Haunted, a dance opera for baritone, three dancers, string quartet and percussion, is the latest collaboration between California’s poet laureate Dana Gioia and Lehigh composer Paul Salerni.

Haunted is a 200-line poem that is a first-person tale of a young man who feels out of place in his wealthy lover’s family mansion one weekend. He sees the ghost of a beautiful woman who tells him, “You don’t belong here.” The poem is part of Gioia’s latest book, 99 Poems: New and Selected. Salerni, the NEH Distinguished Chair in the Humanities and professor of music, thought it would make an interesting opera.

“I got this idea about a year ago,” says Salerni. “Dana was at the West Chester poetry conference, which he founded, so I went down and spoke with him. We’ve worked together many times, and I’ve been trying to get him to write a libretto for a second opera. When I saw this poem, I said this could turn into something unique. Dana also saw the possibilities, suggesting that much of the story could be communicated through dance. So we decided on a mixture of opera, narration, slides and ballet. Dana likes to call it a ‘dance opera.’ And the theme is timely because the interest in ghosts is big these days.”

Written as a six-scene, one-act opera, Haunted is the second operatic venture between Gioia and Salerni. The pair created Tony Caruso’s Final Broadcast, for which Gioia wrote the libretto and Salerni composed the music. The work won the National Opera Association award for best new chamber opera and was premiered in Los Angeles in 2008.

Joining this project is choreographer Michael Spencer Phillips, whom Salerni knows from Phillips’ work as a dancer with the RIOULT Dance Company. Salerni’s 2012 ballet FABLES was written for RIOULT. Supported by a grant from Lehigh’s Humanities Center, Salerni performed three scenes from Haunted in a workshop this spring at Zoellner Arts Center. 

“We got some good feedback from the performance, and I subsequently went out to California to work on the piece with Dana,” Salerni says. “Given what we learned from the workshop, we revamped the structure of the piece, cutting much of the spoken narration and re-imagining the final moments of the piece. We also watched a video of Michael’s choreography for the third scene, a dance of seduction and betrayal. The beauty of that dance confirmed our conviction that dance could communicate much of the story.” 

Salerni envisions completing the work by the end of the year with a premiere performance at Lehigh during the 2018-19 season. After a quick count, he says he and Gioia have worked together on nearly 20 projects. 

Gioia is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning poet. Before his role as poet laureate, he was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. At Lehigh, Salerni teaches composition and theory and directs the Lehigh University Very Modern Ensemble (LUVME). Salerni’s latest CD, Speaking of Love, features songs of poems by Gioia.