Asheville-born writer and artist Gavin Geoffrey Dillard is bold: He talks about sex openly, says f*** a lot and, during the 1980s, became so well-known for performing poems in the nude that reporters with the Los Angeles Times called him The Naked Poet. He is, in many ways, the opposite of what someone might associate with opera. And yet Dillard’s latest project, When Adonis Calls, uses the traditional art form to speak on timeless issues: life and death, spirituality and the pursuit of something bigger than ourselves.
Premiering Friday, May 11, at the Asheville Masonic Temple, When Adonis Calls reveals the intimate exchanges between an older, been-there, done-that-type writer and a young, eager fan. Adapted for the stage by director John de los Santos and composer Clint Borzoni, the performance is based loosely on Dillard’s Nocturnal Omissions: A Tale of Two Poets, a text inspired by a nine-month-long Facebook conversation Dillard shared with a New York-based poet. When presented as a libretto, the story is homoerotic and decisively modern — a first for producing company Asheville Lyric Opera.
“It will really freak out their 80-year-old Republican base,” says Dillard.
Though perceived as a rightward-leaning group, ALO is stepping out with this upcoming production. It’s the company’s first contemporary piece with an all-male, two-person cast (local dancers Gavin Stewart and Alan Malpass), and certainly the only gay-themed opera ALO has presented.
Dillard credits the shift to a recent administrative shake-up that left Clive Possinger III as president. According to Dillard, who broke bread and talked shop with the new leader on several occasions, Possinger understands that “you either stay relevant or you die” and that staying relevant in Western North Carolina means being inclusive.
“We need to change Asheville’s opera audience,” the poet says. “Because without gays and Jews, do you even have an opera?”
Of course, as a self-described “chronic rule breaker,” Dillard also sees this production as an overstated goodbye to the previous ALO administration.
By hosting such a radical performance, the organization does run the risk of unnerving veteran operagoers. In fact, there’s already been some consternation regarding the original poster, which featured men au naturel. A revised version trickled out following the initial backlash, but viewers should still anticipate a confrontational piece. When Adonis Calls isn’t a typical love story, nor does it occupy a 21st-century, boy-meets-boy trope. In fact, it’s not a romance at all.
“It’s more of a philosophical treatise and is pretty haughty in that respect,” says Dillard. “The two are arguing about life, creation, the relevance of art and aging. There’s this line in one of my poems about a fading, sagging ass. Here, that becomes physical — we’re living in a world that’s transitory, and we can’t stop that.”
It sounds heady, but there’s a lighter, sexier subtext. Since the characters are confined during the 90-minute staging, not meeting or touching until curtain call, a certain tension builds, mounting when the lights come up and the two men disrobe. The result is sensual and adult. “I’m hesitant to say,” Dillard responds when asked if the men will be completely nude. “There will be plenty of skin” but not necessarily the full monty.
Audience members also shouldn’t come expecting to see a “gay” opera. “It’s unfair to plug it like that,” Dillard says, noting that an opera with a straight man and woman wouldn’t be described as “heterosexual.” He also stresses that the production is apolitical: “It’s more about the intimacy of self.”
Presented in concert form on stages across the country, When Adonis Calls has already won Best New Work accolades from Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers and OPERA America. The Asheville iteration will be the production’s first full-length premiere, after which it’s slated for Chicago’s Thompson Street Opera Company in September. There’s also talk of a West Coast debut.
Dillard, who has only watched bits and pieces, is excited to see the collaboration (executed without its creators ever meeting in person) come alive. “It’s fun hearing my words done in such a different way. It’s like having a baby, except the child is the product of three people. The kid is neither yours nor theirs. It’s something else,” he laughs. “Aren’t they doing that in Britain now?”
He continues: “The production is emotionally driven, and its intensity and intimacy will enthrall people. They will listen in ways they haven’t before. It might even be life-changing.”
It will certainly change the way Asheville sees opera.
WHAT: When Adonis Calls
WHERE: Asheville Masonic Temple, 80 Broadway, ashevillelyric.org
WHEN: Friday, May 11, to Sunday, May 13. Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 3 p.m. $30-$35