Small Box, a new opera set in a death row visiting room, will have its world premiere in Bloomington next month. The opera will be performed for one night only on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 7 p.m. at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater.

With music by Herman Whitfield III and a libretto by Bruce L. Pearson, the one-act, hour-long opera takes a serious look at the death penalty without arguing either for or against.

"The opera," Pearson said in a phone interview, "offers a fairly typical cross-section of those who find their way to death row." With Small Box he hopes to "make people think by presenting a realistic view of prison life." The raw material, Pearson said, "is from getting to know the guys on the row."

"The opera offers a fairly typical cross-section of those who find their way to death row."- Bruce L. Pearson

Pearson is an Indianapolis native who lives in Bloomington and holds degrees from Earlham College, Indiana University and the University of California at Berkeley. He taught anthropology and linguistics at the University of South Carolina for 31 years before retiring to Bloomington.

During his years in South Carolina, Pearson taught college classes in the state prison and later worked as a volunteer teacher and counselor in the prison's death row unit. Every incident in the opera has actually taken place, some on death rows in places other than South Carolina.

The opera has a cast of eight -- six men and two women. Two of the men are prison officers assigned to the death row visiting room. The officer in charge is an older man, whose assistant is a new officer, still learning the ropes after two weeks on the job.

One inmate is a multiple murderer who, because of a judge's error, had his death sentence reduced to life in prison. He works as the unit's janitor. Among the other inmates is a mentally retarded man who is visited by his attorney, a young woman. Another is a mentally deranged youth who heard voices telling him to go to a schoolyard and shoot the children there. Finally, there is a young man who was involved in a murder for which his partner has already been executed. He has now received an execution date and receives a visit from his wife and infant son.

"Pearson is an Indianapolis native who lives in Bloomington and holds degrees from Earlham College, Indiana University and the University of California at Berkeley."

Whitifield, the composer, is a two-time winner of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's Emerging African-American Composers competition. His works have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Indianapolis Symphony and other orchestras. He is an adjunct professor of music at Martin University in Indianapolis.

Whitfield studied at IU, the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Oberlin Conservatory. He has composed music for films and was selected as a participant in the 2007 Aspen Music Festival and the School's Film Scoring Institute. At Indiana, he studied piano performance and political science. At the Cleveland Institute he studied orchestral conducting. Small Box is his first opera, and he will conduct the premiere performance.

The stage director is Lesley Delk, a Bloomington-based soprano enrolled in the doctoral program in operatic stage direction at the IU Jacobs School of Music.

Small Box is the product of a "happy collaboration" by the librettist and composer. After he finished the libretto, Pearson joined the Composers' Forum and placed a notice in its newsletter indicating that he was looking for someone to write the music for the libretto. One of the respondents was Whitfield, and after extensive conversations, the two recognized that they were "on the same wavelength." Pearson and Whitfield plan to work together on the rest of a trilogy of operas, the remaining two not yet set to music.

The performance is sponsored by the Bloomington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the statewide Indiana Information Center to Abolish Capital Punishment.

Linda Greene can be reached at lgreene@bloomington.in.us.