HUDSON, N.Y. -- When composer Sheila Silver debuts the world premiere of "Beauty Intolerable: A Songbook" on Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church in Hudson, N.Y, she will be looking at the culmination of two years immersed in the writings of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. She has found a journey through a writer's work and life all-absorbing.
It all started when she came across "What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why," a sonnet by Millay.
"What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why/I have forgotten, and what arms have lain/Under my head till morning; but the rain/Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh/Upon the glass and listen for reply/And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain/For unremembered lads that not again/Will turn to me at midnight with a cry" -- those are the first few lines of the sonnet, and after reading them, Silver was hooked.
Silver is an internationally recognized composer whose work has been performed and commissioned by the likes of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the RAI Orchestra of Rome. Only vaguely acquainted with Millay's work, Silver bought a book of her poetry and then read "Savage Beauty," Nancy Milford's biography of the boundary-breaking writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1923.
"I started thinking about writing an opera about her. I found that as I was doing my research, I got interested in her as a person and a persona," Silver said.
Only the third woman to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry, Millay was a ground-breaker and early feminist, whose personal life as well as her writings held equal fascination for readers and critics. Born in Rockland, Maine in 1892, and graduating from Vassar College in 1917, Millay catapulted to prominence in the 1920s and seemed to court controversy and praise in equal measure for her outspokenness, open bisexuality and romantic affairs before and during her marriage to Eugen Jan Boissevain. Referencing her colorful love life, the song cycle's title comes from a poem written by George Dillon, one of Millay's lovers during her marriage to Boissevain.
"I had this kind of journey through her work that gave me insights into love," Silver said. "Her work has this irreverence and is playful, and then it investigates this deep, heavier love."
Silver's original plan to write the opera was supported by American Opera Projects, a New York-based organization dedicated to supporting new American operas. That initial idea changed as she pored through Millay's writing. Instead of a full-scale opera, Silver chose to craft a 15-song collection of Millay's poems set to new music. Mixing genres and tones, Silver's compositions are inspired by classical music, jazz, New Orleans bass lines, and one song even uses a rap-based rhythm. It's an eclectic mix representing a complicated writer's work.
Writing for classical opera singers, Silver said she is fortunate to be able to gather three accomplished, world-class sopranos in the concert -- soprano Lauren Flanigan, mezzo-soprano Deanne Meek and lyric soprano Risa Renae Harman.
"I have these three stage personalities, with three kinds of voices. I wanted these three faces of Edna to come on and off the stage," Silver said.
It is an ambitious musical project, but Silver said she wanted to have Millay's words stand on their own. During Saturday's performance, Tony and Emmy-winning actress Tyne Daly will recite some of Millay's poetry, while stage actress Tandy Cronyn will read during the June 13 performance of the songbook at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia theater at Symphony Space, a performing arts center on New York's Upper West Side.
Along with American Opera Projects, Silver's work is sponsored by the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society at Steepletop in Austerlitz, N.Y. Based in the house owned by Millay and Boissevain, the society gave Silver access to the writer's home as part of her research.
It's a project that the society's executive director, Peter Bergman, said is very exciting.
"It's a song cycle theater piece that, while classically oriented, has a popular rhythm base," Bergman said. "She's (Silver) doing something really special here."
Bergman first fell in love with Millay's poems at only 8 years old and said he can relate to Silver's fascination with the writer's work.
"This is a word that I don't use frequently or easily, but Millay was a genius as a poet," Bergman said. "She wrote poetry in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s that touches readers so immediately in every generation as though she had just written it."
Silver said that Millay's famous quatrain "First Fig" epitomizes her appeal: "My candle burns at both ends/It will not last the night/But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends/It gives me a lovely light!"
"That's the life she lived," Silver said. "She burned her candle at both ends, it's just who she was. She lived life deeply and fully."
If you go ...
What: ‘Beauty Intolerable: A Songbook of 15 Songs,' world premiere of composition by Shiela Silver with Tony- and Emmy-winning actress Tyne Daly
Where: First Presbyterian Church, 4th and Warren streets, Hudson, N.Y.
When: Saturday at 6 p.m.
Admission: $30, general admisson; $50 reserved seating and artist's reception; $150 reserved seating, artist's reception and private tour of Steepletop