Joan Vail Thorne ’51, two years behind Dorothy Rouse-Bottom at Sweet Briar, knew the older girl mostly through mutual friends and by reputation.
“I was in total awe of her,” Thorne says.
Nearly 60 years later their paths crossed again, this time when Thorne’s work drew Rouse-Bottom’s admiration. They became friends and collaborators long enough for Thorne to learn first-hand the kind of intellect and spirit Rouse-Bottom possessed.
Rouse-Bottom, a former newspaper editor and owner, and a well-loved figure in Virginia’s Tidewater region, died Oct. 12, 2011, following an illness.
“She was a generous spirit to say the least,” Thorne says. “She was terribly compelling and intriguing. The minute she opened her mouth, you had to listen.”
Thorne is an award-winning playwright, best known for her off-Broadway “The Exact Center of the Universe,” and a director with credits on and off-Broadway and in regional theater. She’s also written the libretto for several operas, including the one that caught Rouse-Bottom’s ear, the Virginia Arts Festival’s “Pocahontas.”
It so happened that Rouse-Bottom and her former husband, composer John Duffy, were looking for a librettist. Thorne accepted the offer and completed the work in early 2010. Duffy continues to work on the opera, which tells the story of King David and Joab.
The “Sword and the Lyre” was commissioned by the Virginia Arts Festival, but it is Rouse-Bottom’s project. She personally covered Thorne’s commission. It was an idea she pursued for 20 years, according to Duffy. Although divorced, the couple remained close and he took care of her during her illness at her Hampton, Va., home.
When Rouse-Bottom approached Thorne about the opera several years ago, she thought it odd at first.
“I mean, who writes operas about the Old Testament?” Thorne says. “But I was immediately taken by the fact that Dorothy was so taken with it.”
Rouse-Bottom read the libretto before she died, and Thorne says she was enthusiastic about it. David, king of Judah and Israel, angers God by ordering the death of Uriah and taking his wife Bathsheba for his own. With this act, the prophet Nathan tells David, “The sword shall never depart from your own house.” The events that follow bear out the prophecy.
“She saw the story as having profound consequences for our time,” Thorne says, although in a broad sense. “I don’t think she ever said the words Palestine or Israel. It’s almost bigger than that. Why must we settle everything the way we settle them, with weapons and enmity?”
The Virginia Arts Festival is planning for the opera to be on its spring 2014 schedule.
Thorne’s latest work, “Missing Pieces,” is due to be read at the Women’s Project theater and she is working on a musical adaptation of an Edith Wharton ghost story. She’s also helping to organize a celebrity reading of classic but forgotten women’s plays at the August conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
And once a week, Thorne commutes from Newtown, Pa., to New York City to teach at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. With that kind of work ethic, it’s no wonder Sweet Briar named her a Distinguished Alumna in 1995.
Rouse-Bottom also was a Distinguished Alumna. Click here to read more about her.
Contact: Jennifer McManamay