Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 24, 1995


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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