From Opera Études to Full-length Works
The Peabody Opera Department is not merely dedicated to performing the operas of the past; it is also committed to developing the opera composers of the future. The total of new operas written, developed, and performed at Peabody in the past two decades comes to well over 60 works both large and small, together with numerous other contemporary works in our regular seasons. In this, the Opera Department works closely with the Composition Department, whose faculty all have successful operas to their credit, most notably Nicholas Maw, whose opera Sophie’s Choice received its triumphant premiere at the Royal Opera Covent Garden in December 2002, conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.
At the core of the Peabody program for composers is a project which we call Opera Études. These are short mini-operas of 10 to 20 minutes in length, with piano accompaniment and for two or three singers each. They are written not only for these singers, but actually with them, since each piece is generated by a series of dramatic improvisations along lines suggested by the composer. Recently, the program has been run every other year, featuring about half a dozen composers each time, writing their respective variations on a loosely-conceived dramatic theme. In 1999, the program, entitled Faces of Myth, re-examined traditional stories from different cultures. In 2001, a program of unusually poetic scenes for six pairs of women explored the theme Women and Memory. And on April 29–30, 2003, we presented eight more composers in Contrafact, Contrafiction, a group of works which offered fictionalized takes on situations from history or the press — the subjects included Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, Galileo and his daughter, and Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp.
In addition, we have presented nearly 20 more substantial works ranging from one-act chamber operas to large-scale pieces with full orchestra. Some of these began life as études but were developed at rather fuller length or scored for a chamber ensemble rather than piano. Others are more ambitious projects written by student composers who first cut their teeth on the études. The largest of these is Where Angels Fear to Tread, by Mark Lanz Weiser to a libretto by Peabody Opera director Roger Brunyate after the E. M. Forster novel. Another success has been With Blood, With Ink by Daniel Crozier and Peter Krask; this won the National Opera Association chamber opera competition, and has been optioned for performance by the New York City Opera. Among many other libretti, Brunyate also wrote the text for another full-length opera, The Alien Corn, after the novel by Somerset Maugham, composed by former Peabody faculty member Thomas Benjamin; this is scheduled for performance in 2004–05. A further group of operas have been written by composers outside of Peabody, but with Peabody playing a significant part in their development. One of the most interesting of these has been the Poe opera Ligeia by the composer Augusta Read Thomas, commissioned by Mstislav Rostropovich, and conducted by him with Peabody singers at Evian-les-Bains in 1994.