At South Carroll High School, he played percussion in the band. At Towson State University, he wrote music for plays and dance companies. Now 27 and a doctoral candidate at the Peabody Institute, Paul Mathews has graduated to opera.
Mr. Mathews has composed one opera and is planning a second. But he hasn't stored his work in a portfolio; his show is being produced. "Chatter and Static," written in English and composed by the former South Carroll resident, premieres tonight at Peabody.
"It's a real rarity to have a 20th century opera done," said Mr. Mathews. "Even the Metropolitan has only staged one contemporary opera in the last 25 years."
Opera has grown in popularity in recent years, but most companies rely on 18th- and 19th-century favorites to draw audiences.
New opera is risky and expensive to produce, Mr. Mathews said. "Producers will stage 'La Boheme' to really bring people to the theater. Getting new ones done is difficult."
After earning a master's degree in composition and theory from Pennsylvania State University, Mr. Mathews chose Peabody for his doctoral studies. Since Peabody has three professional composers on the faculty, he thought the Baltimore school would offer the greatest opportunity to showcase his work.
"Peabody is one of only two schools in the country which produces student operas," he said.
In the last 10 years, Peabody has produced 30 new student works.
"These projects are a vital component of the opera department program," said Mr. Mathews. "They offer composers and singers the invaluable opportunity to work together on the development of new material."
He credits constant encouragement from Roger Brunyate, director of the opera department at Peabody, for his success.
"Roger is enthusiastic about recruiting composers to write operas," he said. "He supports the creation and performance of new operatic works."
Mr. Mathews wrote the libretto first. It took him about 13 months to set the text to music, or, as he put it, to "attach notes to the words."
The result is 65 minutes of music, which he wrote from first bar to last.
"The score book is huge, with 248 pages," he said.
Mr. Mathews' story line takes place during the broadcast of a talk show and is a satire of the popular television genre.
"The research was painful," he said, laughing. "I had to watch hours of televised talk shows. I had more fun as I made fun, though."
Although he has had a hand in every aspect of the production, as a student he "served many masters" throughout composing and producing.
"It's the Peabody's production," he said. "I am basically the resource."
The opera includes seven scenes and nine roles played by Peabody graduate students. A 10-piece ensemble orchestra accompanies. Rehearsals began a few weeks ago, just as Mr. Mathews finished the score.
He laughed as he recalled racing into the first rehearsal with the ink still wet on the scored pages.
"I had the vocal parts and piano accompaniment done," he said, "but I didn't completely finish the score until the last few weeks."
The dark comedy touches on media exploitation of a family tragedy, but it has a redemptive ending, he said. He also promises many light moments derived from physical comedy and situational humor.
"There is a tradition of both humor and violence in opera," Mr. Mathews said. "This story provides a nice mix of funny and serious."
He hopes to finish his course work at Peabody next year. Then, to complete his doctoral studies and receive his degree, he must present a portfolio of all the works he has written as a student there, compose another major opera piece and write a commentary of what is involved in the composition.
He said he eventually would like to teach composition in college.
"Chatter and Static" will be performed at 7:30 tonight and tomorrow at 1 E. Mount Vernon Place, Baltimore. It shares the program both nights with "The April Witch," a new opera by David Shapiro, another Peabody student. Admission is free.