Performance preview: ‘Judevine’ opera brings vet’s struggles to life

VERGENNES — “These are your neighbors. They’ve just walked off the back road and gotten onto the stage,” says Brookfield composer Eric Nielson. He’s talking about “A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine,” his collaboration with noted Vermont poet and playwright David Budbill.

“A Fleeting Animal” opened last Friday at the Barre Opera House. This coming Saturday, Sept. 19, it makes its stop at the Vergennes Opera House as part of its tour around the state.

“A Fleeting Animal,” which is being restaged for the first time since its premiere in 2000, focuses on recently returned Vietnam vet “Tommy” and his love affair with “Grace,” a struggling single mother. Both Tommy and Grace are native Vermonters. Yet both now feel themselves to be outsiders in the place they’ve always known as home — Tommy because of his struggle to come to terms with his war experience, Grace because she’s been accused of child abuse and gets called a “slut” by other townswomen who see her as a threat to their husbands.

“The issues in the piece are even more relevant now than when it first premiered 15 years ago,” said Nielson. “With something like 32 veterans dying by suicide every day in the United States, (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is an enormous issue. As a society, we do not take seriously enough the human consequences of war. There’s also rural poverty, how we protect and care for children, and racism — How do you accept people who look different from you? We’ve tried to make the performance not just an end in itself but a community conversation starter because we think that these issues are important.”

Budbill began writing poems about the inhabitants of Judevine — an imagined but close-to-the-bone rural community in the Northeast Kingdom  — in the 1970s. The poems came out of his experience living in Wolcott, where he’s built his life and career until a recent move to Montpelier. “Chain Saw Dance,” his first published collection of Judevine poems, came out in 1977. Since then he has continued to celebrate and imagine the lives of ordinary Vermonters — lives full of hard work, hard luck, hard times and humor — through an ongoing series of poems set in Judevine. In 1991, White River Junction publisher Chelsea Green anthologized decades of Budbill’s Judevine poems in a single volume, “Judevine: The Complete Poems, 1970-1990.”

Budbill has adapted “Judevine” for the theater in at least two different versions. And in one form or another, “Judevine” has been staged 65 times in 24 states since the 1980s.

But a “Judevine” opera was a first.

“I really wanted to do a Vermont opera,” said Nielson, who composed the opera after landing a commission from the Vermont Opera Theater in Montpelier. “I’d heard about ‘Judevine’ a lot and I took it out of the library and I read it and then along came the commission.”

Nielson looked for other Vermont sources for his opera, but found himself drawn repeatedly to Budbill’s characters.

“I kept coming back to ‘Judevine’ because there was so much passion,” he said.

While the world of David Budbill’s “Judevine” sprawls across every hill and valley of his imaginary Northeast Kingdom hamlet, Nielson and Budbill knew that an opera needed a tighter story. Budbill decided to focus on Grace and Tommy’s stories and also decided to add two additional outsiders not found in his original collection of poems: Tommy’s two African American vet buddies, James and William.

“It all seemed so natural to add the two Black guys, since they were, although not of the same race, they were from the same class in the society — for lack of better words, from the working class, the working poor, that strata of society that fights all our wars,” Budbill notes on his website.

With the 2015 restaging of the opera, the artists and producers behind “A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine” are especially concerned to reach out to veterans. There’s been a talk-back session after each performance for all who are interested. The talk-back session after the Vergennes performance will be lead by Emily Gould, a Montpelier-based mediator who’s worked in Rwanda; a representative from the South Burlington Vet Center; Iraq and Afghanistan veteran John Turner of Bristol; and composer Eric Nielson.

The performance features a number of Vermont-based singers, including some familiar to local audiences. Middlebury resident Jessica Allen performs as a Townsperson. Opera Company of Middlebury attendees might also recognize Sarah Cullins of Burlington, and New York-based Johnny Lee Green. The production is directed by Margo Whitcomb; Anne Decker conducts.

“I’ve never been in an opera about Vermont,” said Allen who teaches voice in Middlebury, is co-founder of the Middlebury Bach Festival and is director of music at the Congregational Church of Middlebury. “It’s been really fun to work on a project that is this challenging musically and that has so many different layers to it. It’s exciting to think that we’re also raising awareness and potentially helping other people by staging an opera that brings out all of these issues”

“A Fleeting Animal: An Opera from Judevine” will be performed at the Vergennes Opera House, Saturday, Sept. 19, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets for students and for veterans are $5 (each veteran can also get a $5 ticket for a guest). General admission tickets are $25. For more information call the Vergennes Opera House at 802-877-6737 or go to vergennesoperahouse.org.

Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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