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Peabody Chamber Opera ready to ride 'Ghost Train' at B&O Railroad Museum

From left, Natanya Washer, Michael Dodge, Megan Heavner, John An in Peabody Chamber Opera production of "The Ghost Train."
From left, Natanya Washer, Michael Dodge, Megan Heavner, John An in Peabody Chamber Opera production of "The Ghost Train."(Will Kirk/Homewood Photography)

Now arriving at the B&O Railroad Museum: "Ghost Train," an opera about a mysterious, dangerous vision that rides the rails.

British-born American composer Paul Crabtree intended this work to be performed in or around abandoned railway buildings. Peabody Chamber Opera settled on a more practical, but still atmospheric, venue.

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"The piece is about a haunted train, and we'll be surrounded by ghosts of yesteryear, the ghosts of our own Iron Age," says Peabody Institute faculty member and opera director Garnett Bruce. "We won't have to project images on a set. The trains will be right there."

The opera was inspired by a 1923 stage work by English actor and playwright Arnold Ridley, who fashioned a dark-and-stormy-night plot that finds assorted travelers stuck in a railway station in rural England.

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There, they learn the legend of a ghostly train that, at midnight, will roar past, spreading death and destruction along the tracks. A body turns up at the station even before that fateful hour, and, by the time a train whistle is heard in the distance, there are frayed nerves in the waiting room.

"Paul Crabtree said he saw the play as a boy and it scared the crap out of him," Bruce says. "He has written the thriller into the music, and has created tension in all sorts of ways. Our production will feel kind of spooky. If we can startle the audience, I think they'll find it a fulfilling experience."

The Peabody staging will be complete with special effects.

"We'll have steam and a train whistle," says music director JoAnn Kulesza, chair of Peabody's opera department. "It's going to be a totally different experience, in-your-face and intimate."

Peabody Chamber Opera has a good track record of presenting off-the-beaten-path fare; last year's dynamic production of Jonathan Dove's "Mansfield Park," based on the Jane Austen novel, was a notable example.

"I always do Web surfing to see what new operas are out there, especially ones with small orchestration," Kulesza says. "I came across 'Ghost Train' a couple years ago. The score is tonal and has a little bit of everything in it."

Seven singers, most of them master's degree students at Peabody, and an orchestra of 12 will be involved in the performances, which mark the opera's first fully staged production. ("Ghost Train" was heard in a concert version in 2012 in North Carolina.)

"We usually do our chamber opera productions at Theatre Project, but, hey, this one's got a train," Kulesza says. "And [Peabody dean] Fred Bronstein has been encouraging all of us to go out into the community more, so this was a great opportunity to do that — and to use a non-traditional performing space."

"A space with parking," adds Bruce with a smile. "The museum has never hosted an opera before. The audience will be seated in the center of the Roundhouse. And patrons will have access to the museum an hour before the performance."

The facility seems ready-made for "The Ghost Train," which isn't just an eerie story.

"The opera pays homage to the ingenuity and creativity of our railroads," Bruce says. "We're in a site-specific place and we're going to honor the railroad. Singers will be going in and out of train cars as part of the opera."

Those singers will portray a diversity of folks, each with their own stories, hopes and fears.

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"They are real characters caught in a situation they wouldn't normally find themselves in," Kulesza says.

That situation, though, may not be what it seems.

"The composer wanted this to be about how we are deceived, and how we deceive ourselves," Bruce says.

"It's also about baggage, the baggage everybody has," Kulesza says, "and the drama that happens around us every day, whether we recognize it or not."

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