Mutual Admiration Brings Alumnae Together on Opera Project

| May 4, 2012

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,” Joan says.

Nearly 60 years later their paths crossed again, this time when Joan’s work drew Dorothy’s admiration. They became friends and collaborators long enough for Joan to learn first-hand the kind of intellect and spirit Dorothy possessed.

Dorothy, 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,” Joan says. “She was terribly compelling and intriguing. The minute she opened her mouth, you had to listen.”

Joan 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 Dorothy’s ear, the Virginia Arts Festival’s “Pocahontas.”

It so happened that Dorothy and her former husband, composer John Duffy, were looking for a librettist. Joan accepted the offer and completed the work in early 2010. John 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 Dorothy’s project. She personally covered Joan’s commission. It was an idea she pursued for 20 years, according to John. Although divorced, the couple remained close and he took care of her during her illness at her Hampton, Va., home.

When Dorothy approached Joan about the opera several years ago, she thought it odd at first.

“I mean, who writes operas about the Old Testament?” Joan says. “But I was immediately taken by the fact that Dorothy was so taken with it.”

Dorothy read the libretto before she died, and Joan 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,” Joan 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.

Joan’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, Joan 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.

Dorothy Rouse-Bottom obituary to go with story (photo included)


Dorothy Rouse-Bottom

Dorothy Rouse-Bottom, Class of 1949, died Oct. 12, 2011, at home in Hampton, Va. She was 83.

Dorothy’s family owned the Daily Press in Newport News and she was an editor there from 1977 until 1986 when it was sold. She also served on the board of directors.

She had a great love for the history and culture of the Tidewater area, especially Hampton. She gave generously of her time, talent and money to support myriad heritage and arts organizations, including the Hampton History Museum, Fort Monroe National Monument and the Virginia Arts Festival.

Known as a scholar, Dorothy’s interests were far-ranging. They included raising championship dogs, gardening and sailing. She wrote the lyrics for two works celebrating the centennial celebration of then-Newport News Shipbuilding. She served on numerous boards including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, Virginia Opera and Virginia Symphony.

In Rouse-Bottom’s Daily Press news obituary, Hampton Mayor Molly Ward said, “Dorothy was a gracious, brilliant, funny and warm human being. She was that rare scholar who lit up every room she ever walked into.”

Dorothy graduated from Sweet Briar with a degree in religion and later earned a master’s from Columbia University. Early in her career, she worked in New York as a book editor at various publishing houses. Her marriage to theologian Langdon Brown Gilkey, with whom she had a son, Mark Whitney Gilkey, ended in divorce.

While living in New York in the 1960s, she met and married the American composer John Duffy. Although their marriage of many years eventually ended, the pair remained close friends and collaborators. John cared for her during the illness leading up to her death.

In 1988, Sweet Briar named her a Distinguished Alumna.


Category: Summer 2012