Hence the Washington National Opera’s New American Works project, which will roll out in the 2012-13 season. (The season will not be announced until March.) It’s conceived as a three-tiered system: 20-minute commissions from student composers; hour-long works by “emerging” composers; and, eventually, full-length works by American masters. The first student commissions — presented in threes, in concert, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater — are projected to arrive late this year.
“The sense of laboratory and workshop is something we are going to work hard to develop,” Zambello said. “Of course, you can workshop something to death. But I think opera is such a complex, strange beast. We’re also addressing the question of what is opera today. We’re all grappling with that issue. What is it going to be in 10 years, 20 years?”
Speaking from Vienna, Austria, WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin pointed out the benefits of exposing young composers to the resources of an opera house. Even if the scale of the works is small, he said, the composers have the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra at their disposal.
“If a composer wants to use eight percussion players, he can,” Auguin said. “It’s like offering a painter the full range of all the colors.” He added: “If Stravinsky had not been allowed to use two tuba players in ‘The Rite of Spring,’ he would have never written ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Allowing composers to write something from a larger dimension helps composers to go deeper into what they can bring.”
WNO is not the first company to put muscle behind a commissioning program (witness the Minnesota Opera’s ongoing seven-year New Works Initiative, including three main-stage commissions) or to turn to a smaller format as a way to generate new work without staggering expense (such as the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program). But the three-tier system and emphasis on working with young composers is distinctive.
The announcement is also a positive step for a company that has seemed to be dwindling in recent seasons, walloped by the financial crisis after years of living slightly beyond its means. It makes good on the company’s long-bruited goal of committing to American work, albeit in a smaller form than once hoped for by Placido Domingo, WNO’s longtime general director, who stepped down last year. And it is not a sign of new overspending.