Uncovering “Emily: A Musical Portrait”

Uncovering “Emily: A Musical Portrait”
Jan 18, 2024

“This is my letter to the World, That never wrote to Me—”penned the famed and enigmatic Massachusetts poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886). Over 160 years after her death, Dickinson’s plea is revived and recontextualized in a new work uncovering the secrets of her life and poetry.

As part of the Chamber Music at The Barns series, Wolf Trap presents the US premiere of Emily: A Musical Portrait. This hour-long theatrical setting of poetry and song originally debuted in Montreal, Canada in 2023. Almost like a miniature opera, the work dramatically explores Dickinson’s reflections on love, nature, children, pain, and loss, as well as the influential figures who shaped her poetry.

The concept for the production originated with Artistic Director Christopher Allen. As a Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award winner (an annual distinction to support promising young American conductors), Allen has extensive experience conducting some of the world’s best symphony orchestras and opera companies.

In 2022, Opéra de Montréal invited Allen to teach a masterclass for Atelier Lyrique, their artist-in residence training program. During that time, the idea for his piece came to life. Instead of just lecturing, Allen decided it would be best for the students to learn through performing the poetry of Dickinson.

“I chose Emily Dickinson because I wanted to emphasize the importance of text, of telling stories and communicating with the audience. When I thought of the next [class] project, it was important to give the singers great text to start exploring and experimenting with,” said Allen.

“Dickinson is one of my favorite American poets, and I was reading quite a bit [of her work] at the time the project was being developed. I thought it was perfect material for these young singers to ‘sink their teeth into.’”

Allen selected existing song cycles of Dickinson’s poetry that he felt amplified the authenticity of her writing. Emily: A Musical Portrait begins with songs by influential American composer Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and transitions to “Too Few the Mornings Be,” a song cycle by contemporary American composer Ricky Ian Gordon.

“I know Ricky’s music—I’ve conducted a few of his world premieres—and I love Ricky. He has the ability to express an incredible truth in one word, one melody. The combination of his craft with the text of Dickinson made it an obvious choice,” said Allen.

With the music and text set, Allen wanted the songs to further evoke a narrative about Dickinson’s life. That’s when he called on his friend Johnathan McCullough, the director of the production and a Wolf Trap Opera alumnus (’18, ’19, ’21).

Since his breakout role as Figaro in Wolf Trap Opera’s 2019 production of The Barber of Seville, McCullough has gone on to reprise the role across the country, become program director for the National Youth Opera Academy, and direct and star in a filmed production of Soldier Songs for Opera Philadelphia.

McCullough credits Wolf Trap’s training with teaching lessons that have carried him through his opera career. Considering these fond memories, he is excited to return to The Barns and to work with Emily’s cast, which includes five other Wolf Trap Opera alumni.

“I’m a very collaborative person, especially when it comes to directing. As a singer myself, I know that singers have a special connection to the words they are singing,” said McCullough.

“What I like to do is create a framework and then work with the singers as individuals to see what they feel the piece is talking about and bringing up emotionally. [I want them to have] a bit of themselves in the roles as opposed to just plugging someone in.”

McCullough is most looking forward to the song “Because I could not stop for Death,” an enthralling insight into the tragic events of Dickinson’s youth. He’s also eager for audiences to experience the “brilliant” piano playing of Allen—a rare treat given that Allen conducts more frequently than he performs.

“If you know nothing about Emily Dickinson, this is the perfect show for you. If you know all there is to know about Emily Dickinson, this is also the perfect show for you,” said McCullough. “We’ve staged the production in a way where it’s abstract enough that you can go into it knowing absolutely nothing. But if you do know things about Emily Dickinson, there are quite a few hidden treasures.”

Don’t miss the US premiere of Emily: A Musical Portrait when it debuts at The Barns on April 5, 2024. To see more of Wolf Trap’s upcoming opera and classical offerings, visit wolftrap.org/chamber