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Say Goodbye to the Fat Lady

Rhymes With Opera: Sun Cycle
Rhymes With Opera: Sun Cycle

Opera. For most people the word conjures up a world apart, a realm where people who speak about trust funds, summer homes in the Hamptons, and the great works of long dead composers and authors dwell. Its elite environs completely disconnected from the average person and their workaday world. According to Ruby Fulton, co-founder of Rhymes With Opera (RWO), it doesn't and shouldn't be that way.

"We wanted to bring opera into places where there're new audiences. So, not just in the operahouses. One of the things we're exploring place you go experience music affects how you experience it. So, if you go to a fancy concerthall it becomes the precious thing. You stop everything else in your life and you go experience this inspiring thing. Afterwards, you're back in your life, stuck in traffic trying to go home," she explains.

The music becomes a "little jewel that's seperate from your day-to-day life. But, music, especially opera that's about something, places and people -- and we're interested in opera that's about now and places that we're familiar with, and things people are thinking about. So we thought let's see what happens if we put it in a bar, or even a subway station." 

A native of Iowa, Fulton is a composer who plays violin, viola, accordion and trumpet. In 2007, she formed RWO with fellow Peabody alum and close friend George Lam, who is also a composer. Sopranos Elisabeth Halliday and Bonnie Lander and Robert Maril, also Peabody graduates round out the company.

Fulton, 28, came to Baltimore to attend the Peabody Institute on Lam's recommendation, however, once she got here she says the city was so much more than she'd expected.

"I ended up finding so much more than just Peabody. There's such a great and thriving going on here. It's not academic, non-school driven and even non-professional. It's people just doing it because they love it. I know so many people with day jobs who are making amazing music and art on the weekends, at night or whenever they can,"

RWO will launch its 2010 season this Saturday, May 15 at the Copycat Annex Theater with the world premiere of Book of Gazes, a new noise rock opera by composer Jenny Olivia Johnson. Three members of Baltimore hip-hop band Soul Cannon are also featured in the opera that Johnson styles as a video cantata in nine parts, for three amplified voices, ensemble and electronics.

"I love Jenny's music. I'm a huge fan and she's basically my favorite composer who's around my age. I like all music but there's not much that I'm really excited about it. Her music is just awesome. So, I went to her house and begged her to write us an opera and she said yes!" Fulton says smiling broadly.

Let the music play

Book of Gazes, says Johnson, 32, was not what she had originally planned to compose. "I was writing my dissertation and becoming very fascinated with David Lynch movies and I had this Lynch inspired plot in mind that I ended up scrapping."

Though she thought it was an interesting and intricate, Johnson, a professor at Wellesley College, says she couldn't find the heart of the piece. "I'd just moved to Boston. I was in a new city, in a new apartment and completely isolated. When I sat down at the piano an entirely new story just flowed out of me."

The new work is part semi-autobiographical and also based in Johnson's doctoral research that dealt with how music relates to and interacts with traumatic memories.

"The story came about very intuitively and organically. It emerged through the music. Most of the piece is the result of improvisations I did over the course of about a week," she explains.

The 60 minute opera tells that tale of a teenage girl who after a traumatic experience starts seeing a much older male therapist. The two fall in love and the opera "explores what happens when you have extreme emotional connections with people you shouldn't be with," Johnson says.

Rather than create a more traditional through-composed opera, Johnson likens it instead to a playlist of songs that trigger memories.

Any place, anywhere

RWO's ethos that opera can be performed anywhere was a major inspiration for Johnson. "I was really inspired by a piece of Ruby's called Closer to Mona. I met Ruby when she was writing it and I was really inspired by her approach. She was thinking of a really short opera that would be done in a warehouse with a very minimal set and she was really trying to design the piece so that everything was in the music. Visuals were not as important as what you were hearing," she recalls.

"I thought her approach was really creative and beautiful. So, when she approached me to write an opera for the group, I thought this is great and exactly the kind of work I want to be doing. I'm creating something that can be done anywhere. It's not about elaborate sets in a traditional sit down theater. It's collapsible and can be taken anywhere, performed anywhere. That informed a lot of my work with the improvisations. I wanted to create a piece of somebody remembering and it could be happening anywhere � in someone's living space or psyche," Johnson continues.

Rooftops are a recurring location in the opera. Trying to capture that sense of being above it all is what led Johnson to include video. "They're really barebones and most were shot with my iPhone and a really cheap video camera. It's very grainy and not good quality at all. They could be projected on a sheet or a wall and give a kind of immediate sense of atmosphere that isn't perfect or that certain but gives the feeling that anyone could be having this experience with a mobile phone or closing their eyes. That was the esthetic that really informed the piece. I was really inspired by the idea that this is group that wants to perform opera in unconventional spaces."

Raising their voices

RWO will take Book of Gazes on a three-city tour that starts this Saturday in Baltimore, goes on to Philadelphia, and New York. Each city is home to a member of the company, giving them a place to stay and a readymade fan base. "We applied for a grant, but that didn't come through. We hold fundraisers and basically do this whole thing off of those $5 and $10 donations," says Fultion.

According to Fulton, RWO hopes to expand its season to include two operas and hopes one day to take their tour to the Midwest. The company would also like to work with schools, exposing grade school age children to opera, from composing the music to staging and performance.

"That's the next big step. Getting into elementary schools, bringing it to them. We'd have to do it right so that they were involved. Outreach is our next thing. A bigger season with two or three operas is something I'd like to do and more fundraising," she says.

Walaika Haskins is managing editor of Bmore Media. She's lived in Baltimore for more than 20 years, taking a break to live in New Orleans, Paris and New York.

We've got more coverage of Baltimore's Arts and Culture scene here!


1. Rhymes With Opera: Sun Cycle performance. Provided by Rhymes With Opera
2.Thom Limbert: Numbers and Dates, Anxiety to Panic performance. Provided by Rhymes With Opera
3. Rhymes With Opera performance. Provided by Rhymes With Opera
4. Hip-Hop band Soul Cannon. Photo by Tyler Westnedge
5.Ruby Fulton, George Lam, and Thimble Wit perform in Skeleton. Provided by Rhymes With Opera
6. Rhymes With Opera. Provided by Rhymes With Opera
7. Thom Limbert: Numbers and Dates, Anxiety to Panic performance. Provided by Rhymes With Opera
8. Hip-Hop band Soul Cannon. Photo by Tyler Westnedge

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