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New Chamber Opera at Peabody

The following is a selection of 17 works premiered (or given their deuxième) at Peabody since 1985. Almost all are chamber works with modest forces which can be presented relatively inexpensively. While many of these works began as collaborations with composers who were students when the projects started, there are also some more established figures here, and all the composers listed have now embarked upon independent careers.

The pieces are listed in descending order of duration; dates are those of the Peabody performances. Details of instrumentation are approximate; “chamber ensemble” refers to a group of 10–15 players (one to a part), similar to those used by Britten in Albert Herring, though not necessarily with the same configuration.

Where Angels Fear to Tread
Opera in three acts after the novel by E.M.Forster
Music by Mark Lanz Weiser
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
SSSS/MM/TT/Br/Bs (no chorus)
Small Mozart orchestra
140 minutes (1999)
This three-act tragicomedy is the largest new opera to have been mounted at Peabody to date. Set entirely in Italy, colorful in its range of characters and events, yet very moving in its psychological insight, Angels gives the quality of a traditional large-scale opera within the resources (small orchestra, no chorus) of a chamber company. Critics in Baltimore and Washington suggested that it should enter the repertoire alongside the chamber operas of Argento and Britten.
More information on this opera            Weiser’s Purgatory
The Alien Corn
Opera in two acts after the story by W. Somerset Maugham
Music by Thomas Benjamin
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
Small Mozart orchestra
110 minutes (2003)
This received its premiere at the Peabody Conservatory on March 9, 2005. The composer is a former faculty member at Peabody. Maugham’s tragic story about a young man of good family who goes against his parents’ wishes in seeking to become a concert pianist becomes a study in the problems of Jewish assimilation and, beyond that, an examination of the role of the artist as outsider.
More information on this opera            Benjamin’s The Joy that Kills
Defendants Rosenberg
Opera in two acts
Music and text by Ari Benjamin Meyers
Chamber ensemble
90 minutes (1996)
This is a political drama based (in collaboration with the Rosenberg family) on the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg for treason in 1953. The powerful score and demanding vocal writing is leavened by quiet humor and biting satire, but builds to a climax that is simply overwhelming. The work has now received a professional premiere in Halle, Germany, and publication by Baerenreiter.
With Blood, With Ink
Opera in one act
Music by Daniel Crozier
Libretto by Peter Krask
SSSS/MM/T/Br + small women’s chorus in pit
Chamber ensemble
85 minutes (1993)
The libretto is based on the true story of the 17th-century Mexican poet, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, whose visionary poetry, combining images of the greatest sensuality with those of a searing spiritual intensity, made her convent cell the literary salon of the Americas, until she fell foul of the church, and was made to burn her books and sign an oath in her own blood renouncing her writing. The opera is told in flashbacks by the dying Sor Juana, who occupies the stage with another singer representing her younger self until the very end when the two are reconciled. The poetic libretto by Peter Krask relates each scene to a movement of the Gregorian requiem, and themes from the chants proper to each section form the basis for Crozier’s powerful but simple music. This opera was the winner of the National Opera Association’s chamber opera competition in 1993. It has been scheduled for production by the New York City Opera in a coming season.
More information on this opera            Crozier’s The Reunion
From Geneva to Mars
A subliminal comedy in two continuous acts
Music by Charles B. Kim
Libretto by Jeffrey Shaman
Chamber ensemble, plus wordless soprano in pit
80 minutes (1996)
One of the most unusual works to have been produced at Peabody in recent years, this opera is based on the life of Theodore Flournoy, a one-time associate of Freud and Jung, who became discredited for his interest in spiritualism. The opera interweaves scenes between the three pioneers of psychoanalysis with a series of fantasies which Flournoy shares with his medium, Helene Smith: a love-idyll in 15th-century India; a hilariously irreverent visit to Versailles on the eve of the revolution; and a final scene on Mars which brings all the characters together. Charles Kim’s music, influenced by minimalism, is tuneful, evocative, and highly singable, and Jeffrey Shaman’s libretto crackles with invention. A New York performance is curently under negotiation.
The Reunion
Opera in one act
Music by Daniel Crozier
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
Chamber ensemble
80 minutes (1989)
An earlier work by Daniel Crozier (see With Blood, With Ink above), this grew directly out of the Opera Étude concept, in that the dramatic interaction of the characters was developed largely through improvisation. The setting is the ten-year reunion of a group of five women friends from a small midwestern college, interspersed with flashbacks in which they relive the jealousies and betrayals of that former time, and painfully come to terms with what they have made of their lives since graduation.
Revival, February 2004
Opera in two acts, based on Edgar Allan Poe
Music by Augusta Read Thomas
Libretto by Leslie Dunton Downer
SS/M/T + ss/mm/tt/bb + speaker/pianist
Chamber ensemble
70 minutes (1994)
This opera by the remarkable young composer Augusta Read Thomas was commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovitch and conducted by him at the Evian Festival of 1994, in a Peabody production with guest soloists. The work has since been given at Aspen, in Italy, and in Germany, and has won several important prizes. It is published by Theodore Presser. The brilliant but complex libretto relates Poe’s story of Ligeia to aspects of his own life and marriage, in a drug-induced fantasy that is made inescapably palpable by A.R.T.’s music. A difficult score, making great demands on the singers, this piece nonetheless shows a remarkably imaginative craftsman at work.
Chatter and Static
A talk-show opera in one act
Music and text by Paul Mathews
Chamber ensemble
60 minutes (1995)
Another unusual opera, this is set in a television studio during a talk show, in which the star, Gabby Martin, is interviewing the author of a book on child abuse. But events turn against Gabby as she is forced to confront her own father and to admit that the stories of her own victimhood were largely fabricated to advance her career, although she has clearly been scarred in other ways. Paul Mathews’ brilliant libretto is matched by music that is very much of our time, and captures the edgy glamor of the television world.
Opera in one act after the play by Lorca
Music and text by Kam Morrill
Chamber ensemble
60 minutes (1989)
This one-act version of the Lorca play was developed under Roger Brunyate’s aegis at the Curtis Institute in 1988–89, and given in a revised version by Peabody in 1998. Composer Kam Morrill matches Lorca’s combination of lightness and surrealism, comedy and pathos, with a score (containing both harpsichord and saxophone) that looks back at the 18th century from the idiom of the present day.
Revival, February 2004
Roman Fever
Opera in one act, after the story by Edith Wharton
Music by Robert Ward
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
Small Mozart orchestra
60 minutes (1995)
Although premiered professionally at the Triangle Opera Theatre (1993) rather than at Peabody, this opera by Pulitzer Prizewinner Robert Ward was written with collegiate performance in mind. Edith Wharton’s story recounts the meeting of two widowed Americans in Rome, twenty years after the summer they had first spent there as girls. Now, as their daughters pursue their own flirtations, the shocking truth of what really happened twenty years before comes inexorably to the surface. The principals’ roles require a substantial lyric soprano and mezzo; the daughters’ roles are lighter, and the waiter (baritone) is a very small comprimario part. There have been numerous performances of this opera since its premiere, and it has been recorded for PBS television showing in 2004.
The April Witch
Chamber opera in one act after the story by Ray Bradbury
Music by David Shapiro
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
Chamber ensemble
55 minutes (1995)
Ray Bradbury’s short story breathes music in every line, and seemed a natural for opera. It tells of an Illinois country girl with the power, once a year, to enter into the body of any living thing. Wondering what it is like to be in love, she enters the body of a girl about to go to a dance, unaware that she has already grown tired of the young man who has invited her. Like a Cinderella story in reverse, Cecy, the witch of the title, must keep the relationship together until she has persuaded the young man to declare his love. This opera was the winner of the National Opera Association’s chamber opera competition in 1995.
From Winter Darkness
Opera in one act
Music and text by Elaine Erickson
Chamber ensemble
45 minutes (1987)
This is one of several short operas by this remarkable poet and composer to have been developed at Peabody over an eight-year span. Erickson has spent a good deal of her life in and out of mental hospital, and she has the remarkable ability to write as though in her own blood. This study of a mental patient, written in anger and full of pain, nonetheless manages to transcend the situation with a quality of hope which makes for a tranquil and moving conclusion.
Ophelia Forever
Opera in one act
Music by Amy Beth Kirsten
Text by Shakespeare, Elizabeth Siddal, Christina Rosetti, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud
SSM + actor
Piano, oboe, and percussion
35 minutes (2005)
Ophelia has been portrayed in many media over the course of generations. With each generation comes a fresh analysis of her significance to Hamlet, the mystery surrounding her death, and especially her madness. Many interpretations have formed over the years and seem to coincide with an established cultural ethos regarding women of the time. Because Ophelia has served as a social mirror, she has reflected the journey of the female spirit that has sought to defy polite social labels, to resist gender-based restraints, and to forge a path that embraces both love and independence. The aim for this piece is to present the multiplicity of the character, the struggle between the aspects, and the eventual resolution of the struggle.
Playbill of premiere
The Angel’s Sarabande
Dance opera in one act
Music by David Sullivan
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
Piano quintet (in preparation)
25 minutes (1997)
The most extended work from a previous series of Opera Études, this piece tells of the reunion of two dancers, former partners, and their attempt to revive their greatest success, a dance work based on the Annunciation story entitled "The Angel’s Sarabande." As the jealousy between the two women plays out on one level, the inspiration of the dance draws them together again, and heals old wounds.
Opera in one act after the play by W.B.Yeats
Music by Mark Lanz Weiser
Chamber ensemble
25 minutes (1990)
An earlier work by Mark Lanz Weiser (see Where Angels Fear to Tread above), this is a setting of the Yeats play about a man and a boy returning to a deserted house where terrible events took place long before. Weiser’s music is relentless in the building of tension, though not without its moments of lyricism.
A Call to Arms
A Vision of Saint Joan
Music by Benjamin C. S. Boyle
Libretto by Roger Brunyate
Chamber ensemble (in preparation)
23 minutes (2001)
This is the most extended work from the most recent series of Opera Études. Encountering a wounded soldier in the fields around her home of Domrémy, the shepherdess Jeanne Darc hears of the ravages of the English in Western France, of the heroine who comes to the rescue of her country, and of her ultimate death upon the stake. Gradually, she realizes that the soldier is her own ghost and that her future, both glorious and tragic, is hers either to grasp or to refuse.
Aislinn’s Boon
Chamber opera scene
Music and text by Christopher Palestrant
Flute, cello, piano, vibes
20 minutes (1999)
This is the most highly-finished of six Opera Études written in 1999 by various composers based on mythical themes. A Celtic tale of faeries and mortals, it spins an evocative spell with very simple means, and is unfailingly gratifying to the voice.
The Joy that Kills
Operatic monodrama for concert performance
Music by Thomas Benjamin
Libretto by Roger Brunyate,
after The Story of an Hour by Kate Chopin
Solo soprano
Piano quartet (or piano, violin, viola, horn)
15 minutes (1998)
A much smaller work by the composer and librettist of The Alien Corn, this is an oddity, in that it is a monodrama for lyric soprano intended to be performed semi-staged as part of a regular chamber concert (it was commissioned by the American Chamber Players). The story by Kate Chopin is an early feminist classic about a woman trying to cope with the news of her husband’s death in an accident, and the horror of her realization that she feels relieved and, for the first time in her life, free.

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