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American Opera Initiative: Three More Miniatures

Leah Hawkins in Alexandra (photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)

One of the best things that the folks at Washington National Opera did after the merger with the Kennedy Center was to create the American Opera Initiative. With access to the other spaces of the Kennedy Center, the company has commissioned three composers each year to produce 20-minute operas, with the latest installment offered on Wednesday evening in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Some of these composer-librettist pairs go on to create an hour-long opera in the second part of the program, all with coaching from more established composers and librettists. It is important work, providing the pleasure of hearing new operas with some regularity.

An operatic miniature, if anything, is more difficult to create than something in a longer format. It is a specialized undertaking with only a few successful examples to study, and it should be no surprise that most of the 20-minute operas presented by the program are duds. Fortunately, a failure in this genre likely has little to do with ultimate success: Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg left me underwhelmed with their contribution to the first such 20-minute program, in 2012, but their one-hour opera, Penny was more effective.

The work that was most successful at creating a dramatic arc within compact restrictions was the middle opera, Alexandra. Librettist Joshua McGuire drew a sharply defined story, involving a young woman who has just lost her husband. Alexandra takes a book that her husband stole back into their university library; following an inscription in its pages into other books, she unravels a mystery about her husband, who kept the book because it contained communications from a man with whom he was in love. In a short space, composer David Clay Mettens weaves together Alexandra's present with the forbidden past of her husband, Ray, and another student, Alex, making the voices overlap in duets and a trio. His use of the small orchestra -- three woodwinds, three brass, strings, piano, and percussion -- was by far the most inventive, too, abounding in unusual colors. Mezzo-soprano Leah Hawkins offered an instrument of rich tone, especially at the bottom, in the title role.

Other Articles:

Anne Midgette, Opera as bourgeois drama: 20-minute pieces at WNO (Washington Post, December 4)

Alex Baker, Slice of life (Parterre Box, December 4)

Sadie Dingfelder, A triumphant return across the pond (Washington Post, November 25)

American Opera Initiative:
2015 | 2014 | 2013 | 2012
Sarah Hutchings and Mark Sonnenblick went for cheap laughs and doggerel rhymes in Twenty Minutes or Less, about three neurotic workers in a pizza shop. Its jazzy score, complete with two back-up singers billed as the Pizza Queens, had hints of Puccini, but not much more than the fine mezzo-soprano of Daryl Freedman, with spot-on intonation and expressive line in her aria "I wake up, put on my mother," to recommend it.

Freedman was also matched nicely with baritone Hunter Enoch in Service Provider, with music by Christopher Weiss and libretto by John de los Santos. This last piece also had a somewhat glib, music-theater sensibility to it, about a truly annoying couple having dinner out for their anniversary. The score is littered with the sounds of text notifications and cell phone rings, to symbolize the obsession that makes this annoying couple even more annoying. Tenor Rexford Tester took the best role, a snarky waiter named Dallas, and ran with it, especially in the patter song about the pork belly.


Anonymous said...

Ironically, there is a precedent for the "pork-belly song". In one of Offenbach's one act works (I think it's "Pomme d'api"), there is a trio about pork chops - "côtelettes"!

Charles T. Downey said...

Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan were definitely the models for this number.

Gary said...

I am especially grateful for the 20-minute opera initiative. I am working on project I call “The Art of Fugue: The Opera” -- an effort to turn JS Bach’s The Art of Fugue into a short opera.

I needed a librettist for this project. One of the first things I did was go to the WNO website listing the librettists who had previously received 20-minute opera commissions. I contacted some of them, got a librettist, and commissioned a libretto. I received the first draft of the libretto a few weeks ago and I like it a lot.