Local librettist, composer happy working together on sad opera

March 04, 1993|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Music Critic

It's rare that the Peabody Conservatory gives an opera written by a student composer and a recently graduated librettist the kind of production that "With Blood, With Ink" will receive Sunday at its world premiere in Friedberg Hall. But then this opera about the 17th century Mexican poet and nun, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, crystallizes so many issues about what it's like to be a member of an oppressed minority that it jumps powerfully into our own time.

"It's about what happens to someone who knows who they are in a world that finds that knowledge unacceptable," says Peter Krask, the opera's librettist. "That's the key for me."

The opera's life began in 1989 when Krask read Mexican Nobel Prize winning poet Octavio Paz's biography, "Sor Juana, or The Traps of Faith."

This woman, born illegitimate to an impoverished mother in 1648, went on to become one of the best-known poets of her time in the Spanish-speaking world and built the largest library in South or North America. But her European reputation provoked jealousy and concern among members of Mexico's clerical hierarchy -- who claimed that Juana was stepping beyond the traditional boundaries of a woman's role. They forced her to sign an oath in her own blood renouncing poetry forever. She died of the plague two years later at the age of 46 while tending the sick in Mexico City.

Krask, 27, then a graduate student in Peabody's music criticism program, went to see Peabody Opera Theatre director Roger Brunyate, who was intrigued by the subject's possibilities. Brunyate, in turn, recommended that Krask talk to Daniel Crozier, a graduate student composer with whom Brunyate had written a short opera called "The Reunion."

It was obvious to Brunyate, who will direct Sunday's production, that for a story as complicated and as compelling as Juana's, the two young men needed to write more than a short opera. But he VTC also made clear that they had to adhere to certain limitations.

"Roger told us, 'Get as many women on the stage as you can,' " says Crozier, 26, explaining that there are more female than male singer's in Peabody's vocal program. Crozier also knew he wouldn't have many musicians to play the opera so he scored it for only 13 players -- a wind quintet, a string quintet, piano and percussion -- exactly the complement of players Benjamin Britten used for his classic chamber opera, "The Turn of the Screw."

"Britten is definitely my favorite opera composer," says Crozier about the man who may have set the English language to music better than anyone else in this century.

Both composer and librettist say the vocal and musical limitations imposed helped them. They knew they had to write some parts for beginning singers, so they wrote supporting roles for women in the convent, saving the three important female roles -- those of the young and old Juana and that of the wife of Mexico's vice regent -- for the experienced singers available.

And they used the convent setting to create a mysterious atmosphere, beginning each of the opera's eight scenes with a setting of the Requiem Mass.

"Musically that was attractive to me," says Crozier.

"And as a framing device, the liturgical touch really works," adds Krask.

The two men want to work together again soon.

"It's been a pleasant collaboration," Krask says. "And we think we've written a beautiful piece -- sad but beautiful."

OPERA PREMIERE

What: "With Blood, With Ink"

When: 3 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Friedberg Concert Hall. 1 E. Mount Vernon Place.

Admission: Free.

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