, which Poe is said to have considered his best work. "But the work also incorporates fragments of many of his poems, as well as bits from other stories and from his factual life," says the composer.

Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House in Baltimore and organizer of the annual birthday observance, said the opera seemed a perfect fit for this weekend's events.

"We welcomed the chance to present even a small portion," he said.

Ms. Thomas says the opera tells of Poe's encounters with three women: his first wife, Virginia (who was also his 13-year-old cousin), Ligeia ("who maybe is real or maybe is a fantasy figure"), and his second wife, Rowena.

The latter two come from the title story.

Virginia was included in the opera for dramatic reasons, setting Poe's descent into troubled fantasy. Virginia, who was a singer, died at 24 of tuberculosis.

Peabody Opera Theatre singers Jennifer Davison, Monica Reinagel and Jenny Elliott, as Virginia, Ligeia and Rowena respectively, will sing excerpts of each character's musical themes tonight, says Roger Brunyate, artistic director of the Peabody company.

Mr. Brunyate called Peabody's mounting of the opera part of "a new opera flood I'd very much like to keep going." Although some cast changes may occur, the Peabody company will perform "Ligeia" in its May premiere in France, he said.

Ms. Thomas said the characters of Poe's significant women are expressed through their voices.

Virginia, the young girl, sings with "very little vibrato, a very clean sound." Ligeia is a "a big, warm mezzo" [soprano] and Rowena is "an aristocratic, 45-year-old, overweight, big vibrato character." She also provides "a big piece of comic relief," says Ms. Thomas.

"We felt this opera was very serious, dealing with all these heavy questions [so] . . . we felt it very much needed some lighter moments, provided by this crazy woman who makes all these scenes, doesn't like the food and hates the curtains and so on," the composer explains.

Here is the schedule of weekend observances of the 185th anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe, all taking place at Westminster Hall, Fayette and Greene streets:

"Poe . . . A Visit to the Haunted Palace," will be presented at 8 p.m. today and tomorrow. Written by Thomas Maddox Vize and produced by Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe House, the two-act drama stars David Keltz as the haunted writer. Each performance includes a prelude by organist Michael Britt, performed on the restored 1889 Johnson pipe organ.

Following tonight's play performance, members of the Peabody Opera Theater will present a short excerpt from the opera "Ligeia," based on a Poe short story and created by composer Augusta Read Thomas and librettist Leslie Dunton-Downer.

Preceding tomorrow's play performance, Dr. Kay Jamison, psychiatry professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, will discuss her book, "Touched With Fire, Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament," relating to theories that Poe suffered from the ailment.

The John F. Nicoll Pipe Band will present a bag pipe tribute both nights, and tomorrow night will lead the annual procession to the Poe grave for a ceremonial toast by Mr. Jerome.

Tickets to events tonight and tomorrow are $18 for adults; $8 for those 17 and under.

"The Heart Disclosed," a "monodrama" created by Virginia performance artist Claudia Stevens based upon the Poe story "The Tell Tale Heart," will be presented at 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday.

Each Sunday program will also include presentations of "Berenice," Poe's first horror story, with actors Tony Tsendeas and Donna Sherman, and a reading of the poem, "The Raven," by Mr. Keltz (as Poe).

Admission to Sunday programs is $9 for adults and $6 for those 17 and under.

Besides events at Westminster Hall, the Poe House at 203 N. Amity St. will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. tomorrow and Sunday, with a lock of Poe's hair and a piece of his coffin on display with other memorabilia. Admission is $3 for adults and $2 for those aged 12 and under.

For more information, call (410) 396-7932.

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