“Contemporary” might not be the first word that springs into the mind when thinking of opera, but a new Baltimore Theatre Project and Peabody Chamber Opera collaboration aims to connect the two thoughts together in a bold production that confronts the different ways in which women remain unseen. The production, entitled “Women in the Dark,” finds itself revolving around more modern situations, confronting the role of women in both large and small scale scenarios that are not among the most typical in the classical opera repertoire.
“Women in the Dark” is composed of three short chamber pieces, chosen by JoAnn Kulesza, who is chair of the opera department at the Peabody Conservatory and also the music director and conductor for the event.
The night begins with “Sukey in the Dark,” a retelling of the legend of Cupid and Psyche, in which Sukey remains ignorant of the appearance of her husband, Eros, having only seen him in the darkness of the night.
“Naomi in the Living Room” — a piece Kulesza calls the “comic relief” of the set — follows “Sukey” and is based on Christopher Durang’s short story of the same name. “Naomi” follows the shenanigans of a mother, lost within her life situation, during a visit with her son and daughter-in-law.
“Women in the Dark” finishes with “ANON,” a piece composed by Errollyn Wallen that is meant to education the public on sex trafficking. “ANON” is different from most typical operas in that its musical stylings range in variation from R&B to minimalism to rock.
In writing this piece, Wallen interviewed women who had been sex workers or had been victims of sex trafficking in order to better relate the situations surrounding their work and the conflicts within the sex industry. As much a feminist piece as an activist piece, “ANON” intends to cast a light on an issue that is still very relevant today.
As music director, Kulesza has been guiding the actors and the instrumentalists in their interpretations of the works, making sure that they remain “faithful to the page.” She emphasizes the importance of vocalization from the opera singers, training them to make their work accessible to all people by performing as if there is at least one deaf person and one blind person in the audience. “Make them understand [the pieces] both visually and orally,” she instructed. By constructing a more holistic experience, Kulesza fosters theatre that “brings real life into a forum that makes people think.”
Stage director Courtney Kalbacker agreed. “[Opera offers] a greater palate for emotional communication […] The instruments and composition represent the feelings and emotional state of the story.” Kalbacker’s role in putting “Women in the Dark” together has been in figuring out how best to tell the story and to guide the meaning of the work, focusing specifically on the psychological and the visual aspects of the show. “If you enjoy stories,” she said, “you’ll enjoy opera.”
“Women in the Dark” will be performed at the Baltimore Theatre Project on Feb. 16-18 at 7:30 p.m. and on Feb. 19 at 3:00 p.m. Student tickets are $10, while regular ticket pricing is $25.