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May 5, 2010

A sampling of new operas at Peabody focusing on women

Despite my best intentions, I only lasted for about 90 minutes at Peabody's Opera Etudes program Tuesday night -- enough to hear four of the seven new one-act operas composed by Peabody grad students and united around a theme of "Women's Studies." It had been a long day for me, and I confess that, as the immortal Mame Dennis would have said, "Auntie needed fuel." So, sincere apologies to the creators whose work I didn't get to sample.

But plaudits to this remarkable program of Peabody Opera, led by Roger Brunyate, that brings composers and students together every couple of years to generate fresh material. This year's project started some time ago with improvisations by singers discussing various themes and issues from a woman's point of view -- harassment in the workplace, spousal infidelity, mother/daughter relationships, etc. Composers then started to work with those ideas and developed these short operas, written expressly for voice students at the conservatory.

The four works I saw certainly proved interesting, in some cases more for the words and action than the music. Most impressive to me was "Generations," a snapshot of four intersecting lives in a single family. Emily Koh's subtly spicy score produced some strong lyricism (there's a vivid quartet along the way). Katherine Krueger wrote the effective libretto and also performed as the Grandmother in the vibrant cast, joined by Alexandra Iranfar (Daughter), Danielle Edwards (Mother) and Annie Laing (Great-Grandmother). Brunyate provided the telling stage direction.

The audience sounded most taken with "Missed Connections," which has music and text by Jon Carter. It's something of a risque sitcom (especially the portions that use spoken dialogue), all revolving around two women who connect via a personal ad on craigslist. Carter's score takes an occasional turn toward 

Broadway, and rather engagingly; other times, a certain mechanical quality takes over, and the music recedes into the background. The cast, directed by the composer, clearly relished the assignment, especially Erica Hamby as a flirtatious barroom employee. Also in the cast: Juliana Marin (Corina) and Sonya Knussen (Julia) as the women who find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other; and Tyler Lee, as Julia's wandering-eye husband.

Joshua Bornfield's "On Your Own Time" has some sitcom elements in it as well, these involving a guy with a "Mad Men"-vintage idea of how to treat women at work.

The piano score settled into colorless dabs of harmony as the vocal lines went into recitative overdrive. The humor in the story got a bit heavy-handed, but the animated cast -- Christine Killian, Maisi Pedersen and William McCullough (William Schaller directed) -- made the most of it.

In "Cheated," composer/librettist Jeff Zeiders gives a deep nod to Philip Glass (even down to the right-hand, cross-over bass notes periodically supporting minimalist patterns in the left). The plot consists of a brief, emotional conversation between two friends, Clara (Rachel Gitner) and Zoe (Lisa Perry), and how they react to news that Zoe's husband has strayed.  

Whatever my reservations, I admired all of these creative efforts in one way or another, along with the commitment of all the performers involved in a very worthy project. I hope to catch up someday with the operas I didn't hear. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 9:57 AM | | Comments (0)

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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