An Opera For Goucher

May 18, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Baltimore has inspired many a film and a hit Broadway musical, so why not an opera?

The Window Seat, an hourlong work created and produced entirely within the Goucher College community, is set in a Baltimore rowhouse.

The score is by Kendall Kennison, assistant professor of music at Goucher. The libretto is by James Sheehan, a playwright and occasional teacher of playwriting who works as a copy editor in the college's office of communications.

"The idea of doing an opera originally came from Serafina DiGiacomo, who directs the Goucher Opera Workshop," Kennison says. "She told me she wanted someday to have an all-Goucher opera - the composer and librettist from the school and the production done by students. I hadn't written an opera before, and I didn't think I'd be interested."

But Kennison, 38, started to get interested and found his inspiration about two years ago after visiting the early 19th-century Bolton Hill rowhouse of a Goucher flute teacher. "That was in my head," the composer says. "I got the idea of a single room in a house where the characters are all the people who lived there."

Kennison approached Sheehan with this germ of an opera plot. "I imagined a window seat in a bay window looking out onto the harbor," the librettist says, "and all the people who had sat there. It became an opera about waiting."

Sheehan, 41, created a story that covered nearly two centuries, starting with the original owner of the house, a merchant involved in the slave trade. The plot, with what Sheehan calls "intersecting lines," presents a series of scenes that allows the various spectral inhabitants an opportunity to reveal two, not always sympathetic, sides of their characters.

"They are all waiting," Sheehan says. "Waiting for a ship to come in, for troops to come home, waiting for love. The opera moves on through history until we reach the present day, when the ghosts yield to a housing boom and new characters come into the house to renovate it."

Kennison says the opera imparts "a sort of carpe diem message: Don't wait around for things to happen. Each character is still there in the house waiting for something that isn't going to happen," he says.

For the composer, part of the challenge of writing the opera came from considering who would sing it. Like Kurt Weill's 1940s folk opera Down in the Valley, The Window Seat was written for student-level vocalists.

"I wanted to write something practical, something not out of their reach technically," Kennison says. "These are liberal arts students, not conservatory students. I hadn't written music for limited technical abilities before."

Kennison kept the accompaniment economical. Although he first considered violin, cello and piano, he settled on just a piano to produce an orchestra's worth of accompaniment. This isn't a student-level assignment; Lisa Weiss, Goucher's music department chair, is the pianist for the production, which is directed by DiGiacomo.

Kennison and Sheehan did not envision an existing home or neighborhood as a setting for the opera (neither collaborator is a Baltimore native).

"I imagine it being near Fells Point," the librettist says. "I guess it should have played out on the front steps of a rowhouse - that would be more Baltimore - but we were looking for a theatrical frame, someplace where you could have looked out as 180 years of history passed by."

tim.smith@baltsun.com

"The Window Seat" will be performed at 8 tonight at Merrick Lecture Hall, Goucher College, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road. Tickets are $7. For reservations, call 410-337-6333.

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