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WORDS INTO MUSIC: The members of Del Sol show off the unique costumes created by Lesley Dill for 'Divide Light.'

Emily's List

Montalvo Arts Center's one-time offer: a new opera by Lesley Dill and Richard Marriott about Emily Dickinson

By Scott MacClelland

BANISH air from air, divide light if you dare ..."

Just what is Emily Dickinson saying here? And whom is she challenging? According to prominent New York artist Lesley Dill, these are only two of many questions to be answered in Divide Light, her new opera about the poet. The work, with music by Richard Marriott, will receive its world premiere at Montalvo Arts Center on Aug. 13, in one performance only.

If this is the first you've heard of it, odds are you'll have to scramble to get tickets. (Montalvo, which commissioned the piece long ago, posted scenes and images from it on its website.) But this certainly won't be the last time Divide Light gets exposure. "We've been talking to Rutgers University, universities in Tennessee and Connecticut and venues in Portugal," says Marriott, who was well known in the Bay Area during the '70s and '80s for his silent-film scores and the Club Foot Orchestra that played them. Of Divide Light, he says, "It's certainly going to have a life after Montalvo."

Those familiar with Dill's visual art may not know of her performance works. She was born into a musical family, and music was a constant throughout her youth. Dill, a Montalvo artist in residence, sees Divide Light as a culmination of her life's work. "My whole work revolves around language in general and Emily Dickinson in particular," she says.

Words and phrases have long appeared on her costumes, painted on human faces and bodies and in oversize projections, and Divide Light is no exception. "Sounds and words come into the body in a different way as if the whole intent is wrapped around the word," she says, punctuating the thought with a phrase from Dickinson, "profound precarious property."

Divide Light, which Marriott expects to last about 85 minutes, makes use of the Del Sol String Quartet (adding percussion and some electronics) and the 45 voices of San Jose's Choral Project, plus soprano Jennifer Goltz, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Moss and baritone Andrew Eisenmann. The "action" will take place before a video installation of Dickinson poems and Dill's black-and-white photographs. Anyone who realizes the profound effect language has on the way we think will recognize Dill's metaphorical use of words as "cloaking or revealing the human soul."

To impart a narrative to the piece, Dill designed an "emotional arc," explaining that "because it has an arc and uses the voice in a particular way, it falls squarely into the operatic world." After a big opening, the poems pass through three "progressions" going from dark to light, "from perhaps a less confident, less informed viewpoint to the more informed, more ecstatic." She also promises that it isn't just about music, costumes and words but also acting and choreography.

Marriott says that his musical "style" for the opera is influenced by Tan Dun, particularly his Ghost Opera of 1995, similarly lean of instrumentation and presented with contemporary theatrics plus some new string effects. "In this piece, I try to maintain the lyricism of Italian opera," he explains. "I am not necessarily a fan of what John Adams does with the voice," he explains, "where the orchestra takes the melodic roles away from the voices."

From start to finish, Divide Light took its creators three years. It was conceived as a "journey of the soul" by Dill and composer Thomas Edward Morgan, her collaborator-partner for seven years, in conjunction with the visionaries at Montalvo Arts Center. Illness prevented Morgan from composing the music. When Marriott came on board, Dill poured her "passion" into him nonstop, hoping to inspire similar enthusiasm.

Today, the two form a mutual admiration society. "It's been a wonderful collaboration," Marriott says. "She has a keen sense of music and I have an interest in the visual arts and her viewpoints." And Marriott adds, "it's different from what a music person would typically offer."

 DIVIDE LIGHT plays Wednesday (Aug. 13) at 8pm at the Garden Theatre, Montalvo Arts Center, 15400 Montalvo Road, Saratoga. Tickets are $20–$55. (408.961.5858)

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