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Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Dana Kaufman, Emily & Sue... An A Cappella Pop Opera Based on the Lives of Emily Dickinson and Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson


Sometimes you wake up and find yourself in a world that is changing and like my grandfather  holding his ears long ago at my brother's wedding as the reception record player blared "It's My Party," you sometimes feel Pop culture is rolling along without you. All I have to do for that feeling is to watch Jeopardy with some amazement as the contestants all seem to KNOW Pop culture things I have no idea about. Doubtless it is a factor to blame of isolation and a little a lack of money to invest in the flavors of the moment. And it is true that all that has little bearing on the "high" culture echelons and historical panoramas I tend to dwell in. But every so often like with the story of Freda Kahlo and Diego Rivera maybe 30 years ago, or Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta, there are things contemplated by those in high culture that find their way to a general cache so that you need to be aware of what it says to our gender and relationship understanding, for example.

So such a thing is for sure in the works regarding the story of poet brilliance Emily Dickinson and her would-be-partner-friend Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, star-crossed lovers now portrayed in movies, etc. And so we have now the appearance of an a cappella Pop Opera that portrays the story with music by Dana Kaufman, libretto by Aiden K. Feltkamp, and some poignant texts including Dickinson's poems and other communications as well as those of Ms. Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. All this we have on the 40 minute CD of the opera, Emily & Sue (Adhyaropa CD).

Well so what to make of it all? The music is interesting, just harmonized vocals and sometimes beatbox vocals, and yes it is a kind of Pop thing. My first listen I came away from feeling that I should ideally know the story to begin with, that the music and libretto assume this and climb atop an emotional-tragic demeanor one understands but if you are not that well versed in Dickinson bio or her poetry--I confess I have not read her as much as I should have--you feel you perhaps are eavesdropping in on a touching exchange of words and perhaps need an expanded, more contextual knowledge to emote in parallel along with the music. Otherwise it has a little too much affect to ponder without already feeling it, or that was my first blush with it anyway. Pop of course can ordinarily emote in a very highly wrought manner and the usual Pop song framework makes such of it all pretty obvious as to the given scenario at hand. Here we probably should consult a libretto as one goes on; that is a sort minimal grounding to understand it,  but sadly it is not a part of the CD packaging. Yet that probably is secondary to gauging the impact of the music per se, so we are glad in the end to have it all well performed to hear with this release in any event.

And for that it is some very well turned melodics, some nicely conceived part writings, and then the sort of dramatics in a portrayal of the text. So "open the door" and "I am right on the other side" stand in for sad misconnections, and which is text and which libretto? I am not clear about that but it has a leveling in the presentation and so it is good to experience it all and get something from it all despite not being sure about the exact provenance of every passage. The Pop sort of vocal delivery with little vibrato and a kind of plain presence gives the whole a matter-of-fact air that helps you grasp the immediacy of its here-now for us today. And the phrasings and melodizing seem never banal but opening out to our ears as we listen without distraction.

Nonetheless the singing is very well done and the music bears repeated hearings. My sympathy goes out to these two in their unhappy quandary and I feel very much by listening the implicit yet no less horrible sorts of repressions back then. They should be understood today and we should take them to heart and never go back. That is my thought. 

So you might love this music. I appreciate it and am glad to spend the time to know it here. You should give it a chance with more than one listen. Do not miss it!

If you are in and around New York City right now you might want to check out a upcoming screening of the film version of the opera on November 19th and 20th at the Tank in the city. It was created by Four/Ten Media and directed by Ron Bashford. It was filmed in Emily Dickinson's actual bedroom in what is now the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, MA. 

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