Every opera company in America, it seems, is looking for contemporary American opera — and for a better way to create it. The Washington National Opera’s own particular take, now in its second season, involves commissioning young composers and librettists to write 20-minute operas, to let them get their feet wet, as it were. On Wednesday at the Terrace Theater, members of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz program for young artists performed the second batch of three of these short works: “Duffy’s Cut,” by Jennifer Bellor to a libretto by Elizabeth Reeves; “Breaking,” Michael Gilbertson’s setting of a libretto by Caroline V. McGraw; and “Uncle Alex,” by Joshua Bornfield to a libretto by Caitlin Vincent.
There’s no formula for writing a successful opera: A lot of intangibles have to fall into place (a composer with a knack for drama, and the right libretto, for starters). But you could also say that opera is essentially formulaic. Certainly the three composers here drew on some of the same signals for expressive emotion: surging melodic lines in the strings, repeated chords hammered from the piano, whispers and rumbles from the percussion. “Breaking” and “Duffy’s Cut” opened with nervous, energetic figures that vaguely evoked each other, although in “Breaking” this passage evoked the theme of a nightly news program, and in “Duffy’s Cut” it set up the story of immigrants who died in a 19th-century labor camp. The pieces were scored for a small ensemble — string quartet, flute, clarinet, horn, piano, percussion — that was led by one of the WNO program’s three mentors, the conductor Anne Manson, with angular and emphatic gestures. (The other two mentors are the composer Jake Heggie and the librettist Mark Campbell.)
Length doesn’t have to be a limitation; plenty of contemporary composers write short operas, and some companies, like the local Urban Arias, specialize in them. The trick is finding a story short enough to be told well in miniature. On Wednesday, “Breaking” was the most successful in capturing a meaningful and dramatic vignette: a newscaster (Deborah Nansteel) trying to break into the business with meaningless local-interest stories is suddenly called on to cover a hostage situation and interview a young woman (Jacqueline Echols) just as she, on camera, learns that her brother has been killed. Gilbertson’s music referenced a range of styles, from the newscast-y intro to lyrical horn work to the genuinely moving transition from chaos to keening sorrow at the moment the deaths are announced. The main weakness was that Nansteel’s big aria came at the end of the piece, when the character was merely rehashing points the narrative had already made more effectively.
“Duffy’s Cut” opened with the same kind of driven energy as “Breaking,” although its convoluted story, and overall musical language, were of a different place and time: 19th-century immigrant laborers have died during a cholera epidemic and are being buried without a trace (three of the characters are already dead). Though dramatically diffuse, the piece was luxuriously cast with two of the stars of the current Domingo-Cafritz young artists, Norman Garrett and Soloman Howard; and Bellor showed a flair for full-bodied operatic sound.
“Uncle Alex” combined a number of the requisite dramatic situations: Only two members of an immigrant family survive the journey to America, and they almost can’t get off the boat due to a bureaucratic tangle. Nansteel, who had the lead in two of the three operas and carried both off with aplomb, was the immigrant mother. As the title character, a stranger who steps in to help her out, Christian Bowers showed a beautiful baritone voice. The evening certainly made a case for the current crop of WNO young artists, as well as for the flexibility that working on a smaller scale allows an opera company in actively encouraging new work.