A bearded lady, a flock of prostitutes, a machine that supposedly turns stones into bread — just a few of the off-kilter elements in "The Rake's Progress," the brilliant opera with music by Igor Stravinsky.
Widely viewed as a masterwork since its premiere in Venice in 1951, but not staged with great frequency, the piece provides a vehicle for Peabody Opera Theatre's first production in the Modell Center at the Lyric.
"It's exciting to help contribute to the season that is bringing grand opera back to Baltimore," said Peabody Institute director Jeffrey Sharkey. "And it's a very exciting opportunity for our singers to sing in a big house."
That return of grand opera occurred two weeks ago, when Lyric Opera Baltimore debuted with Verdi's "La Traviata," successfully filling the void left by the longtime Baltimore Opera Company, which folded in 2009. Modell Center management felt there was plenty of room for more opera, and that led to this season's collaboration with Peabody.
And with Lyric Opera focusing on standard repertoire, Peabody Opera had an opportunity to select something outside the mainstream. "The Rake's Progress," which receives two performances this weekend, made a logical choice.
"Peabody is uniquely positioned to do some of the thornier musical pieces," said Garnett Bruce, who is directing "The Rake's Progress." "We can spend the time on them and bring them to a wider audience."
The Stravinsky opera comes from the composer's neo-classical period, with lots of Mozartlike touches. The subject matter, on the other hand, would have been way too racy for Mozart.
The libretto, by celebrated poet W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, drew inspiration from William Hogarth's famous 1730s artworks that show the descent into poverty and madness of the heartless, rascally Tom Rakewell.
In the opera, Tom ditches his faithful girlfriend, the aptly named Anne Trulove, when he learns he has inherited a fortune. He becomes ensnared by another aptly named figure, Nick Shadow, who seems to be in league with the devil. Along the way, Tom Rakewell marries Baba the Turk (the bearded lady) and squanders his money on a machine that Shadow says can make bread from stone.
Tom's descent and fall is as wicked as it is speedy. Like Mozart's "Don Giovanni," "The Rake's Progress" leads to a concluding don't-let-this-happen-to-you moral, sung by the ensemble.
"In the epilogue, Baba says that 'all men do or say is theater,'" said Garnett Bruce, director for the Peabody production. "That reinforced our idea for this staging. We've taken a very theatrical approach to it."
Bruce, a Peabody faculty member who regularly directs productions for major opera companies around the country, said that the notion of the bread-making machine led to a concept for this presentation of "The Rake's Progress."
"What if the bread machine were a scale model of a theater?" Bruce said. "You could put something in and get the illusion you believe. We're giving the opera a context to help people follow a tricky story of a fable."
For Peabody Opera, used to performing in 700-seat Friedberg Hall on campus, moving into the 2,500-seat Lyric represents a significant challenge. Given scheduling constraints, only three days were available to move in the set and rehearse in the theater. ("It is a rushed pace," Bruce said, "but they've been rehearsing since the middle of September.")
The scenery needed to be flexible enough to be easily loaded, yet substantial enough to make an impression on the Lyric's stage. The singers, too, had to be flexible.
"It's a very exciting opportunity for them to sing in a big house," Sharkey said. "They have to project in a different manner than at Friedberg Hall."
Leaning to project in a full-size opera house is essential for any budding vocal artist.
"They can't just sing to the first 15 rows, but to the balcony," Bruce said. "This is what we'll be asking of them when they start their careers. They have to apply the lessons they've learned in more intimate spaces and enlarge them."
If you go
"The Rake's Progress" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. Sunday at the Modell Center at the Lyric, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $25-$35. Call 410-900-1150 or go to lyricoperahouse.com.