“Small Box,” a one-act opera premiering at 7 p.m. Saturday in the Buskirk-Chumley Theater, will present a look at life on death row.
The librettist, Bruce Pearson, relied on his 20 years of experience as a volunteer teacher in a death row unit in a South Carolina prison to create a personal and genuine production.
“It’s set in the visitors’ room in the death row unit in South Kentexiana, which is a fictional place, but familiar nonetheless,” Pearson said. “Everything in the drama is based on things either I have seen myself or heard from others who were present.”
The production has been a speedy collaboration of current IU students, alums and Bloomington residents.
In looking for a composer, Pearson connected with Herman Whitfield III, an IU alumnus living in Indianapolis, and a few months ago was introduced to graduate student Lesley Delk, the show’s stage director.
“I read Bruce’s libretto, and I thought it was something that sounded like an interesting project,” Delk said. “I was interested because it didn’t preach one point of view over another. It just simply is a psychological human drama, and I think that it gives people something to think about, whether they are in favor of the death penalty or opposed to it, or even just indifferent or neutral to the subject.”
Delk said the show allows people to consider how they are affected by society’s widespread influence.
“I don’t think of it as being a political work,” he said, though the opera addresses controversial issues. “I think of it more as being very humane, very much about individuals – eight individuals who in their own way are coping with a very difficult situation.”
In choosing to make an opera out of his work, Pearson also intends to bring human emotion to the topic.
“Music can bring out the emotions that are part of human life in a way that spoken drama can’t,” Pearson said.
The production includes a live orchestra, many of whom are IU alumni, Pearson said.
Because of a tight rehearsal schedule, Pearson only recently had the opportunity to hear the live accompaniment.
“It just blew me away – when you hear the whole orchestra, the music is so well suited to the emotional impact of people facing a life-and-death situation,” he said.
Both Pearson and Delk praised the cast for the work they have done on this production.
“I am just pleased and honored to be working with them,” Delk said. “That makes it very much worthwhile to me.”
Senior Lisa Runion plays Ms. Prentice in the production, an attorney for one of the inmates.
Runion said she appreciates that Pearson is available to speak with the cast about the real-life characters their roles are based on.
“The impression I got from my character is that she really wants to help people because she is very optimistic and she feels she can make a difference with these people,” Runion said. “But then there are hints in the show where she is starting to get pulled in the system herself and gets lost in the bureaucracy of it.”
Saturday marks Runion’s debut performance in an opera.
“I was very happy when I got this,” she said. “They pulled us out of cattle calls – it’s a nice surprise.”
Overall, Pearson says he hopes viewers will leave with a broadened perspective.
“One of the strange things about a death row unit is that even though people are under a death sentence, there is a long, drawn-out appeals process, and in the meantime, you carry on, you just live a normal life in so far as possible,” Pearson said.