Rhymes with Opera explores definition, dimension of art form

They've heard just about all the suggestions by now. But if you insist, you can approach members of the Rhymes with Opera ensemble Saturday at the Windup Space and offer your response to what is actually not a request.

"We've had people come up to us and go, 'I've got it: Deepak Chopra,'" said Ruby Fulton, one of the Peabody Conservatory alums who founded the group.

David Smooke, a composer and Peabody faculty member who teaches music theory and rock music history, has also heard his share of reactions since letting people know he wrote a work for Rhymes with Opera.

"It is an all-time great name," Smooke said. "When I told one friend what I was doing, he went silent and thought long and hard. Then he just said 'Mothra.' Later, he came back with 'Lepidoptera.'"

Even without a rhyme, there is a good reason for the chamber ensemble, which has spent the past four years seeking to add a fresh spin to a centuries-old art form.

"All joking aside, we're experimenting with what opera is," Fulton said. "Opera is a tricky thing to define, actually. It's such a huge field of possibilities."

Those possibilities will be explored Saturday when Rhymes with Opera, joined by the New England-based West End String Quartet, presents a triple bill called "Criminal Intent."

The program, which includes the world premiere of Smooke's "Criminal Element," will be performed Friday in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Saturday in Baltimore, with additional shows next week in Hartford, Conn., and Boston. (The group will be back with a different program for Artscape next month.)

"Criminal Element" was inspired by a big news item from France in 2008, when Jerome Kerviel shook up European markets with billions in fraudulent transactions. Don't expect to follow that story word for word in Smooke's version.

"I have a love/hate relationship with the language of opera," the composer said. "Opera performed in English is a good thing, but it seems almost less good theater. When you hear opera in Italian, you can be caught up in the action and not be concerned with the language."

Smooke took that attitude one step further: He invented his own language for the text of "Criminal Element."

"A made-up language creates its own sense of drama," said Smooke, who believes that audiences will be able to get the point of his 45-minute opera. "It's about how little mistakes can lead to large consequences," he said, "how you can make mistakes by trying to please people."

The linguistic hurdle is not the only challenge Smooke created for the cast.

"I asked the singers to do things they wouldn't normally do," he said. "Everyone also has to play an instrument, and one they don't normally play." Those instruments include a specially tuned ukulele and "a bit of a surprise at the end — a fairly shocking kind of instrument," Smooke added.

There may be a shock or two in another of the operas on the program, "Someone Anyone," by George Lam, a founding member of Rhymes with Opera. His work, sung in English, is about a prostitute held hostage by a client.

Rounding out the triple bill is Ryan Jesperson's "Orphee Redux," a stand-alone scene from a larger opera that transplants the myth of Orpheus to New York during the early days of the AIDS crisis.

Rhymes with Opera started with friendships developed at Peabody. In addition to composers Fulton and Lam, the group includes three singers: New York-based Elisabeth Halliday and Robert Maril and Philadelphia-based Bonnie Lander.

"We're spread out, but the point of a collective is to continue working no matter where we are," said Lam, who is finishing up a graduate degree at Duke University in North Carolina and will soon move to New York. "We're excited about the medium of opera and putting on opera in whatever possible way."

Added Fulton: "We have epic, six-hour rehearsals when we get together."

If you go

Rhymes with Opera performs at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Windup Space, 12 W North Ave. $5-$10. Go to