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Making the most of big moments; Music: To turn an E.M. Forster novel, 'Where Angels Fear To Tread,' into opera takes tapping into its emotional roller coaster.


E.M. Forster's first novel, "Where Angels Fear To Tread," is an emotional roller coaster. That's why Mark Lanz Weiser and Roger Brunyate love the book, and it's the reason they spent seven years -- as composer and librettist, respectively -- turning it into an opera.

The result of their collaboration has its world premiere tonight at the Peabody's Friedburg Hall.

Forster's emotional range varies from comedy of manners to searing tragedy, and the plot contains at least two love affairs, as well as a complicated romantic triangle and a shocker of a denouement.

"What I liked about the novel [in terms of transforming it into opera] was that there was melodrama," says Weiser, 30, a teacher of theory at Peabody Conservatory who has written two previous operas and a great deal of vocal music. "They need not be serious, but opera needs big moments."

The novel revolves around the clash of cultures and personalities. Despite her disapproving family, a wealthy British widow marries a handsome Italian 10 years her junior and bears him a child before she herself dies. Her stuffy, if well-meaning, relatives intervene, trying to take the child away from his father, with tragic consequences.

Forster is a master of irony and understatement and of subtle characterization. And while his cool, elegant surfaces do not entirely conceal the heat generated by his characters and their conflicts, it is up to the reader to intuit these things. On the scale that exists between the reserved Jane Austen and the emotionally theatrical Charles Dickens, Forster is much closer to Austen.

"On the surface, 'Where Angels Fear To Tread' explores a flat terrain," says Brunyate, artistic director of Peabody Opera Theatre. "Beneath that surface, it's a roller-coaster ride. The problem is that opera does not work the way fiction does. In order to make the opera as emotionally affecting as the book, one has to do what Forster never would have done himself as a writer -- you have to bring everything out in primary colors."

Forster's career was a peculiar one. He published "Where Angels Fear To Tread" in 1905, when he was just 24. In the next 21 years, he published four more novels, including "Howards End" and "A Passage to India." But these, with the exception of some criticism, essays and the libretto for Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd," were followed by 45 years of creative silence.

"I always felt like saying to him, 'Get on with it, E.M.!' " said his friend Iris Murdoch, the late novelist, who produced several times as many novels as Forster in a much shorter life.

"In a way, the problem of turning 'Where Angels Fear To Tread' into an opera is a little like the problem of Forster himself," says Brunyate, one of many Cambridge University students in the 1950s who used to frequent the novelist's rooms at Kings College for sherry and conversation.

"I was enthralled by his conversation, but he could be maddeningly elusive," Brunyate says. "Whenever we gently tried to steer conversation around to Forster and working relationships with people like Benjamin Britten, he would just as gently steer the conversation away from himself. He knew about almost everything. But all one ever learned about him was the fact of his extraordinary emotional reticence."

But with very few exceptions -- interestingly enough, one of them is the Britten-Forster "Billy Budd" -- one cannot have reticence upon the opera stage.

"Characters can't be complicated," Weiser says. "And -- this is the important thing -- they must express their feelings."

According to Brunyate, who was worked with several internationally celebrated opera composers, Weiser has succeeded in bringing those feelings out.

"He's got a light comic touch, and he's been able to deliver the big emotional moments without a trace of exaggeration," Brunyate says. "It's funny, it's wrenching, and it's got gorgeous music."

World premiere

What: "Where Angels Fear To Tread," opera by Mark Weiser based on the E.M. Forster novel

Where: Friedberg Hall

When: 7: 30 p.m. today, tomorrow and Saturday; 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $8-$22

Call: 410-659-8124 Pub Date: 2/25/99

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