Several events celebrate Elizabeth Spencer’s 100th birthday

The beloved characters created by Mississippi author Elizabeth Spencer are returning to the South with a University of Mississippi Opera Theatre production of “The Light in the Piazza,” which is the focus of a SouthTalk sponsored by the UM Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

man in white button down shirt smiling with his hands in his pockets, standing against a wall
Adam Guettel, composer for ‘The Light in the Piazza,’ is set for a series of public programming observing author Elizabeth Spencer’s 100th birthday at the university. The events include a SouthTalks discussion, set for noon Wednesday (Nov. 3) about Spencer and her most famous work. Courtesy photo

Composer Adam Guettel, director Blake McIver and actress-singer Mary Donnelly Haskell will have a conversation about “The Light in the Piazza” at noon Wednesday (Nov. 3) in Paris-Yates Chapel. The 1960 novella, which was Spencer’s most famous work, became a popular movie and, in 2005, an acclaimed Broadway musical.

Faculty in Southern Studies look forward to any opportunity to partner with the Department of Music, said Afton Thomas, associate director for programs.

“This year our programming theme is Mississippi Voices, and Carrollton native, writer and author Elizabeth Spencer was an appropriate voice to highlight,” Thomas said.

“The Center wanted to offer a complement to the production by hosting a conversation featuring Adam Guettel, faculty guest artist, stage director Blake McIver and UM alumna-cast member Mary Donnelly Haskell for a conversation that explores Spencer, her novella, Guettel’s rationale for and process of creating a musical from Spencer’s work, and the themes, characters and concepts revealed in both pieces.”

Spencer was born July 19, 1921 in Carrollton and attended Belhaven College and Vanderbilt University. She taught English and creative writing at UM in 1948-51 and 1952-53. She is the author of nine novels, five collections of short stories, a memoir and a play.

“Spencer is an understudied Mississippi writer, but an important creative voice who used the world as the setting for her fiction and ultimately did her best writing outside of the state,” said Katie McKee, director of the center. “We are delighted to highlight her work through this production.”

Guettel is a composer steeped in the opera and musical theater traditions of America. The grandson of Richard Rodgers – of Rodgers and Hammerstein – and son of writer-composer Mary Rodgers, Guettel is well-versed in the history of American musical theater forms. A Tony Award-winning composer in his own right, his work is helping move those forms forward.

“The Light in the Piazza” was nominated for 11 Tony Awards and won six, including two for Guettel, for original score and orchestration.

Haskell played Margaret in a 2009 production of “The Light in the Piazza” in Los Angeles, in which Ewing also performed the role of Fabrizio. Originally from Beaumont, Texas, Haskell was crowned Miss Mississippi in 1977 and graduated with distinction from UM in 1981.

She has starred in episodes of “Touched by an Angel,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Sisters,” “Diagnosis Murder,” “Days of Our Lives” and more than 20 movies for television, including two of the Hallmark Channel’s highest-rated Christmas movies: “Once Upon a Christmas” and “Twice Upon a Christmas.”

An accomplished singer, she has performed at venues including the Kennedy Center and the White House, and with the Prague Symphony Orchestra. She is also a popular recording artist, having released four children’s CDs, an adult contemporary album and a collection of sacred hymns and praise songs.

Man in blue button up shirt
Actor and musician Blake McIver Ewing is the UM Opera Theatre’s artist-in-residence and director for the production of ‘The Light in the Piazza.’ Submitted photo

Ewing is the Opera Theatre‘s artist-in-residence and director for the production.

Performing on network television at age 6, Ewing was always just as interested in what went on behind the camera as in front of it. His starring roles on hit series such as “Full House” and “Hey Arnold” led to feature films including “The Little Rascals” and gave him an opportunity to work with Steven Spielberg and Penelope Spheeris. His creative accomplishments range from film and television to live theater and the recording studio.

The upcoming UM Opera Theatre production of “The Light in the Piazza” takes the stage at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Artson Nov. 19 and 21.

In collaboration with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and other partners, the Department of Music will host Guettel in a Nov. 3-5 residency of public programming. Besides the SouthTalk lecture, Guettel will give a master class in Nutt Auditorium and will be a guest on Living Music Resource’s “LMR Live” program.

Tickets to “The Light in the Piazza” are on sale through the UM Box Office at 662-915-7411 or online. Click here to purchase tickets to the 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 or the 3 p.m. Nov. 21 performances.

For more information on Elizabeth Spencer, see this Mississippi Encyclopedia entry about her.

Written by Rebecca Lauck Cleary