Peabody’s Opera Etudes and the Future of Contemporary Opera

April 12, 2023 | by Clara Kelly

Vocalists and composers workshopping in Opera Etudes class

In December 2022, the Metropolitan Opera announced their intention to shift their programming for upcoming seasons to focus more on new works by living composers. This shift is part of a new, multi-pronged strategy to help the organization recover financially from the impacts of the pandemic. Especially since the pandemic, new works—like The Hours, by composer and Peabody faculty member Kevin Puts—have proven more popular with audiences and more lucrative for the Met than operas from the traditional canon. This shift in focus by the largest opera company in the United States accompanies a growing interest in new opera—an interest shared by audience members and performers. One such example at Peabody is Opera Etudes.

Here at Peabody, student composers and performers have the opportunity to create new opera and explore this exciting and growing field by participating in the Opera Etudes program. In Opera Etudes, a two-semester class offered every other year, composers and vocalists collaborate on several short projects throughout the year, discussing compositional techniques, completing exercises to develop characters, writing libretti collaboratively, and workshopping musical lines. Last fall semester, 12 composers and more than 25 vocalists collaborated on recitative, duets, and trios, and finished the semester with public performances of triptych-like works setting one text in three different ways. The scope of these assignments and their modular nature, with different small groups of musicians working together throughout the semester, were developed during the 2020-21 Opera Etudes course, which was carried out in a virtual and hybrid format due to the pandemic. Now back to a fully in-person format, the 2022-23 iteration of Opera Etudes will culminate in a performance on April 17, featuring premieres of five new chamber operas by Peabody student composers.

For the past 6 years, Professor Tony Arnold has taught and directed the Opera Etudes course. The program was originally started by Roger Brunyate, artistic director emeritus of Peabody Opera. When she took over the course, Arnold set out to help composers figure out how to marry dramatic writing with “the things that composers want to be writing nowadays, the ways they want to use the voice nowadays, which is a little bit different than what we think of opera as being… The stage is big, but so many of the vocal behaviors that people are interested in using nowadays are smaller.” For Arnold, new opera easily allows for remote work—an asset in our modern, global working environment—and, as a mixed-media art form, is well-suited to incorporate electronics and recorded elements.

Arnold also notes that the pandemic and its resulting economic issues have raised questions for companies about the financial sustainability of operatic productions. In today’s industry, she believes, preconceptions about the scale of opera are shifting. “With crises, there are always economic consequences,” she says, adding that people think, “‘Opera is very big and extremely, extremely costly!’ Well, opera doesn’t have to be giant. It can be small. It can be in this room.” While smaller-scale productions are not unique to contemporary opera, the creation of new works offers distinct flexibility, as works in progress can be developed to fit a particular situation’s needs or to best utilize available resources. For example, this year’s Opera Etudes works were conceived from the outset for small-scale production, from the chamber ensemble orchestrations to the minimal sets and staging.

Several of this cohort of Opera Etudes composers have chosen to write about contemporary events in their works. Victor Cui’s opera, Shadow Stretches Long and White, is based on the true story of Otto Warmbier, an American teenager imprisoned in North Korea in 2016. The opera imagines political machinations and private conversations that may have occurred behind the scenes of the public news story.

The concept of Michael Mills’s opera, Take Me Down, was developed in collaboration with soprano Tara Dougherty during a project which paired Peabody composers with students from Professor Ah Young Hong’s voice studio. “We had to envision a full opera, create a whole story, but then only write one aria from some part of that opera.” At the time, Mills was reading about the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a controversial natural gas pipeline being constructed near his hometown. During a tree sit protest of the pipeline, protestors were pulled out of trees with cranes. This conflict inspired Mills’ aria, which developed into his current Opera Etudes project. “I’m very passionate about things from Appalachia, having been from there, and putting things like that on the operatic stage is interesting,” he says. Dougherty, Mills’s collaborator from the story’s inception, will play the lead role of Audrey in April’s Opera Etudes performance.

The Chisel, Andrew Faulkenberry’s opera, is very loosely based on the Greek legend of Pygmalion—a subject that has already proven to be a fertile source for artistic interpretation, most notably inspiring George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and, in turn, the musical My Fair Lady. Faulkenberry’s fresh, contemporary take on the subject matter tackles the complexities of sexual identity and our relationships with others and ourselves. One of his recent artistic goals has been to write pieces that are “relevant to the world we live in… speaking on some sort of contemporary issue.” He says, “I came from a background where I was initially really interested in abstract music, or writing pieces that were just kind of for their own sake, and eventually I came to this point where I want to use these skills that I’ve developed as a composer to say something that needs to be said.”

For composer Meg Huskin, new opera presents an opportunity to create works related to her personal experiences and values. Huskin is a vocalist herself with a degree in opera performance; as a composer, she chooses to prioritize writing roles for treble voices in order to better reflect the demographics of the opera industry today. “I love writing for sopranos in particular… we have so many talented women in opera. Writing about sisters and sisterhood allows me to talk about my personal experiences with sisterhood, but also to address this thing that I would like to see more of in the opera world.” Huskin’s opera, Rabbit Season, was written in collaboration with Chicago-based librettist Sarah Perret-Goluboff. Optimistic about the growing interest in new opera, Huskin hopes that this collaboration will lead to future projects, and perhaps a full production of Rabbit Season.

Will Martin chose to adapt a German-language play by Arthur Schnitzler for his opera, Zwischenspiel. In translating the play and writing the libretto, Martin found that the adaptation process offered both challenges and creative freedom: “I started out trying to be really faithful to it, but then I realized this is a play and I’m trying to make it an opera. That’s two different things.” A vocalist with a strong background in composing for voice, Martin says that the collaborative process during the intense fall semester of Opera Etudes helped further accelerate his creative process: “It’s such a crash course, and like a boot camp almost, in writing quickly and writing piano parts and vocal lines. You get a text; you have a week to write it.” This ability to write a first draft quickly has allowed Martin more time to edit and refine the score of Zwischenspiel, shaping it into exactly what he envisioned.

As a vocalist myself with a particular interest in new music, Opera Etudes presented a unique and compelling opportunity that significantly influenced my decision to study at Peabody. This program has stretched my creativity, my collaborative strengths, and my ability to learn challenging music very quickly. I have deeply considered the role of art in both university and society writ large; I have delved into the motivations of some fun and occasionally morally ambiguous characters; I have experimented with vocal techniques; I even sang some microtones in public for the first time. The process has been exhilarating, and I am so excited about this chance for us all to premiere completely new operatic works with the support of the Peabody Opera department.

Through the collaborative structure of Opera Etudes, Professor Arnold aims to build bridges and understanding between composers and performers, involving students in every step of the creative process from libretto development to performance. Her hope is “for every singer to understand something about what it takes to put pen to page—why this character has to sing these notes—and for every composer to kind of get inside the body of a singer and say, ‘What do they have to do to make this happen?’ It’s about everybody joining together in the embodiment of music, from the concept to the concert. Everybody needs to be part of that process, and nobody is more or less important in that process. It doesn’t happen without both sides.”

Our spring Opera Etudes performance will feature five short new opera works by Peabody student composers, performed by Peabody student vocalists, and featuring Peabody student conductors and instrumentalists.

About the Performance
Monday April 17, 2023
7:30 PM EDT
Miriam A. Friedberg Concert Hall

View Livestream:

Shadow Stretches Long and White
by Victor Cui

Shadow Stretches Long and White a chamber opera based on the true story of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who died after being detained and imprisoned in North Korea. This work explores the reactions of Otto’s parents and United States government officials to Otto’s detention.

The Chisel
by Andrew Faulkenberry

Oswald, a closeted sculptor in an unhappy marriage, channels his frustrated sexual longings into an erotic male sculpture, whom he cryptically names Galatea. Oswald hides the sculpture from the world—most of all from his wife Petra. But when Galatea suddenly comes to life, Oswald is forced to confront the portions of himself he would rather deny. Meanwhile Petra, doubtful of whether Oswald really loves her, is seduced by a woman named Anastasia, who promises to show Petra a life not defined by her relationship to a man. Caught in a growing web of deceits, both Oswald and Petra must try to reconcile their former identities with their illicit desires.

Rabbit Season
Music by Meg Huskin
Libretto by Sarah Perret-Goluboff

Rabbit Season is an original story about sisterhood, grief, and negotiating one’s identity within family after loss. Three sisters return to their family home for the first time after their mother’s passing to celebrate Easter Sunday. The sisters—no longer religious themselves—strive to honor the holiday alongside their devout father, as tribute to their late mother. Though they try to present a united front, each sister’s grief manifests through opposing goals.

by William Martin

Zwischenspiel is a comedic opera based on a 1905 German-language play of the same name by Arthur Schnitzler. Amadeus, a composer-conductor, and his wife Cecilia, a famous soprano, struggle to maintain their relationship as they learn about each other’s unfaithfulness. Amadeus has a flirtatious relationship with another opera singer named Friederike, while Cecilia is being pursued by a young prince named Sigmund, who is a former piano student of Amadeus.

Take Me Down
by Michael Mills

This opera focuses on a young woman named Audrey and her return home to small town Appalachia from her schooling in Chicago. Upon her return, Audrey is shocked to discover that a contentious natural gas pipeline designed to cut through her town had finally been approved after nearly a decade of being held up in court. Opinions on the pipeline are passionate, dividing families and friends between those who see the pipeline as a way of bringing prosperity and opportunity to their struggling town, and those who see the pipeline as an exploitive venture by an outsider company that will cost them their land and possibly their safety.


Clara Kelly

Voice (Soprano)

MM 2024

Clara Kelly is a musician, writer, and artist primarily working as a lyric soprano and music teacher. She is currently pursuing her MM in Voice Performance at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore, MD.