Opera productions, especially new ones, can be
unwieldy, demanding, time-consuming and risky endeavors,
says Roger Brunyate, artistic director of the Peabody Opera
Theatre. In the professional world, fortunes can be won,
but more often lost, when a new opera is launched.
Little wonder then that opera houses and
conservatories often keep to the classic repertoire. The
Peabody Institute, however, will once again shake up
convention and bravely venture into uncharted operatic
Next month, Peabody will present the world premiere of
The Alien Corn, composed by Tom Benjamin with libretto by
Brunyate. The production will run from March 9 to 12 in
Peabody's Miriam A. Friedberg Hall. In conjunction with the
premiere, Peabody will host a pre-concert lecture,
"Composing The Alien Corn, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 23,
in the Cohen-Davison Family Theatre. The event will feature
a talk by Benjamin and Brunyate, and musical excerpts from
The Alien Corn is the second new full-size opera
production in six years to be premiered at Peabody. In
1999, the school introduced Where Angels Fear to Tread, a
three-act opera (also with libretto by Brunyate) based on
E.M. Forster's novel of the same name.
Set in Great Britain and Germany between 1928 and
1931, with a prologue and a 1939 epilogue, The Alien Corn
is based on a W. Somerset Maugham short story about divided
ethnic identity, social snobbery and the eternal conflict
of the artist as out-sider.
It focuses on a family of German-Jewish origins living
an affluent life as English gentry. The parents deny their
heritage and encourage their elder son, George, to follow
suit. George chooses, instead, to pursue his passion to
become a concert pianist, goes to Munich to study and
begins to explore his Jewish roots in that city. Against
the backdrop of conflicting cultural values and personal
choices, the young man's efforts to connect with his ethnic
heritage and realize his artistic aspirations lead
ultimately to tragedy.
Brunyate, the Northern Ireland-born librettist who has
been on the Peabody faculty since 1980, says that he and
Benjamin share a fondness for early-20th-century English
writers and instinctively went to that well when looking
for inspiration for a new opera. Brunyate says he set his
sights in particular on Maugham and in a four-day period
sifted through three volumes of the author's work. When he
came out the other side, he had scenario treatments for six
of Maugham's short stories. Brunyate says that the pair
ultimately chose The Alien Corn based on its "high
percentage of emotional moments to physical events" and its
many references to music.
At the core of his and Benjamin's treatment of the
story, Brunyate says, is the theme of alienation.
"It's about how one can belong," Brunyate says. "On
the one level, it's a story of immigrants in an
anti-Semitic land, but in terms of George's story, it's
about feeling that belonging means returning to one's own
Musically, The Alien Corn draws from various sources
to form an eclectic stew. The score reflects the content of
the story, incorporating classical music with English folk,
dance-hall numbers (including a foxtrot played on a
phonograph), piano concerto interludes, a polka and a
Benjamin says that with The Alien Corn he set out to
compose a piece that weaves "serious opera" and musical
theater, intermingled with spoken word exchanges. "A lot of
the music is close to light, musical theater," says
Benjamin, an admitted fan of Stephen Sondheim. "It has a
lot of different music elements, hopefully not too much,
and I hope all contextual."
Benjamin, an award-winning composer with more than 60
published works, previously collaborated with Brunyate on
the chamber opera The Joy That Kills, which premiered in
1998. Benjamin came to Peabody in 1987 and retired in 2003
from his position as chair of the Music Theory Department
in order to devote more time to composing and other
writing. He says he plans to return to Peabody on a
part-time basis next year.
Not an immense production by opera standards, Alien
Corn features a seven-person cast and a 50-piece chamber
Benjamin says that he and Brunyate have been delighted
with the unbridled enthusiasm of the students so far, and
how they have thrown themselves into their characters. He
says that at rehearsals the cast has sometimes had a
difficult time getting through scenes as they were so
caught up in the emotion of the narrative.
"I don't know how much of an idea [the students] had
of what they were in for when they auditioned. They leapt
into it on blind faith, perhaps knowing some of my music,
knowing Roger's accomplished history," Benjamin says. "I
think that for everyone involved, learning a new work that
has not been done before is challenging and very
interesting. We are inventing these characters, ultimately.
It is up to the cast to put their own stamp on these people
and imagine them from the inside out."
Brunyate says that Peabody is the only music school he
knows of that premieres so many operas, both large and
"To put something like this on demands an active opera
company, committed composition faculty and strong
collaboration between the two departments," he says. "It
takes a lot of time, an over-and-above amount of
rehearsing, but I can say it's well worth it."
Tickets for the lecture are $10 and include a wine and
cheese reception at 5 p.m. in the Bank of America Mews
The Alien Corn tickets are $24 general audience, $12
senior citizens and $10 for students with identification.
For ticket information, contact the Peabody Box Office at
410-659-8100, ext. 2.