Opera House Arts Spill Light

Winter 2003
Dracula: The Covenant

by Judith Jerome, Co Artistic Director

(In the darkness we hear squeaks and the thin dry sounds of skittering bugs. A man’s voice begins and the light come up just enough to reveal him:)
- Little bug, crawling there, how’s about a bite?
– What’ya say? How’s about some dejeuner?

Kevin Gray and his wife and collaborator Dodie Pettit brought down the house last summer with “Tiny Feet” and their haunting duet “ I know You.” Kevin singing the demented Renfield, clucked and chirped into the microphone as he coaxed his six and eight legged creatures, and then gave us chills as Count Dracula finding his way into the vulnerable heart of Mina. Part of the thrill of the performance was being present at the birth, as it were, of a new work. Indeed, Stonington audiences were the first to see excerpts of “Dracula: The Covenant” a new chamber opera, or parlor piece, co-written by Gray and Pettit. In October the first staged reading of the full piece was done in Westport, Connecticut. Carol Estey and I attended the performance, and we left the theatre saying, “How can we bring this to the ‘Opera House?”

Musicals are expensive, and the Opera House technical facilities are still being rebuilt. Of course we cold do it again as a stage reading, but Carol’s directorial juices had begun to surge. She love the music, loved the pacing and energy. She wanted it on its feet, fully stage, with costumes, perhaps choreography- and she wanted to direct it herself. Gray and Pettit are old and dear friends of hers and their every and loyalty and commitment are infectious. (This is not even to mention their talent.) Carol was clear- this would be a project of great hear and meaning to her.

The project represents a new direction for both Pettit and Gray. Gray is a veteran of over 6000 performances, most of them playing leading men on Broadway. This last year was representative, with regional work all over the country: Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, the King in The King and I , Jekyll and Hyde in Jekyll and Hyde, and the Engineer in Miss Saigon. He knows theatre deeply from the inside- but e had never written a word of it. Pettit, another Broadway veteran, has written and recorded pop songs for years, but when she began to perform in musical theatre on Broadway (in CATS and the original cast of Phantom of the Opera, which is where she and Gray met) she became fascinated with that form- music carrying a sustained story line. And she was discontent searching for something new.

Gray and Pettit are unabashed in their praise of each other. “She is a Renaissance woman,” Gray says, “She can do so many things well, and she is always reaching. She shames me into action.” Pettit was provoking – so much of what she saw produced she didn’t like: why didn’t they write something? Kevin was a genius, she knew. Someone should write something particularly for him. Yeah, who? Who else? They were on tour with Titanic when Dracula was begun.

Gray was a principal but Pettit was working as understudy to eight different arts (a thing she does easily and well). She had a lot of time on her hands. Many years before she had seen Frank Langella’s Dracula (directed by John Wulp, now of Northaven) and now became somewhat obsessed with it. It seemed a perfect role for Kevin. She kept pitching it to him and on one day off, driving the countryside around Seattle, she began spinning ideas. She stopped the car at a WatMart and went in and bought a mini-tape recorder. The next day she presented him with the overture and Renfield’s song.

The piece was written in rehearsal rooms during that tour- in Seattle, Chicage, and the opulent ones of The Kennedy Center in Washington D. C. in three months. After the initial two songs were written they reread Bram Stoker’s Dracula together: she listened to a lot of Prokofiev, and Kevin wrote the libretto in a week.

It quickly became apparent to Pettit that in order to keep her stamp on the piece and turn her handwritten scores into something translatable to others, she was going to have to learn to arrange music. They came home from the tour, took their savings and bought a Mac G4 and Dodie went back to school. She studied orchestration at the New School and Mannes College- and a score for Dracula: The Covenant was born. Along with a fascinating, seductive obsessive, and theological new interpretation of the classic.

Pettit and Gray’s new direction mirrors not a new direction for the Opera House precisely, but one we are old enough new to affirm more strongly: a commitment to mew work, to work that has its origins at the Opera House. It is thrilling to watch new work develop. We will all learn a great deal from setting this brand new piece on its feet, and look to you to help us think about it and where it goes from here.