Peabody Chamber Opera heads off campus each year to do something offbeat. The venue is the nearby Baltimore Theatre Project, where different is normal. And this season's production promises to be a little extra-different.
Grouped under the heading "Women in the Dark," the company will present three contemporary one-act works.
"For the women in these operas, there's something about their present situation that they are in the dark about," says JoAnn Kulesza, chair of the opera department at the Peabody Institute and music director for the triple bill.
A manic mother learns that her son is a cross-dresser in the satirical "Naomi in the Living Room" by Jonathan Holland, based on a Christopher Durang story. In "Sukey in the Dark," a riff on the Cupid and Psyche legend with music by Thomas Whitman and libretto by Nathalie Anderson, a woman is married to a man who doesn't let her see him in the daylight.
The third and longest of the operas, Errollyn Wallen's "Anon," looks at young women in the shadows of society.
The Belize-born British composer, who wrote her own libretto for the piece, held workshops to hear directly from young women about the pressures they confront, the choices they make.
"I tested out ideas with school girls from different cultures," Wallen says. "Several of them were Muslim. I heard about the dramas when someone runs away from one culture or religion to be with someone from another. I carried that into the opera."
Another element behind the creation of "Anon" was the 18th-century French novel "Manon Lescaut," which inspired famous operas by Massenet and Puccini. The title character runs off with a man rather than join a convent, and is eventually charged with prostitution and sent into exile — with fatal results.
"It's one of those stories where the woman dies at the end for no really good reason," says Wallen. "Themes in 'Manon' are still relevant, themes of vulnerability and the exploitation of young women across the world. "
The issue of sex for hire is also addressed in "Anon."
"There is nothing sensationalistic in any way," Wallen says. "Sex workers are not in it for the sex. I put a line into the libretto where a woman says, 'I got into this because of drugs.' The director [of the first production] thought that couldn't be true, so I took it out. Then I had a meeting with five young sex workers in Birmingham [England], and they all said they ended up working on the street because they would do anything for crack."
The opera, which receives its U.S. premiere with the Peabody production, calls for three singers and two actors (the characters are anonymous).
"It's not a straight-through narrative," Wallen says. "It is a glimpse into another world. I hope people get a sense of the emotional and intellectual effects on what young women face. The stories in the opera are based on things that have actually happened — beneath our noses, really. I hope people will be moved by the text. And I hope plenty of young people come and see it."
The prolific composer, now in her 50s, has had her own experiences facing obstacles as a woman — classical female composers have long been overshadowed by men — and as a woman of color.
"I've been composing since I was very young," Wallen said. "I remember when I was 9 or 10 being told 'classical music is not for you.' But I was a very determined child. And I have always tried to be as good a composer as I could be. There have been opportunities offered to me because of my ethnicity, and times when I wasn't taken seriously because of that. You have to be pretty dogged to be a composer. Once I decided on this life, it has been quite an adventure."
Peabody Chamber Opera presents "Women in the Dark" at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday at Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $10 to $25.Call 410-752-8558, or go to theatreproject.org.
Errollyn Wallen and the Miller-Porfiris Duo will perform a program of Wallen's music at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at An die Musik, 409 N. Charles St. Tickets are $10 to $20. Call 410-385-2638, or go to andiemusiklive.com.