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29.1.05

Premiere of Democracy

Additional Remarks by Jens Laurson:

Democracy—An American Comedy is not a winner. Scott Wheeler's music sounds like uninspired John Adams for much of the duration of the work. Whenever the music is good, I felt like I was going to just about enjoy it... but I am not sure if I truly did. Sure enough, there are some good parts in it: Amanda Squitieri as Esther makes much of them with her round, warm, inviting voice that never sounded anything but utterly comfortable. Similarily, Matthew Wolff as Reverend Hazard had choice moments. But all too often, the music did not hold my attention or, as in the beginning of the second act, was downright disappointing. In the church scene, I would have hoped for something different than just Wheeler's style mercilessly plowing through the text of a chorale. Could not a traditional hymn-setting with declamation in Wheeler's style above it have been employed? The opportunities to intertwine two styles, for a fugue, something in a different mode... anything other than straight "Wheeler" was sadly missed.

The story itself is quaint and moves along happily enough (with the glaring exception of that church scene, which is dramatically almost as much a failure as it is musically), is mildly entertaining, and has funny moments. If what I have overheard is true and the libretto is an improvement over the play, however, I know that I will not be seeking out Democracy at the nearest theater. In particular the "Happy End" seemed abortive, awkward, and contrived. Baron Jacobi's character—he narrates the opera as a telling of "How he lost his job"—became an appendix in the second act, without any discernable purpose or drive.

Still, where opera is alive and well and new works produced, no one should fail to make their own opinion about the work—heaven knows, the opportunity does not come around often enough. Even if the work isn't particularly strong, I'd be inclined to say that on account of its very existence it is already part success.
Last night, I was very pleased to attend the Washington National Opera premiere of their new commission, Democracy by Scott Wheeler. The libretto is by Romulus Linney, derived from his own play of the same title (premiered in 1974), in turn based on two 19th-century novels by Henry Adams, Democracy (1880) and Esther (1884). The first of these novels was the Primary Colors of its day, since it was first published anonymously, and speculation about who the author really was fueled sales. Unfortunately, that also led to a number of unauthorized editions, to the point that Adams eventually remarked, "The wholesale piracy of Democracy was the single real triumph of my life."

This unusual production brings together an unusual combination of young performers—members and recent alumni from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, and members of The George Washington University Chamber Choir—and more established singers, with conductor Anne Manson. At intermission, a friend remarked that this order of things is probably the exact inverse of the optimum, in that ideally new operas should be performed by veterans. Be that as it may, the model that Plácido Domingo has put together here is not without its attractive qualities. The cost of production was, I imagine, somewhat lower than the other works on the WNO's season, and the benefits given to young singers and players are admirable. There is hopefully no reason that this kind of commission, a sort of high-end workshop for a new opera, could not become a regular event, every year or every other year. So, although I was disappointed that the WNO did not commission a new opera for its 50th anniversary season (see my post on December 3, 2004), a 20th-century opera in alternation with a new opera is not a bad pattern to establish.

Democracy combines two love stories, neither of which is particularly engaging. In the first, the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice, Esther Dudley (Amanda Squitieri)—because she pursues a career as a photographer and wears men's suits, she is "considered Bohemian"—falls in love with an Episcopalian minister, Reverend Hazard (Matthew Wolff), but hates his religion. In the second, a wealthy New York widow, Madeleine Lee (Keri Alkema), moves to Washington and falls in love with Senator Raitcliffe (Lee Poulis), who is angling for a run for the presidency, but hates his corrupt politics. These romances, if they can be called that, take place against the backdrop of President Ulysses S. Grant's administration, which was notably corrupt, with its scandals, lobbyists, and swell parties.

Robert Baker as the Baron Jacobi, photograph by Karin Cooper
Robert Baker as the Baron Jacobi, photograph by Karin Cooper


Other Resources:

Tim Page, Putting 'Democracy' to a Vote (Washington Post, September 12, 2004)

Johanna Lunglhofer, 'Democracy' for all: Washington National Opera premiere features gay storyline (Washington Blade, January 14, 2005)

Daniel Ginsberg, Rocking the Cradle of 'Democracy': For Opera's Nurturers, a Labor of Love (Washington Post, January 23, 2005)

Robert Gable, Democracy: An American Comedy (2005), Scott Wheeler (aworks, January 24, 2005)

T. L. Ponick, Premiere for 'Democracy' (Washington Times, January 26, 2005)

Scott Wheeler, Lecture on Democracy, with three excerpts from the opera, accompanied by piano (Kennedy Center Millennium Stage, January 25, 2005)

Karren L. Alenier, Instinct and Inspiration: Interview with Composer Scott Wheeler (Scene 4 Magazine, October 2004)

Karren L. Alenier, Democracy: An American Comedy - Scott Wheeler/Romulus Linney (CultureVulture.net, January 28)
All of this is observed and commented on by the two most memorable characters in the opera, the Baron Jacobi (Robert Baker) and Esther's venerable aunt, Lydia Dudley (Kyle Engler). Jacobi, the decadent Bulgarian ambassador, is the only one who ends up united with his love at the opera's conclusion, and he is another man. He is the opera's thaumaturge, influencing the decisions of other characters and wryly observing their follies from the corner of the stage, speaking directly to us in the audience with a wink. Robert Baker was suitably oily in this role, with his head shaven and a raffish moustache, beard, and walking cane. Kyle Engler's Lydia Dudley, often rolled about on a large-wheeled chair as an invalid, remains inside the opera but with a delectable cynical distance. As the only character old enough to remember President Washington, she gives a hilarious recounting of the foibles of the founding father's rural personality. This is part of one of the most beautiful musical moments of the opera, the brindisi, or toasting scene at Mount Vernon. A third impressive performance was given by Jessica Swink, in the small coloratura role of the lobbyist Essy Baker. (Both Kyle Engler and Jessica Swink appeared to great effect in the Opera International performance of Dialogues des carmélites this summer. See the review by Jens Laurson for Ionarts.)

Musically, Scott Wheeler's opera is pleasing to the ear. It has an often light orchestration, with lots of harp, tinkly percussion, and celesta and even harpsichord (which sounded, to my ears, a bit wrong for a late-19th-century American salon). There is dissonance, beautiful dissonance, mixed with more diatonic harmony. It is most complicated rhythmically, and it was fun to watch talented conductor Anne Manson shift through the changing meters and give complicated, multilevel cues to her various forces onstage and in the pit. However, the orchestra seemed at times monochromatic and did not contribute anything of value to what the singers were doing on stage. This became especially noticeable during the brief orchestral introduction and the few symphonic transitions provided for set changes.

In his lecture at the Kennedy Center (which requires Real Player), Scott Wheeler listed his influences as The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Bartók, Stravinsky, Britten, and Sondheim. In Tim Page's article, he said, "My music is not 'modern' in that sense of being off-putting and abstruse. I hope that ideal of modernism has finally disappeared." He also admits "a kinship to the music theater of Stephen Sondheim, the operas of Benjamin Britten, Kurt Weill and Thomson, the modern strain of American songwriting that combines poetry with eclectic musical sources, and modern orchestral works ranging from Aaron Copland to Gyorgy Ligeti." I can appreciate all of those influences in the opera (except perhaps The Beatles and Sinatra), but I am not sure that it adds up to something compelling.

In spite of these reservations, I have to say that this was a fun and exciting event. I was delighted to run into so many friends—composers, librettists, singers, other musicians, musicologists—all coming together to support the idea of new opera. At intermission, we had a powwow in the lobby to share our impressions of the opera, and there was definitely that sense of excitement that comes with knowing that you are talking about something new. That is what we are missing in our opera experience these days. Of course, no new work can really be judged on only one hearing, and whether Democracy lives on beyond its premiere production is something that only time will tell. If you like opera and you are in Washington, you should go to the only remaining performance, on Sunday, January 30, at 2 pm. Note that the venue for this production is Lisner Auditorium, instead of the Opera House at the Kennedy Center. You will see beautiful sets and costumes, hear talented musicians, and get to hear that rarest of things, a new opera.

UPDATE:
The newspapers catch up:About the latter, Bernard Holland claims to have seen the opera on Saturday night, which is interesting since it was performed on Friday and Sunday.

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