On a Thursday evening in February, amid an audience assembled in Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Concert Hall, two men in tuxedos wait for the house lights to dim. One is young, excited, and holding his wife's hand, his fingers twined with hers. The other, older, also with his wife, appears wistful and reflective. He is Roger Brunyate, director of Peabody Opera Theatre, and his young colleague is Mark Lanz Weiser, a composer and Peabody faculty member. They await the start of Where Angels Fear to Tread, a new opera of their creation. They remain calm though the downbeat was supposed to be 10 minutes ago.
Brunyate (pictured at right) wrote the opera's libretto, based on E.M. Forster's novel of the same title, and he is also the stage director. Weiser composed the score. Their work on the project began seven years ago, and they were still burnishing the show on the eve of this first performance. The singers won their roles last September and commenced months of study, vocal coaching, and rehearsal. They got sick, got well, went to class, skipped class, auditioned for summer jobs, pondered upcoming recitals, juggled rehearsal schedules for other productions, learned staging, learned revised staging, and practiced day after day after day. For weeks, Angels has been the nexus of their young lives.
All the singers and players are Peabody students.
director Robert Sirota is conducting. The production is a
commitment of Peabody's top talent to do something not often
done--create a new full-length opera. The conservatory stages
operas, including new short works, every year. But all those
involved with Angels have worked with the accumulating
sense that this production will stand out in the conservatory's
history and be one they long remember. Days before the opening
curtain, the opera's principal vocal coach, JoAnn Kulesza, told
the singers, "This is a world première. Remind yourselves
of that. It's an incredible experience to create this work."
The singers are excited, exhausted, scared, and confident, all at once. For some, this is only their first or second opera, but they realize it may be the one opportunity in their careers to create roles of such dimension. When the crew constructed the set 10 days before performance, a slender, thoughtful soprano named Laurie Hungerford Flint slipped into the concert hall on a break from rehearsal, just to gaze at the stage. As much to herself as to the friend at her elbow, she said, "There's nothing better than a show."
Tonight, the show is waiting out a crisis in the orchestra. Kulesza likens an opera performance to skiing: "Every damn time you go down the mountain, you never know what will happen." Dress rehearsal two nights ago had been sizzling; a run-through the night before that had been a wreck. The directors are worried about a congested tenor, a baritone who must sing tomorrow night despite walking pneumonia, set changes that have been taking too long, and a final scene that still wasn't quite working in rehearsal. Now, as the start time comes and goes, a trombonist is missing. Sirota waits while a replacement races from the audience and warms up.
Finally, the lights dim and Sirota climbs onto his podium. It's time to go down the mountain.
Act 1, Scene 1
Philip has come to Italy to see his widowed sister-in-law, Lilia. Her companion, Caroline Abbott, earlier had sent a telegram informing the Herritons of Lilia's impuslive decision to marry an Italian nobleman, Gino Carella. Philip is here to dissuade Lilia and bring her home.
Brunyate watches from Row P. He is a 58-year-old Irish-born director who came to the United States 25 years ago, and came to Peabody in 1980. He has graying hair, peers over his eyeglasses when he speaks, and often wears a scarf looped around his throat, indoors or out. He has worked in some of the world's most renowned operatic venues, including Glyndebourne and La Scala. Angels is his 21st libretto, but the most ambitious.
In 1991, Mark Weiser, then a Peabody student, had just set W. B. Yeats's Purgatory to opera, and he wanted another operatic project, something bigger. Brunyate was game. They got together and pondered source material: Forster's Room With a View, perhaps, or Emile Zola's Thèrèse Raquin. But in Angels Brunyate saw operatic elements: the novel's simple plot, its series of confrontations, the turn- of-the-century Italian setting. There would be good roles for women, important for a conservatory with a lot of female students. And the whole thing felt operatic to him. There was even an opera scene, a staging of Lucia di Lammermoor in the town.
Creativity feeds on difficulties, and Angels had those, as well. How to condense the novel's span of time and geography and still fit in the whole story? What to do about Lilia, a character central to the plot but dead after only one-third of the book? How to operatically portray profound shifts in the sensibilities of Philip and Caroline, two repressed Brits not given to candid emotional display? Their sensual awakenings are the heart of the story. How to show this on stage as coherent, credible psychological development?
Brunyate charted Forster's novel and made notes about each of its scenes: Important material, but very scattered and difficult to establish...This encounter is a good one...It is hard to see how this could be managed. He and Weiser began corresponding, because Brunyate likes to think on paper. They considered dispensing with Lilia in a prelude, then changed their minds and wrote the first act around her. They reduced the setting to just Monteriano, the novel's fictional Italian hill-town. Forster's detached tone was a problem. Says Brunyate, who knew the author at Cambridge University in the late 1950s, "He describes feelings but does not participate in them. That voice is appropriate for the book but has no equivalence in opera. Emotional reticence won't cut it on the stage." So they cut the reticence. They wavered between two acts and three, 10 scenes then 11. An opera needs ensemble scenes; they wrote them in. Weiser thought about opening each act with a prelude set in England. Brunyate demurred. They swapped ideas, disagreements, revisions.
The first scene, which bears a burden of exposition to bring the audience into the story, is comparatively static. But it becomes more lively when Philip learns to his horror that Gino is not a nobleman but, in fact, the unemployed son of a small-town dentist. When Philip meets him, some of his worst fears seem confirmed. The audience is restrained but attentive. So far, so good.
Act 1, Scene 2
Brunyate recalls saying of Moody at the September auditions, "He's not exactly English." But Moody had the sound everyone wanted. Says Brunyate, "I would never have thought of Duane for Philip in a hundred years. But the man can sing it. There were some risks taken in casting. But when you take risks, you usually win out."
Costume, cosmetics, and Moody's skill as an actor effect a sort of alchemy. Two scenes into the opera, Philip is neither black nor white. He's simply Lilia's ineffectual English brother.
In the audience, Kulesza listens to Philip sing I forbid you to do it-UH, and smiles. Sirota had once reminded the cast, "The little old lady in the front row crinkling her cellophane needs to understand what is being said." As the vocal coach, Kulesza has spent months admonishing the singers to accentuate final consonants, because Friedberg Hall mutes the ends of words sung from its stage. The effect diminishes when an audience fills the hall, but the singers still must mind their diction. "Con-trac-TS," Kulesza told them, emphasizing the final sound. "In-sec-TS. Consonate like mad. Use shadow vowels on the end. Harriet-TUH."
Kulesza assumed the role of a mother to the cast, admonishing them to get enough rest, go easy on their voices in rehearsal, and wash their hands often to avoid illness. Now and then Mom had to be stern. On a bulletin board across from the opera department office, she posted a note:
TO ALL SINGERS:By opening night, the singers owed her seven meals.
Act 1, Scene 3
Every singer's every movement has been carefully blocked, a process that took weeks and continued right up to the opening curtain. Lilia begins this scene on a walkway high over the stage, descends a flight of stairs to a landing, then stumbles on a last set of steps and sprawls across the stage, losing a train case that everyone hopes does not land on a cellist in the orchestra pit. She must time her movements to the music, has lines to deliver at precise pauses in this frenzied descent, and must fall so she lands on an exact spot in just the right sort of sprawl.
Tonight, as poor Lilia, it is Toni Amanda Stefano who hits the ground. Stefano, who did much to define the character in rehearsal, is a portrait of despair. She is found by Gino and his housekeeper. In a fury, Gino berates her and shakes her violently, prompting the housekeeper to reveal that he must be careful, for Lilia bears his child. She collapses, crying bitterly, while Gino exults that he is to become a father.
Act 1, Scene 4
The following autumn, Philip returns to Monteriano. Lilia has died in childbirth, and Philip has come to secure the baby and bring him back to the Herriton house, where he will be raised as a proper Englishman. Philip is not alone but accompanied by his sister, Harriet.
Harriet is the opera's main comic character, a dreadnought of a woman who spends most of her stage time in a foul mood of epic proportions. One of the mezzos playing her, Susan Minsavage, has been a cast favorite. In rehearsal, everyone watched her scenes, which got funnier and funnier. Kirsten Alise Haimila, Harriet in the second cast, had the unenviable challenge of matching Minsavage's expert comic timing. She did not slide into the role with her counterpart's apparent ease. She saw Harriet as a pathetic character worthy of more sympathy, and resisted playing her just for laughs. But five days before curtain, when she first put on her stage costume, Haimila became Harriet. The transformation was striking.
Backstage before the performance, Minsavage had bounced in a chair. "We're gonna be so good tonight," she said. "Go Team Angels!" On stage, she garners the evening's first ovation.
Act 2, Scene 1
Weiser is 30 years old, boyish, slight of build, serious but quick to laugh, unless he's obsessing over some problem with his orchestration. He would often show up for rehearsal in jacket and tie, sometimes wearing a pair of black shoes that had seen better days, the uppers abraded and pulling away from the soles. He paid for much of the scoring of Angels from his own pocket, which may explain the shoes.
"Composers have certain themes that speak to them," he says. "With Stravinsky, it's the Faust thing. With Benjamin Britten, it's the individual against society, and forbidden relationships. I have no idea why, but for me, it's usually a death of some kind." A carriage scene in Forster's novel, which results in a death, prompted his desire to compose Angels.
His score, primarily in D (D lydian, to be precise), is tonal and melodic, and reminds some listeners of Britten. "I'll take that one," Weiser says of the comparison, smiling. "I call him my cultural hero." Parts of the score came from other of his compositions: a slow chord progression in Act 3, Scene 3, from an unproduced ballet; another part from some old orchestral sketches, also unproduced. He wrote leitmotivs for each character, little melodies that recur when they enter the stage. "Until the bitter end I could not find a tune for Philip," Weiser says. "I think it has to do with his role of the reserved observer."
As they got deep into the production, Brunyate expressed regret
that he and Weiser hadn't taken a few more chances and written
something edgier, more modern. His narrative and staging are
mostly straightforward and realistic, and Weiser's score, though
it has its dissonant moments, is achingly beautiful and lyrical
in ways that have gone out of fashion with composers, though not
with audiences. But it's precisely this cut against the grain
that elevates Weiser's accomplishment. He has explored the
boundary between the melodic lushness of the 19th and early 20th
centuries and the dissonance of the last 50 years, and forged
something that seduces the heart but never stops surprising the
Weiser smiles a bit ruefully and says, "As a 20th-century composer, you worry when you hear people say, 'It's so lyrical.' But that didn't bother me with this project. What do I have to prove?"
During one of the final rehearsals, Weiser's wife, Elizabeth, sat beside him holding his hand. At the end of Caroline's beautiful aria, she brought his hand to her lips and kissed it. Later in the evening, Brunyate leaned over to Weiser, squeezed his shoulder, and said, "This is the real thing."
Act 2, Scene 2
This has been one of those moments that everyone stopped to listen for in rehearsal. During one of the first run-throughs with the orchestra, Katherine Unha Keem, one of Angels' two Korean prima donnas, commenced her race up the scale. When she nailed the E-flat, both casts and the entire orchestra stopped to applaud. Tonight, Jae Eun Shin has the part, and she hits the note as well.
This scene has some Weiser fireworks to match Donizetti's. After the performance of Lucia, Philip runs into Gino and a couple of his drunken buddies. Gino greets him as a long-lost brother, and insists they must celebrate. The four men end the act with a thrilling quartet: The night is young/The stars are bright/And there's magic in the air! It is the opera's most joyous moment. For months of rehearsal, the singers and directors had heard this section only in the Peabody opera studio with piano accompaniment. Not until two weeks before the first performance did they hear the quartet with a full orchestra. The four men had been facing the orchestra so the players could hear them, but for the climax they turned toward the rehearsal audience, which was mostly other cast members and a few observers. The crescendo built, the singers cut loose, the orchestra resounded, and at the end everyone in the hall whooped and applauded. Sirota turned on his podium, peered into the audience until he found Weiser, and said: "Make a note--that works."
Act 2, Scene 3
Weeks before, rehearsal of this scene had dramatically illuminated the character of Gino. Arturo Chacón, playing the Italian, was rehearsing with Anne Jennifer Nash singing Caroline. Brunyate was working out the blocking for the scene, and Nash suggested that she cross in front of Chacón toward a shrine Gino has kept in memory of Lilia. Brunyate didn't like the idea, but he's open to suggestions and he let them try it. Chacón and Nash ran the scene, and when she walked past him, he suddenly grabbed her arm and violently whirled her around. In a flash, Brunyate understood something about Gino he'd never seen before: how his violence, which had not been scripted to emerge until provoked in the third act, is ever present beneath his surface amiability. His tenderness emerges only in the aftermath of a violent act. In one improvisatory moment, Chacón and Nash had revealed new depths to Gino's character.
Late in the scene, Caroline and Gino bathe the infant, an affecting moment that convinces Caroline she and the Herritons must not take the baby from him. The audience cannot see the conductor's face, but at an earlier rehearsal of this scene, Sirota had turned from the podium with tears in his eyes, his voice cracking with emotion as he said, "I have to get used to that part. After all, I have to be able to conduct."
Act 3, Scene 1
Rehearsing the singers, he was always after more colors, a greater range of expression. They were naturally resistant; singers want to make beautiful music all the time. But Sirota didn't want everything beautiful. "Boring," he told them. "You sit there in the audience and say, 'Gee, that was pretty.' And you get nothing else out of it. I will give you other opportunities to tear up the scenery, I promise you."
The first scene of the final act takes place in a church, Santa Deodata. It is a subtle and complex interlude in which Philip and Caroline hesitantly work toward expressing the strong emotions they're beginning to feel. For Philip, in particular, this is a pivotal scene. He must express his awakening feelings for Caroline and simultaneously convey that he doesn't quite know what to make of the unexpected force of his emotions. The arousal of passion collides with his English conventionality and reserve.
From early on, Philip has been a sticking point for Brunyate and Weiser. Their collaboration has been fruitful but not devoid of tension. They could not agree on Philip. Says Weiser, "The more I worked on the opera, the more I was rooting for Caroline and Philip to get together, and I wanted the audience to root for them, too. Roger feels very strongly that Philip is a latent homosexual. That's a possibility, but I don't think that's what the book is about."
After Weiser read Brunyate's first libretto, he wrote a long letter detailing this and other differences, and the project nearly fell apart. The gap seemed irreconcilable. Weiser went to Brunyate's house, they had a long discussion, and decided to persevere, working out their differences. The story had too strong a grip for them to walk away.
But they still had to decide what to do with Philip as an operatic character. He is rarely an active agent, always doing someone else's bidding and just trying to flow with the current. He begins the play as something of an arrogant twit, and though he's much more likable and admirable by the end, he pales next to the vital, passionate Gino. Throughout rehearsals, Brunyate and Weiser still differed over Philip, as did the tenors playing him.
Duane Moody's portrayal was always broader and more passionate than that of his counterpart, Taylor Armstrong. Moody, who does not lack self-confidence, was determined from the start to put more life in Philip: "I picture Philip as a mama's boy but not a weakling. The directors wanted to make him more feeble in the beginning. I just can't see Philip as that passive."
Armstrong, a 23-year-old Pennsylvanian, consistently acted the part with more English reserve, except for the church scene and its aria, which begins with Philip claiming that he does not fall in love but acknowledging how deeply Caroline has moved him. Armstrong sang the aria in rehearsal as an expression of passion, clasping Caroline's hand and gazing into her eyes.
Late on a Friday afternoon a few weeks before opening night, Brunyate decided to rework the scene. He instructed Moody, who was rehearsing while Armstrong watched, to not touch Caroline but turn away and sing his lyrics as if he's beginning to sense what stirs within him but cannot bring himself to address her directly. Weiser's score for Philip's aria is music of love, and Brunyate wanted Moody to play against that: Philip would sing his denial of love, his body language would betray his confusion, and the music would tell the audience of the passion he doesn't yet understand.
Armstrong and Nash, watching Moody and Laurie Flint play the scene, exchanged a look of concern tinged with frustration. Armstrong protested that all along he had believed that Philip knows he loves Caroline but simply can't tell her. This new staging would change all of that, and thus dramatically change his portrayal of the character. Brunyate heard him out, then let him and Nash try various movements, finding their own way through the scene.
Tonight on the stage, Armstrong does indeed turn away from Nash. She silently approaches him as he sings the aria, and when he turns back to her, he is startled by her closeness. But they do not touch. When Caroline leaves the church, Armstrong hesitates, then runs after her, only to return alone, disconsolate that she is gone. The scene now conveys the awkwardness that Brunyate was after, and the audience sees the acknowledgment of passion that Armstrong had desired. It's the fruit of creative collaboration.
Act 3, Scene 2
Most of the singers in Angels are in their early or mid-20s. Laurie Flint, one of the sopranos performing Caroline, is not. She politely declines to state her age, but she is closer to 40 than to 20 and has a 10-year-old daughter. Singing is her second career. She had been working in hospital administration when she had her child. Living in London at the time and coping with post-partum depression, she began thinking about what she would regret were her life to end suddenly. And she knew the answer: She would regret never having pursued singing. She began studying music again, and when Hopkins recruited her husband, otolaryngologist Paul Flint, she set her sights on Peabody.
On stage, Caroline finds the baby amid the wreckage and realizes that he is dead. She clutches the infant to her breast and screams NOOOOO!!! with a depth of despair and anguish that sears the audience. Flint had created this climax for the scene back in January rehearsals. Watching her that day, one could understand what emotional resources she might have drawn from to create such a stunning moment. But how to account for young, childless Jennifer Nash, who tonight plays the scene with the same profound anguish? The explanation, for both sopranos, must be pure, raw talent.
Act 3, Scene 3
Arturo Chacón, a happy-go-lucky Costa Rican baritone, stepped into the role of Gino as if it were a second skin. "Gino is Latino in some ways," he explains, in accented English. "When Gino say to Lilia, 'This is your home, with me'...that is so Latino." Chacón has been a favorite with his female castmates. In a 45-minute span during one rehearsal, three of them found pretext to snuggle up and kiss him. But it's frightening how menacing he can be when the part demands it. When Caroline first pulls Gino off Philip, he whirls around and violently tosses her onto the bed. During a rehearsal, Nash, one of his closest friends in the cast, told him, "Remember, Arturo, you are really strong."
For Brendan Cooke, a friendly Irish American who once wanted to be a heavy-metal guitarist, Gino has not been the same sort of easy role. He watches Chacón and says, "Gino comes naturally to him. It's not natural to an Irish guy like me." Chacón's every gesture says, This is my town, my house, my woman. Cooke tends to move like what he is, a nice, gentle man, and he struggled before getting a better grip on the role days before the show opened. After weeks of listening to people say, "Do it like Arturo's doing it," he finally got to hear, "Arturo, why don't you try what Brendan's doing?"
Despite the difficulties--and a bout with pneumonia--Cooke enjoyed the prominence of the role. "The baritone usually plays the old drunk," he says. He also savored a bit of baritone's revenge: "After we first rehearsed the scene where Gino torments Philip, I called my old vocal teacher and said, 'I just spent two hours smacking the crap out of the tenor. It was great.'"
Act 3, Scene 4|
Ten days later, a healing Philip sits in the hotel lobby, packed and ready to go home, chuckling over a note from Gino, who had thought to get out of his impending new marriage but apparently will have to go through with it. This news wounds Caroline, who finally reveals to Philip that she has fallen in love with the Italian. Philip realizes that his profound feelings for Caroline, which he has begun to acknowledge as love, will never come to anything. They depart for England chastened, humbled, but awakened at last to their own capacities for love and passion.
The lights go down, the audience applauds, and the world première of Angels is over. Ten days ago Sirota had told the cast, "It is entirely possible that someday you will say to somebody, 'I sang the first Caroline in Angels,' and they'll say, 'Wow... really???'" In the afterglow backstage, that seems possible. The singers are hot and exhausted but deeply happy, hugging well-wishers and receiving the warm congratulations of Sirota, Brunyate, and Weiser.
During the course of its short four-day run, Angels gets better and better. The singers create inspired performances, and the orchestra gets tighter and tighter. The production overcomes minor crises--a violinist sick to his stomach on the first night, a bulky surtitle system on the last--and delivers the goods. A Washington Post review disappoints, praising the cast and orchestration but calling the score derivative and the story line thin. But Baltimore Sun critic Stephen Wigler hails the performance as the best new opera he has seen in years. He stops short of calling it a masterpiece but invokes the word. On his web site, Joseph McClellan, critic emeritus for the Post, writes that Weiser is on the threshold of a spectacular career, and adds: "The production, including its cast, could be taken over by any professional American company without changes."
Brunyate is thrilled for everyone involved but a little melancholy, as well. For him, performance represents the end of a creative process, and it's the process that he loves. "The post-partum syndrome is really quite a problem," he says. "It is by no means lessened by the fact that one has given birth to a healthy child." Or by a reality of the opera business: It may be 10 years before anyone mounts a second production of Angels.
Mark Weiser has seen his first full-length opera through from conception to stage, and now knows the effort involved. Does he want to do it again?
His answer is as immediate as it is concise.
Writer Dale Keiger wishes to thank Roger Brunyate, Mark Weiser, and Robert Sirota for their extraordinary cooperation.
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