Dana Spiotta’s 2006 coming-of-age novel Eat the Document is a complex story of idealism in the face of adversity. The same characters are seen during the underground movement of the 1970s that echoed into consequences of the same movement in the 1990s. It’s a tale of two eras as told through the fiction of a third. Mary Whitaker is a revolutionary in the ’70s alongside her partner Bobby DeSoto. Years later, he’s calling himself, "Nash" and running a leftist bookstore called Prairie Fire. The subtle complexities in a bisected stereo of historical fiction resonate through the small stage opera Antiology, which makes its way to Boswell Book Company this month courtesy of a workshop production with Milwaukee Opera Theatre. Librettist Kelley Rourke and Milwaukee Opera Theatre Producing Artistic Director Jill Anna Ponasik took some time out to answer a few questions about the show for The Small Stage.
What was the inspiration behind using EAT THE DOCUMENT as the basis for an operatic work?
Kelley Rourke: I think opera is at its most powerful when it allows us to explore what is behind and beyond the words, something that can only be expressed in music. [Composer] John [Glover] and I were really struck by the specificity and complexity of Dana’s characters as they wrestled with how to respond to the world they live in.
The space at Boswell Book is very cozy. Were other spaces considered? How did you make the decision to stage the show there?
Kelly Rourke: The material we’re workshopping features Nash, a character who runs a bookstore. When Jill Anna mentioned the possibility of collaborating with a local independent bookseller, we were thrilled.
It has to be a daunting process to distill a 290-page novel into a single production, but THIS novel is an exhaustive journey through the 1970s and the 1990s. How closely does the libretto follow the structure and format of the novel?
Kelley Rourke: John and I are at the very early stages of making the opera, which means we are talking a lot about structure and format, but we haven’t finalized anything yet. We’ve also had the opportunity to spend some time with Dana, and it’s been hugely helpful to hear more about her inspirations and ideas for the characters and scenes.
In these early stages of our process, this project with Milwaukee Opera Theater gives us the opportunity to try out some material for Nash, played by Andrew Wilkowske, and to begin to understand what his character sounds like. To fill out the evening, we’ve put together a band that will cover some of the pop songs that are important to characters in the book. The music of the 70s and 90s is a huge part of the story, and while we don’t plan to directly quote any of the songs in the actual opera, our hope is to evoke the sounds of the times through some characteristic textures and harmonies.
In addition to all of the administrative responsibilities, Jill, you're also onstage for this one. Do you find yourself relating to the show on a dual level as Artistic Director and performer?
Jill Anna Ponasik: I find producing and performing to be two completely, utterly, absolutely different activities, and so I go to great lengths to avoid doing both at the same time.
But…I adore this team, I feel like challenging myself to feel that performer fear again, and we need the additional voice to fill out the harmonies on a few of the songs. Plus, we’re trying to create an intensely informal event here, and what’s less formal than having the person selling tickets hop on stage to sing a tune?
You're doing very specific percussion here. While going into rehearsals for this show, do you find yourself relating to spoons differently in your daily life outside of rehearsal?
Jill Anna Ponasik: Shhh. I didn’t even tell the composer I planned to bring spoons. That’s supposed to be a surprise.
Milwaukee Opera Theare’s workshop staging of Antiology runs October 10 - 12 at the Boswell Book Company on 2559 N. Downer Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Milwaukee Opera Theatre online.