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  • Writer's pictureWallace Wilhoit Jr.

Lily Sisters & Spiral Staircases

I stumbled, quite by accident, into libretto writing. It was my MFA thesis project. I was writing a play, I thought. I had, however, structured an opera libretto according to my Advisor. This “accidental” libretto was Stillwaters.

While writing Stillwaters I was living in Bat Cave NC, on a mountaintop outside Asheville. I had moved there from NYC, 2006, to complete the work. I also wanted to be closer home. My mother had been diagnosed with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s.

I’m told my writing style lends itself to librettos because it’s short, concise, and to the point. It leaves a lot of room for a composer to add the additional layer of music. I continue to write musicals also. The subject matter tells me if it’s a musical or an opera. I’m lead in the direction the story wants to go. That sounds a little mystical or woo-woo; but I assure you it works for me.

The idea for La Trout Lily (LTL) began with the name of a small store. I drove by it on my way home each weekend from Bat Cave, NC to Greeneville, TN. Its name was Trout Lily. I thought, “Great name for a family estate down south. I can put a La in front of it.” I initially thought Trout Lily had something to do with fish. I soon found out it’s the name of a species of lily – a very popular flower at weddings and funerals.

After I received my MFA in 2007, I moved back to NYC; and I was invited to join a writer’s group. La Trout Lily was born in that group.

LTL became the name of the Winthrop family estate. Viola Mae is the matriarch. She has three sons – Argyle, the older; Benedict, the middle; and, Lazarus, the younger. Her three deceased older sisters are Dorothe Louise, Anna Sabine, and Ruby Stella.

The names of characters are representative of the person. Argyle is flamboyant like the socks. Benedict stands straight and tall like a soldier. Lazarus returns home after a long absence. The three sisters are names of daylilies.

The major set piece, the spiral staircase, symbolizes the descent of Viola Mae into madness. The sons are losing their mother to dementia. The Christmas Room signifies her refuge - a kinder, gentler, and happier past.

My libretto is not biographical; although there are resemblances. I have two brothers and my mother had three older sisters. My mother did die of Alzheimer’s. Alzheimer’s is a form of dementia; but, all dementia is not Alzheimer’s.

I began to write LTL a couple years after my mother was initially diagnosed. Most of my writings, librettos and standard musicals, do involve family. I write about a moment in a life that, like a pebble thrown into a pond, creates ripples upon ripples. A single event reverberates down the years and touches everyone’s life along the way.

Viola Mae moves back and forth from her dementia “reality” to present day reality. She talks to her dead sisters. They are the conversation voices in her head. There is a tragic incident described by her at the beginning of Act II. Did the event truly happen or is it a product of her dementia? She believes it because it is her “reality” in that moment.

I joined an Alzheimer’s support group during my mother’s decline. We were told early on, “You step into their world. You do not expect them to step into yours.” Their world becomes their reality. I had Viola Mae inhabit both worlds at various times. The tragic event described, whether real or imaginary, is mirrored by an actual re-enactment at the end. Her realities collide.

Why did it take me so long, fifteen years, to bring La Trout Lily to fruition? To work with a composer. To have singers inhabit the characters. To let a director create their vision. Designers to bring the “world” of LTL to the stage. Because it’s hard to let go of “the baby.” I find it difficult, and frightening, as a writer to finally say the words, “It’s ready. It’s time to let others join in the process.”

I write, write, rewrite, rewrite, reimagine, then rewrite some more. In 2007, in the NYC writing group, I wrote Act I. I enraged the leader of the group because I killed off Viola Mae. “You killed off your lead character!?” he said. “How can you do that?” It made sense to me at the time. After all I brought her back in Act II to join her deceased sisters. “She can no longer interact with her sons, if she’s dead.” Well, he was right, so Viola Mae lived on in future drafts.

LTL was written with the idea of jazz music in mind. It’s down south after all. It’s in New Orleans country. It demands jazz. Paul Scherer, a Chicago jazz pianist and composer, found me and we formed a collaboration. – La Trout Lily, a Jazz Opera.

I set all my writings in the South. I grew up in East Tennessee. I know the rhythm of the language spoken in the South. It’s a very musical dialect.

I never bring my stories to a perfect, tied with a bow, ending. I like the feeling of continuation. Life goes on. The characters continue their struggles. I want the audience to leave the theatre with their own perceived endings. All imaginings are possibilities. In theatre, as in life, all questions don’t have answers.


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