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Student's opera was inspired by Yeats


If you like your operas short and compact, Mark Weiser may have something for you Sunday with the first public performance of his 30-minute "Purgatory," based on a one-act play about one man's hell by Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

But don't count on a fluffy light piece in the free opening performance of the fifth annual concert series of Second Presbyterian Church, 4200 St. Paul St. (short remarks at 3:30 p.m. precede the music in Smith Hall).

Weiser's music is dark, the mood is eerie and the strings shiver, fitting the drama of Yeats' seven-page play with two speaking (now singing) characters: an old man describing to his illegitimate son a self-imposed purgatory centering on his high-born mother and her husband, a stable groom.

Weiser, 22, is a recent Peabody Conservatory graduate and current Peabody master's student. He composed the opera last fall for Baltimore baritone Randal Woodfield, who will sing the role of the father.

Weiser's opera evolved in a typical composer's fashion. "Dr. Thomas Benjamin was my music theory teacher at Peabody. He required his students to compose in styles of different composers, and I found I enjoyed this the most. I studied with him for three years . . ."

Weiser's first composition of note was a cycle of four songs for baritone based on the anti-war poems of Wilfred Owen. "I picked baritone because that's my voice. It was the easiest way to compose and, also, baritone represents the average person, the average soldier."

Woodfield, a member of the Peabody Preparatory faculty, agreed to Weiser's request to sing the songs. A recital in the spring of 1990 led Weiser to write an opera.

"In the summer of 1990, I looked through my father's library -- he's a psychologist in Allentown, Pa. -- and I found the Yeats play, only seven pages. I wrote the music from the end of August to the end of November last year. They did the opera at Peabody before a small group last spring."

Woodfield praised Weiser's music as "not typical student work. He has a real flair for writing for the voice and dramatically. He doesn't like atonal music, but he uses it occasionally to great effect.

"The music for 'Purgatory' is dense and flows; in fact, Roger Brunyate, Peabody's opera director, was asked to see a rehearsal last spring and afterwards said, 'You realize you don't have a 30-minute opera here but a three-hour opera condensed into 30 minutes.'"

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