Peabody Opera Students Find Material In Talk Shows, Ray Bradbury By Lisa Mastny Imagine your average television talk show: jilted wives screaming insults at their husbands' new lovers, a tactless hostess prodding her guests with personal questions, a highly opinionated studio audience exacerbating the issues while trying to resolve them. Sound familiar? Now put the show to music. Better yet, make it into an opera. Sound impossible? Complicated, maybe, but not impossible--especially if you're Paul Mathews. A doctoral student of music composition at the Peabody Conservatory, Mathews has spent the past two years working on his own personal take on the glittering TV talk show world in his new opera, Chatter and Static. The seven-scene, 65-minute opera will premiere next week in Peabody's North Hall, double-billed with another student-composed work, The April Witch, based on a Ray Bradbury story. The two operas are the latest addition to the growing repertoire of student works presented by the new opera program at Peabody, which now includes 13 chamber operas of one and a half hours or more and 17 shorter pieces of about 10 minutes each. The program, coordinated by opera director Roger Brunyate, was developed a decade ago out of a need to find more challenging material for women's voices at a school where female singers tend to outnumber their male counterparts. In Chatter and Static, Peabody sopranist and clarinetist Claudia Freedlander plays Gabby Martin, a New York talk show hostess who becomes the focus of her own show after her jealous producer, Audrey, turns the tables on her during a live broadcast. Audrey invites Gabby's estranged father to appear unexpectedly as the hostess leads a discussion on child abuse, forcing Gabby to confront her own turbid past. "One of the most rewarding and challenging things about the role is portraying the two-dimensional phoniness and mediocrity of Gabby, and then from there showing the very vulnerable person she really is," Freedlander said. "She dropped out of NYU, found her way to TV, but never found out who she really is. She has to confront the emptiness of her own soul." Freedlander, who is pursuing a master's in voice performance, got the lead role after participating in the first read-through of the libretto in January 1994 and speaking with composer Mathews before he began work on the music. "I had the advantage of knowing I would have the part before the music was written," she said. "Although the piece is dramatically complex and the singing is challenging, it's very flattering to know that some of it is written for my voice." Mathews decided to follow through with the work, which included writing both the libretto and the music, after director Roger Brunyate jumped on the idea of a more non-standard presentation for this year's new opera program. "I feel very strongly about encouraging new work, and Mathews is a brilliant, witty, totally crazy writer with some very interesting ideas," Brunyate said. "He uses highly colorful and experimental writing, which is full of surprises. The opera is often plainly absurd because it's not always linear, with people gabbing simultaneously on stage in some scenes. He has made it fiendishly difficult for everyone." The opera is also appealing because it reflects a certain realism at a time when works by standard composers, such as Puccini, would sound artificial, Brunyate said. "The plot has a much more universal message than just the show itself," he said. "Gabby is the perfect example of someone who has grown up with TV as a parent, someone who has never discovered her own identity. Many of us can relate to it better than to the more standard repertoire." In contrast to the pop-influenced, extremely complex portrayal of the television world in Chatter and Static, The April Witch, the second opera on the double bill, is a relatively conventional, lyric-romantic work, Brunyate said. He wrote the verse libretto for the opera himself, arranging and editing the original Bradbury story about an Illinois farm girl who has the power to enter the body of any living thing on certain nights of the year. Having never experienced the feeling of being in love, the girl chooses one night to enter the heart of 17-year-old Ann Leary and follow her through all the ups and downs of her relationship with her boyfriend Tom. In order to stage the opera, Brunyate had to get the author's permission to use the story, a process which was not exactly easy, he said. "Bradbury loved the text when I first sent it to him, but when he heard the music, he said the composition was good but that he really liked Puccini," Brunyate said. "At first he wasn't going to let us do it, but I told him the only way these composers are going to learn is by doing their own thing, by writing opera based on a story by a great master. Hopefully when he hears it he'll change his mind." David Shapiro, a Peabody student pursuing his doctorate in composition and a minor in conducting, came up with the idea for the opera two years ago and completed the music last fall after several rewrites. The gentler sounds prevalent in The April Witch represent a departure from the more rhythmical, gritty music he is used to working with, he said. "This opera is more concerned with melody and line, and less so with rhythmic drive," he said. "You hear the more fantastical, gentle sounds of Ravel, Debussy and Britten. It took much longer to compose than I expected, because when I first wrote it, it didn't sound much like opera." In addition to these longer works, the new opera program at Peabody produces a number of short, 10-minute student pieces every year. These "opera études" are developed in conjunction with the performers and revolve around a different theme every year. This year's program, presented March 17, was linked by the theme of return to something in one's past. "We really have no lack of new opera," said Brunyate, who in the past week alone has been approached by eight different students interested in having their operas staged. "Apart from the benefit to the composers, the new opera activity is of inestimable value to the singers and everyone else involved, myself included." Chatter and Static and The April Witch will be presented in the North Hall at Peabody at 8 p.m. on April 30 and May 1. Admission is free and on a first-come basis. For more information, contact the Opera Department at 659-8146.
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