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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University February 21, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 23
World Premiere: Peabody Opera Theatre Debuts 'The Alien Corn'

Part of the 'Alien Corn' crew: Daniel Seigel, who plays George; Roger Brunyate, who wrote the libretto; and Lucas Tannous, who plays Somerset Maugham.

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

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 territory.

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 opera.

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 heritage."

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 Yiddish lullaby.

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 orchestra.

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 small.

"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 Gallery.

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.


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