Poet's work gets an operatic treatment

Paul Clark
Black Mountain News
Gavin Dillard on the stage at the Masonic Temple in Asheville.

BLACK MOUNTAIN - Gavin Dillard’s poetry gets a full-stage presentation in next week’s staging of the opera “When Adonis Calls” in Asheville.

Director/choreographer John de los Santos created the libretto from Dillard’s work, set to music composed by Clint Borzoni. Staged by the Asheville Lyric Opera, “When Adonis Calls,” a 90-minute opera with two baritones, two dancers and a string quartet with percussion, will play at the Asheville Masonic Temple Friday-Sunday, May 11-134. Tickets, $30-$35, are available at

Gavin Dillard, inside the Masonic Temple in Asheville, has been writing poetry for some four decades.

“When Adonis Calls” is a story about an aging poet working through writer’s block and a young poet protégé who corresponds with him in letters filled with fears, loves, jealousies and creativity.

The impetus for the story, Dillard said last week, was his book of poetry, “Nocturnal Omissions: A Tale of Two Poets,” which came out of a correspondence he carried on with a young New York poet while Dillard, four decades into his career in poetry, was living in Hawaii. The two finally met nine months later. Dillard turned the correspondence and experience into a published book.

Inside the theater at the Masonic Temple in Asheville, Gavin Dillard talks about the poetry that led to the opera "When Adonis Calls."

De los Santos, resident choreographer for the Fort Worth (Texas) Opera, read it and asked Dillard if he could play around with it theatrically. Dillard said yes and sent him some more of his poetry. De los Santos started cutting and pasting it all into a libretto. “I was thrilled,” Dillard, an Asheville native, said.

De los Santos sent the libretto – the words and pieces the singers sing in an opera – to Borzoni, who has composed songs and song cycles for many leading vocalists (his honors include the Morton Feldman Award, the Boston Metro Opera Festival Award, an artist residency with the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and the Queer Urban Orchestra’s 2018 composition contest).

Asheville Lyric Opera is staging "When Adonis Calls," based on the poetry of Black Mountain's Gavin Dillard.


The resulting work – “When Adonis Calls” — was selected for inclusion in Fort Worth Opera's Frontiers showcase, and then performed in concert by operamission in New York City (the opera will also be performed by the Thompson Street Opera in Chicago in November). It won the Opera America 2017 New Works Forum Award and the 2015 Fort Worth Opera Frontiers Showcase.

Moving around piles of books on the floor, the dancers in “When Adonis Calls” (Asheville dancers Gavin Stewart and Alan Malpass) will dance the emotions that the two baritones (Trevor Martin and Joshua Jeremiah), portraying the poets, are projecting. “They (the dancers) emote what the poets are unable to,” Dillard said. “The two poets don’t meet until the last seconds of the (opera). They never touch, but the dancers do. They’re flirting with the poets, with each other, showing despair and all the emotional subtext.

“The romance in this is a metaphor. It’s less about them coming together emotionally then it is them coming together artistically. The (story) arch has them switch sides. The muse is pushy and seductive in the beginning, trying to turn on the older, tired poet. That switches, and the muse becomes shy and daunted while the poet finds himself again taking charge. The scrapping back and forth, the tension, is really about inspiration.”

This isn’t the first time Asheville Lyric Opera has performed work built upon Dillard’s poetry. In July 2017, vocalists scheduled to perform in the Asheville Lyric Opera’s production of “The Elixir of Love” in Asheville also appeared at a performance of “BARK!,” Dillard’s work, at the Masonic Temple.

“We were struck by all those beautiful words supported by all that beautiful music,” said Michael A. Ciavaglia, ALO’s music director designate. The ALO board decided to produce “When Adonis Calls” because “it’s not just a fantastic piece of art, but it’s also a fantastic piece of art by a really remarkable poet.”

Doing work by and with local artists is part of Asheville Lyric Opera’s mission, Ciavaglia said. The opera company often hires national and international singers, but it also hires local performers when it can.

“This is such an exciting thing for us, and for Gavin,” Ciavaglia said.

“When Adonis Calls” is loosely based on the “subtext” of Dillard’s life, he said, but it’s not biographical. Dillard’s first book of poetry was published when he was 17. In San Francisco, he was known as the Naked Poet for his performances in the buff.

He has since penned songs, suites and cantatas with and for Jake Heggie, Peter Allen, Chanticleer, Disney, Anne Rice, Cantaria, and numerous classical composers. He has also written comedy and patter with and for Dolly Parton, Joan Rivers, Peggy Lee, Vincent Price and Lily Tomlin. His musical “BARK!” is scheduled to play in August at the Edinburgh, Scotland Fringe Festival (the Asheville Community Theatre produced “BARK!” as well).

The poster for “When Adonis Calls” shows a discreetly shielded man, naked and sprawled on piles of books. “There are those that would say this is a gay opera, but it’s simply an opera with men,” Dillard said. “Would we call every other opera a ‘straight’ opera?”

As far as any possible nudity, “you have to show up to find out,” he said. “I will say that the piece is evocative.”