To her imagination Monteriano had become a magic city of vice, beneath whose towers no person could grow up happy or pure.
Novelist E.M. Forster imbued his character Caroline Abbott with these thoughts as she contemplates taking a child from Monteriano, his Italian birthplace, to bring him to the sedate English town of Sawston. No matter how "dull" and "contemptible" Sawston might be, Caroline believes it would be a far better place for the child to grow up in.
Such feelings lie at the heart of the Peabody production of Forster's novel Where Angels Fear to Tread, a three-act opera that will have its world premiere on Feb. 25 in Friedberg Hall. Angels is a tale about the clash of cultures and the human experience. Set in the hills of Tuscany, Italy, the story revolves around a prim and proper middle-class English family and its brief stay in the fictional town of Monteriano. It is here that the passions and emotions of Italy come head to head with the characters' British sensibility.
Forster's story also has its comedic moments, and it was this combination of romance, humor and tragedy that first attracted composer Mark Lanz Weiser to the work.
Weiser, now a faculty member, was a Peabody student when he first set his sights on writing the full-length opera seven years ago. He had just completed his first opera, a one-act piece based on W.B. Yeats' play Purgatory, when he broached the idea of an opera with a lighter subject to Roger Brunyate, artistic director of the Peabody Opera Theatre.
"I had very broad criteria," Weiser says. "I just wanted to do something comedic."
Brunyate, who had known Forster at Cambridge and was a fan of his work, first suggested the popular A Room with a View, but the two agreed that the lesser-known Angels would be a more suitable piece due to its richer melodrama and its climactic setting in Italy.
The work got off to a slow start, however, because the team had to wait two years to obtain the rights to the novel, and then both Brunyate and Weiser were busy with other projects. So it wasn't until 1995 that Weiser started to compose the music based upon Brunyate's libretto.
Weiser had started writing the score in bits and pieces but felt that in order to get it done, he needed to sequester himself at Yaddo, an artists' colony in New York.
"I made a pact with myself that I would finish it there," Weiser says. "I wrote about half the opera in three and a half weeks."
Unlike the novel, which jumps back and forth from England to Italy, this version of Angels is set entirely in Italy, in a place modeled after the Tuscan town of San Gimigniano.
The opera begins roughly in the middle of the novel, as the middle-class English widow, Lilia Herriton, has already married the lower-class Italian, Gino Carella. Lilia's relatives do not approve of the coupling, and when Lilia dies in childbirth, the family embarks on a trip to Monteriano to take the child away from Gino. But their two days in Italy are not what they had planned, as they are swept away by the enchantment of their surroundings.
To embody the themes of the story, Weiser says he had to get back in touch with his more romantic side.
"I have a bent to romantic style, but I've been very self-conscious of that, and a lot of the music I have written I've purposefully written against that style," Weiser says. "But with opera, I felt that everything was fair game, and whatever seemed appropriate, I just went for it."
The finished product, according to Brunyate, is a "very, very highly skilled" piece of writing. Brunyate, who is the opera's stage director, says he realized the depth and emotion of the score from the very first two pieces of music that Weiser played for him.
"I knew this wouldn't be an opera that would amble around at a moderate pace and then die a slow death of stagnation," Brunyate says.
The production of Angels is a culmination of efforts on the part of the Peabody community. The opera will be accompanied by the Peabody Concert Orchestra, conducted by Robert Sirota, director of the institute, and the two alternating casts are comprised entirely of students.
"Producing opera is the most complicated, labor-intensive and time-intensive thing that we do in the music world, as well as in the world of the conservatory," Sirota says. "This production involves the time and energy of about 100 of the students at the Peabody. Add to this the contributions of the Opera and Voice faculties, as well as the staffs of the Concert Office and Ensemble Office, and you have a project that engages a significant proportion of the conservatory community."
Although Peabody does two major opera productions a year, as well as a number of smaller productions, "a fully staged production of a brand-new work composed by a recent Peabody graduate is indeed a unique event," Sirota says. "There is a special sense of excitement in bringing what we consider to be a major new work to the opera stage. Mark and Roger have done a brilliant job in creating this opera, and the cast is marvelous. Where Angels Fear to Tread is Peabody's major spring production, with a beautiful set, costumes and a full orchestra in the pit."
Brunyate estimates that it has taken 100 hours of staging rehearsals to get the production right for opening night.
"There is so much involved. First we're dealing with two and and a half hours of music, all of which has to be memorized by the singers. Then we have to build characters and remember staging, and then the orchestra has to be rehearsed," says Brunyate, who since 1980 has premiered more than 30 short operas by Peabody students and young graduates.
The opera-going public, many of whom expect not to understand a performance's foreign language, might be surprised when they hear this opera sung in both English and Italian. Brunyate decided to have the characters speak in their native tongues to further illustrate the conflict of the two distinct cultures. Thus, parts will be sung in Italian, as Gino at times slips into his native tongue, and there is a scene when two of the British characters leave an Italian opera singing a tune that has stuck in their heads.
But despite the predominantly English lyrics, supertitles will be provided for the entire production. "It lets the audience relax. It makes them more comfortable with the dramatic element," Weiser says.
As the hours to opening night approach, Weiser says he wishes he felt a little more comfortable as well.
"To have a production of this magnitude, it's very exciting, while also very intimidating," Weiser says. "It's almost indescribable. I'm really thrilled by the whole thing."