‘Approaching Ali,’ the second stage of WNO’s effort to foster new American opera


(L to R): Conductor Steven Jarvi, composer D.J. Sparr, librettist Davis Miller, WNO’s Michael Heaston, and librettist Mark Campbell at a workshop rehearsal of Approaching Ali in March 2013. (Margot Schulman for WNO)

Muhammad Ali is singing. At 10 o’clock on a March morning in the rehearsal studio at the Washington National Opera’s rehearsal facility in Takoma Park, the bass Soloman Howard, a member of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz young artist program, opens his mouth and gives cavernous voice to The Greatest.

The opera is called “Approaching Ali,” and it was written by the 37-year-old composer D.J. Sparr. It represents the second stage of WNO’s nascent effort to foster new American opera. The American Opera Initiative began last fall with a program of three new 20-minute chamber operas; “Approaching Ali,” which plays June 8 and 9, lasts an hour. Eventually, the plan is that the composers of some of the 20-minute works will graduate to hour-long pieces, which in turn will prepare them to write full-length new operas — like Jeanine Tesori’s “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me,” which will have its world premiere at the Terrace Theater in December.

At the moment, though, everyone in the room — composer, conductor, program administrator, singers and a handful of patrons — is focused on hearing Ali sing for the first time. Is the opera working? How can it be improved? For Davis Miller, who wrote the libretto, the occasion is particularly momentous, not to say bizarre. The opera is based on his memoir, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali,” and its protagonist — played alternately by a boy soprano and the adult baritone David Kravitz — is Miller himself.

How do you create new opera, 21st-century opera, American opera? Under Francesca Zambello, its new artistic director, WNO is joining a number of companies nationwide in trying to find new ways to come up with possible answers.

The first step is training: training composers, and training singers. WNO is casting its new commissions with singers from its Domingo-Cafritz young artist program, and the program is being (deservedly) revamped. To head it, as well as the commissioning initiative, Zambello brought in Michael Heaston — who at 34 is still able to bear the label “Wunderkind” — whose experience ranges from consulting on the Metropolitan Opera’s HD broadcasts to running the young artist program at the Glimmerglass Festival, which Zambello heads. (He will continue to hold both positions.)


(L to R): Librettist Davis Miller and Muhammad Ali. (Courtesy of Davis Miller/Courtesy of Davis Miller)

“It’s easy for programs of this nature to have an adverse effect,” Heaston says. “It’s possible to beat the artistry out of people instead of promoting it.”

As the new director of the Domingo-Cafritz program, Heaston’s goal is to polish artists who are ready for careers, not train raw talent — as the program tried to do in the past on a couple of occasions. He’s started a more rigorous auditioning procedure; 600 musicians applied this year for the 12 spots (an increase) available in the 2013-14 season. Where Domingo-Cafritz singers used to travel to study with the teachers of their choice — which often meant trips to New York, squeezed in around other commitments — the program now has voice teachers in-house, including Diana Soviero, a soprano revered among opera aficionados. Other new features include mentors in the form of an artist-in-residence — next season, Deborah Voigt — and “master teachers” who will come in at intervals throughout the season.

“Let’s not pretend we’re a school; we’re not,” Heaston says. “It’s my job,” he adds, “to push them out of the nest as quickly as possible.”

Zambello also sees the young artist program as having audience-­building potential. “It comes back to what I call the home team,” she said. “We need our Washington Nationals. And I want those young artists to become that, and that they come back more when they’re successful — that there’s much more of a connection to the company.”

Young singers’ needs are increasingly being met. Young composers, on the other hand, tend to be thrown in at the deep end when it comes to writing opera. Graduate programs in composition seldom offer specific courses in writing for the voice (though Sparr took a helpful class called “Words and Music” with William Bolcom at the University of Michigan). And a new opera represents a huge investment of manpower, creative effort and money. For “Approaching Ali,” which is written for five singers and 10 instruments, the preliminary meeting, Sparr said, involved about 50 people, including production team members and musicians. WNO isn’t the only company to start thinking about how to groom opera composers; Opera Philadelphia recently launched a composer-in-
residence program that gives two composers generous three-year stipends and immersion into the workings of an opera company.

For its 20-minute operas, WNO has solicited recommendations from the 15 schools in the Kennedy Center’s conservatory program; Sparr is several steps further down the career path. Still, there was plenty of room for advice when he was tackling a longer theater piece for the first time for WNO. Heaston and Zambello made many nuts-and-bolts suggestions, such as recommending opera excerpts for him to study and talking specifically about how he could improve his opera. “It was an impressive assessment of the piece,” Sparr says of Zambello’s post-workshop notes. “I did make some changes to the Ali character. I had an academic idea that he would be on one low note, and when he said ‘magic,’ he would come to life. The academic idea and practical were two different things.” In his revisions, undertaken after the March workshop, he loosened up his writing; “I wanted to let some of his humor come through.”

Training programs for creative artists are always a shot in the dark. There’s no guarantee that the huge investment of resources is going to pay off — certainly not in any way that will directly benefit the company. Opera Philadelphia’s program doesn’t even necessarily involve a commission. “We’re really trying to play the long game,” says Kyle Bartlett, the company’s new works administrator “which is not to . . . have Lembit [Beecher, the first composer-in-residence] bring one thing to our stage but have him have all the tools he needs so that he has a career in front of him of many operatic works.” Such generosity is possible thanks to a $1.4 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; few companies can afford to be so altruistic.

While all of this training is a great thing, it’s striking that it’s necessary. True, the tradition of opera has involved intense, hands-on training from its inception; both the Washington and Philadelphia programs attempt in different ways to give composers the kind of collaborative experience that the young Rossini or young Verdi had working in an opera house.

That tradition is no longer there. “We can’t pretend that opera is the equivalent of the pop music it used to be in the 19th century,” Heaston says. “That doesn’t exist anymore in terms of what society sees. But there is a way to bridge a lot of that stuff, but [it] requires us not just to educate librettists and composers but our audiences. We have to do it in a way that it’s a mission people can understand and get behind; it has to be clear, transparent. People have to feel like they’re part of the process. That’s why we opened up the workshop; we wanted people to understand what it means to create a piece like this.”

This is a laudable and reasonable statement. It also boils down to a rather alarming idea: that to keep the art form alive, an opera company has to take special measures to get people to want to write it, to want to perform it and to want to listen to it.

The question is: How do you make us care that Muhammad Ali — or Anna Nicole Smith, or President Nixon, or Harvey Milk, to name protagonists of other more or less recent operas — is singing? These days, everyone in opera — singers, writers and audience members — is looking for the answer.

“Approaching Ali”

Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, June 8 at 7:30 p.m. and June 9 at 2 p.m.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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