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WNO's Bite-Sized New Operas

(L to R) Yuri Gorodetzki, Julia Mintzer, Soloman Howard, María Eugenia Antúnez, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)
One of the many benefits of Washington National Opera's merger with the Kennedy Center is that the company can now use the Terrace Theater and other venues for different kinds of productions, ones not likely to fill the Opera House. This summer, WNO created the American Opera Initiative, a project to foster young composers and librettists in the creation of new American operas. This is something, it is often repeated ad nauseam in certain quarters, that the word "National" inserted into the company's name, and the limited government support that comes with it, obliges WNO to do. Obligation or not, it is an admirable and welcome development, reviving the concept behind the company's presentation of Scott Wheeler's Democracy back in 2005 -- a smaller venue, young singers, a workshop creative process, and even conductor Anne Manson. The result was three 20-minute operas by young, but by no means unaccomplished composers and librettists, presented in a semi-staged concert format with a chamber ensemble of violin, viola, cello, flute, clarinet (and bass clarinet), bassoon (and saxophone), and a pile of percussion instruments.

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.

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Philip Kennicott, Grads of WNO’s American Opera Initiative present original works at Kennedy Center (Washington Post, November 21)
The best effort of the night -- Charon, with music by Scott Perkins and libretto by Nat Cassidy -- followed that example. The story was centered on the mythological character of Charon, ferrying an endless stream of condemned souls across the Styx and frankly getting a little tired of it. Perkins created a meaty title role for remarkable bass Soloman Howard, fresh off a main stage appearance as the Commendatore in WNO's Don Giovanni and frankly sounding in much better voice here. With its echoes of Sartre's Huis clos ("L'enfer, c'est les autres"), juxtaposition of grim humor and hellscape, and the most evocative use of the limited instrumentation by a long shot, it was a work not without shortcomings but which I would gladly hear again and take the chance to study the score.

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.

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