(L to R) Yuri Gorodetzki, Julia Mintzer, Soloman Howard, María Eugenia Antúnez, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)
As I have said many times, although there are some who do not like to hear me say it, most new works of music throughout history have been failures -- in the long term, that is. So, there is really no reason to expect new operas to be golden successes, especially considering that far fewer new operas ever see the light of day in our era than in previous ones. I am always glad to hear new works of music, because the vitality of the art depends on it, but I generally expect to hear such new pieces only once before they fade into oblivion. In a way, the format imposed by the American Opera Initiative dooms these works to failure. A 20-minute opera is unlikely ever to be produced anywhere else, except by small companies that specialize in pocket opera and reach a relatively limited audience. Even so, limits reveal strengths and weaknesses: a composer and librettist who can hold your attention in a short work may have a better chance of creating a durable longer work.
What great operas of the past should composers and librettists take as models for this sort of challenge? What characteristics do short operas that have stood the test of time have in common? Some of my favorites are Poulenc’s La voix humaine (40 minutes), Ravel’s L’heure espagnole (50 minutes) and L’enfant et les sortilèges (45 minutes), Schoenberg's Erwartung (30 minutes), Barber's A Hand of Bridge (10 minutes), Menotti's The Telephone (5 minutes) -- there are many more, but not all created equal. Most of these focus mostly or exclusively on one character, and in such a short time there is not much hope of developing more than that.
Philip Kennicott, Grads of WNO’s American Opera Initiative present original works at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 21)
The works on either side were, by comparison, instantly forgettable. Part of the Act, with music by Liam Wade and libretto by John Grimmett, was a skimpy bagatelle of a story, about an infidelity and the attempt to cover it up in a vaudeville club dressing room in the 1920s. It had some flashy vocal writing for soprano Shantelle Przybylo (Ginger, the striptease artist), a fateful quotation of the opening motif of Beethoven's fifth symphony, and a lot of derivative jazz and operetta styling. A Game of Hearts, with music by Douglas Pew and libretto by Dara Weinberg, tried to make something profound out of a meeting of hearts in a retirement community, but it ended up feeling like the libretto needing trimming -- quite a feat for a 20-minute work -- right around the time it reached its climactic duet. The musical style was again rather unimaginative, mostly Broadway but with operatic high notes and complicated harmonies in the trio, but with none of the memorable tunes of the great Broadway composers. Both of these operas seemed to bear too much of the imprint of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Mark Campbell, who served the three composers as mentors. At the podium, Manson made sure each work received an optimal reading, with some other standout vocal contributions from mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer and soprano María Eugenia Antúnez.
WNO's America Opera Initiative continues this summer, with the staging of a new one-hour opera, The Tao of Muhammad Ali (A Ghost Story), by D. J. Sparr (June 8 and 9), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.