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Rhymes with Opera dials up 'Numbers/Dates'

The words "opera" and "emotional" typically go together, but not in the way it will happen this weekend.

The risk-taking Baltimore- and New York-based ensemble known as Rhymes With Opera, now in its sixth year, will premiere the complete version of Thomas Limbert's "Numbers/Dates." It's a work that uses a text based on just that — numbers and dates. The performers supply the emotion.

"The piece was born out of a neurobiology class I took at Duke University," Limbert said, "about speech perception and research on 'emotional prosody.' We heard sound samples of actors speaking semantically neutral numbers and dates in different emotions. I thought it was really interesting, but also hilarious, because they were just saying 'December 12' or '410.' "

When Limbert received a commission from Rhymes With Opera co-founders Ruby Fulton and George Lam, he fashioned a score based on emotional prosody that uses as much speech as singing.

The opening movement, first performed in 2008, is titled "anxiety leading to panic." The second, unveiled in 2011, is "sadness, despair, disgust, contempt." The recently completed third and final movement, which will be performed with the other two Saturday at 2640 Space, is designated "cold anger, hot anger, happiness, elation."

"So there's a turn toward the upbeat at the end," said Fulton, who will be playing violin in the seven-member ensemble that will accompany the singers in the premiere.

Saturday's presentation will get a theatrical treatment, thanks to a stage director, lighting designer and costume designer. That doesn't mean Rhymes With Opera is suddenly awash in money.

"We're still DIY," Fulton said, "but we just formed a board of directors this year, and we're gradually notching things up in terms of development. We've been able to collaborate with people who are hungry for opportunities to work on projects where they can do whatever they want."

The organization is all about exploring experimental forms of vocal music, pieces that may not have a linear narrative or character development but that can still add up to something operatic. "Numbers/Dates" is a good example.

"Music is inherently dramatic," Limbert said, "at least the music I write or am interested in writing. I'm a drummer and percussionist, so when I think of opera, it's not so much [Mozart's] 'Don Giovanni' or [Verdi's] 'Rigoletto,' but Philip Glass' 'Einstein on the Beach.' That work is very different from what people think of as opera but certainly has a drama to it."

Limbert discovered an unexpected element to "Numbers/Dates" after the first movement premiered.

"People came up to me after to say, 'My mother died on Sept. 3rd' or 'That's the number of the train I take every day to work,' " the composer said. "Although the words are random, people wanted to connect to them. In that way, I've achieved some sense of drama."

The rest of Saturday's program is related to the matters of speech, communication and emotion raised by Limbert's work.

Fulton's "the ballad of james parry," with a text by Jeff Brunell, was inspired by the man who became something of an Internet celebrity in the early years of the Web and had a condition known as "face blindness."

"People who have that see one component at a time — the left eye, the front teeth — and have to put all of those components together," Fulton said. "That's the process I used in this piece. Singers sing syllables out of order, then snap them together."

Also on the program will be another Rhymes With Opera commission, "Three Modern Pieces" for string quartet and voices. The music is by Travis Sullivan (founder of Bjorkestra, a big band that performs his arrangements of Bjork songs). The text by Jamia Wilson explores political and women's issues while also making reference to numbers and dates.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

Rhymes With Opera performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at 2640 Space, 2640 St. Paul St. Tickets are $10 in advance; $15 at the door. rhymeswithopera.org.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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