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Princeton partnership brings chamber opera to stage

Saturday, Aug. 29, 2009, 7:30 p.m. · Matthews Acting Studio, 185 Nassau St.

A collaboration between two longtime members of the Princeton community has produced a chamber opera based on a true story of love and courtship featuring singing, poetry and dance.

The Center City Opera Theater of Philadelphia will present the first fully staged production of "The Always Present Present" by librettist Renée Weiss and composer Peter Westergaard at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 29, in the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau St. The show then will move to Philadelphia, where it will be performed Sept. 8, 10 and 12, as part of Philly Fringe.

The opera is an extension of a book of poetry and letters by the same title published in 2006 and written by Weiss and her husband, Princeton professor Ted Weiss, an award-winning poet, editor and literary critic who died in 2003. The story draws from correspondence the two exchanged 70 years ago when they were falling in love, separated by the distance between her home in Allentown, Pa., and his graduate school in New York City. The book was the last volume of the Quarterly Review of Literature, which the Weisses edited together for nearly 60 years and which was nationally acclaimed as one of the most influential and cutting-edge literary publications of its time.

Ted Weiss came to the University as poet-in-residence in 1966, was named to the English and creative writing faculty in 1968 and retired in 1987. Westergaard, who earned his master's degree from Princeton in 1956, joined the music faculty in 1968 and retired in 2001.

"I did this book several years ago when my husband was ill, but it was in my thinking that it would make a dance opera," Renée Weiss said. "This is actually something that I wanted to do in college -- I wanted to dance to my husband's poetry."

She turned to Westergaard, who has written six other operas and who knew her husband as a fellow supporter of the arts on campus. "It's more like a song cycle with a lot of spoken material and dance," Westergaard said, noting that the letters are spoken and the poems are sung.

The Center City Opera Theater, under general and artistic director Andrew Kurtz, presented a semi-staged reading without the dancers in 2008 at the Kimmel Center's black box theater. "Although musically that worked well, I sure knew exactly how big a hole there was from not having the dancers," Westergaard said.

Weiss said that the dancers have relevance, not just in the performance so that the audience can more easily imagine what the characters are thinking, but also in her life. She was a dance major at Bard College and describes the art form as her "real passion," although she also is a skilled musician.

The Weisses grew up next door to each other in Allentown. The story follows a period early in their relationship, when she was a high school student there and he was a graduate student at Columbia University.

The opera describes their efforts to convince Ted's family that the two ultimately should be together. The opera takes place between 1939 and 1941, with the events leading up to World War II adding a sense of urgency. The collaborators said the plan is to project images from the time period to provide context.

The performance opens with the couple in 2000, when she discovers the cache of his letters to her when she was a teenager. He comes up with the idea of the book as a 60th anniversary "present" that "will keep us in constant memory" -- "The Always Present Present."

The cast will include: baritone Jason Switzer as Ted; soprano Darlene Kelsey as Renée; Jesse Jones as the male dancer; Nicole LaBonde as the female dancer; Jennifer K. Lee on violin; Glenn Fischbach on cello; and Jody Schum on piano.

The Princeton performance will include a showing of the award-winning 1987 documentary "Living Poetry: A Year in the Life of a Poem" by filmmaker Harvey Edwards. Tickets are $20 and are available online, by calling (215) 238-1555 or at the door.

The performances in Philadelphia are set for 8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 8, Thursday, Sept. 10, and Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Lantern Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets. Prior to the Sept. 10 performance at 5 p.m., there will be a free discussion titled "The Genesis of 'The Always Present Present'" with Kurtz, Weiss and Westergaard.

At 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12, the documentary "Living Poetry: A Year in the Life of a Poem" will be shown again. Admission is $5.

Tickets for the Philadelphia performances are $25 and are available online, by calling (215) 238-1555 or at the door. Each performance is doubled-billed with another Philly Fringe Center City Opera Theater production, "Darkling," composed by Stefan Weisman, who earned a Ph.D. in music from Princeton in 2006. Of the other two such productions, "The Great Blondin" and "Paul's Case," the latter features composer and librettist Gregory Spears, who earned a Ph.D. in music from Princeton in 2007.

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