Grads of WNO’s American Opera Initiative present original works at Kennedy Center


In the “American Opera Initiative,” left to right, María Eugenia Antúnez as Jean Bierbaum and Norman Garrett as Jerry Rosenberg. (Scott Suchman)

After the premiere of three one-act operas Monday evening, the composers and librettists gathered on the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater for a roundtable conversation, and they agreed on this: The key to success is simplifying, reducing, clarifying. The first graduating class of the Washington National Opera’s new American Opera Initiative, which pairs young music theater professionals with seasoned veterans, garnered the invaluable experience of seeing firsthand how hard it is to do big things on a small scale.

The initiative, announced last January, is directed at composer-librettist teams age 32 or younger. Christina Scheppelmann, the outgoing director of artistic operations, said it is intended to give music-theater artists a chance to experiment and fail, yet with the guidance and resources of professional advisers and performers. Although American opera companies occasionally commission new works, they often turn to a small roster of reliable and seasoned artists, limiting risk and attenuating adventure and innovation. That limits the possibilities for younger artists.

The potential and pitfalls of opera were all on display Monday evening. The creative teams were required to keep each opera at or about 20 minutes, to tell “a contemporary story,” and limit their forces to four to six singers and a chamber ensemble of eight to 10 musicians. That meant grand gestures were off the menu, forcing everyone to think in the small, telling gestures of the short story, not the cumulative detail and narrative of the novel.

The results differed widely. “Charon,” by composer Scott Perkins and writer Nat Cassidy, is based on a sketch of a short story by the 20th-century Irish writer Lord Dunsany, depicting a weary eternal boatman, weathering the last deluge of souls before the final demise of mankind. “A Game of Hearts,” with music by Douglas Pew and libretto by Dara Weinberg, is set in a nursing home, where three elderly women reminisce about lost love over a game of cards. And “Part of the Act,” Liam Wade’s musical setting of a text by John Grimmett, is a comic vignette about an actress having an affair with a married man.

“Charon” was the strongest work, and “A Game of Hearts” the most ambitious. Cassidy’s reworking of Dunsany’s short story is spare and telling, and gave his partner repetitive and clear material for musical treatment. The piece works effectively because it establishes and maintains a single mood, intensifying to a dramatic conclusion. Melodic vocal fragments are set against more dissonant but colorful sounds in the instrumental ensemble. The opera was placed second in the three-work program, and it would work well in that position in future performances, a dark, brooding adagio connecting two larger, brighter pieces.

“A Game of Hearts” shows both composer and librettist experimenting with perhaps the greatest technical device of opera: the use of music to elaborate simultaneously different emotions. The ladies in this card game are by turns garrulous, sniping and sentimental. Pew and Weinberg came close to successfully carrying off this most difficult fusion of material, and built to a touching set of verses that had the romantic, French-inflected power of an art song by Gabriel Faure or Cesar Franck. One wonders if the creative team had in mind Samuel Barber’s 10-minute opera “A Hand of Bridge,” which is a masterful demonstration of the concision and condensation apparent in many passages of “A Game of Hearts.”

“Part of the Act” aimed at sketching a character, Ginger Taylor, a “very beautiful and voluptuous Vaudevillian actress.” Grimmett’s libretto gave Wade the chance to indulge in flighty coloratura writing, an established trope for suggesting feminine wiles. Comedy, however, is hard, and while the piece built in orderly fashion to its wry, even cynical denouement, it didn’t cohere. Both the libretto and the musical setting, full of pastiche, touches of Astor Piazzolla and Irish crooning strung together but not integrated, felt borrowed from the big trunk of comic opera motley in the attic.

But the evening was about trial and error, and even the best of works could be improved (is it necessary to break into speaking voice at the end of “Charon”?) and the least was entertaining. It reminded one of how many wonderful short operas are sitting almost forgotten in the canon, how many delicious programs could be assembled without resorting to the usual pairings of shorter works by Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo.

The casts for Monday’s readings were drawn from WNO’s young artist training program, and included strong performances by Norman Garrett (particularly effective in “A Game of Hearts”), Julia Mintzer (in all three operas) and Maria Eugenia Antunez (appealing in “A Game of Hearts”). Anne Manson, one of the program’s mentors, conducted the ensemble.

Philip Kennicott is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Art and Architecture Critic of The Washington Post. He has been on staff at the Post since 1999, first as Classical Music Critic, then as Culture Critic.
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