Wolf Trap launches comic opera ‘The Inspector’

If you’re looking for the future of opera, you might not expect to find it in a theater so small that it has neither a loading dock and room to store sets nor even space for singers to move from one side of the stage to the other without descending a flight of stairs at one end, passing through four doors and running back up.

As an opera venue, the Barns at Wolf Trap is not calculated to inspire confidence. One afternoon early last week, while the technical crew tinkered with the lights, the diminutive theater sat open to the sharp-edged April wind so that sets could be moved in for the world premiere of the comic opera “The Inspector” on Wednesday night. Only one door was large enough to fit them — right through the middle of the auditorium.

“When I walked in there,” says bass-baritone Robert Orth, “I thought, ‘Oh, okay: My mom’s got a barn!’ ” He assumes the voice of a wide-eyed, stage-struck rube in full “Babes in Arms” mode: “‘We can make some costumes! My dad’s got $5 million! We can put on an opera!’ ”

In fact, he’s not so wide of the mark. Kim Pensinger Witman, Wolf Trap’s opera director, has a kind of can-do attitude that doesn’t shy away from the homemade, roll-up-your-sleeves approach to getting a job done. In the summer, Witman works with a support staff to put on the productions of the Wolf Trap Opera. But “The Inspector” is a production not of the opera company, but of the Wolf Trap Foundation, which has no such support staff itself. It has only a handful of year-round employees, which means that Witman has to do nearly everything herself: line up a substitute for a sick singer; ferry artists to and from rehearsals; even babysit for a 10-month-old named Henry. The boy’s mother, soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, is playing Beatrice, the daughter of Orth’s character, a corrupt Sicilian mayor in Fascist-era Italy whom the opera’s librettist, Mark Campbell, has given the graphically descriptive name of Fazzobaldi.

Her resourcefulness has helped Witman and her crew not only to stage two world premieres, but to snare a Grammy nomination for the recording they made of Wolf Trap’s last new opera, “Volpone,” which had its premiere in 2004. At a time when some companies lament that they can’t afford to do new work, Wolf Trap, which isn’t really a company at all, is figuring out how to do it, on a shoestring, and make it count.

The summertime Wolf Trap Opera is designed to use young artists who are just emerging from training programs and testing their wings in the professional world. By contrast, “The Inspector” is a fully professional opera using singers of all ages and all levels of experience. Many of the artists, however, are Wolf Trap Opera alumni — of more or less recent vintage. When Orth first came, in 1975, he was a public school music teacher.

In those early days, the program involved formal classwork in movement, acting and diction. There were no Barns: The young singers gave performances at the Madeira School and took small parts in operas on Wolf Trap’s main stage with the likes of Anna Moffo (in “The Taming of the Shrew”) and Beverly Sills (in “La Traviata”).

“Every time I’d see Beverly for years,” Orth recalls, “she would say, ‘Wasn’t that a great cast?’ ” — referring to the presence of noted singers such as John Cheek and Neil Rosenshein in very minor roles.

Another young artist, Steven Blier, studying to be a vocal coach, sparked Orth’s interest in a wider range of music. Blier is still a familiar figure at Wolf Trap, presenting annual recitals with the young singers in repertoire he’s mined for his New York Festival of Song. After two summers, Orth decided to take a leave of absence from his teaching job to give a singing career a try. He hasn’t looked back.

By the time Anne-Carolyn Bird arrived in 2007, the Wolf Trap Opera, under Witman, had evolved into its current form. Bird stayed locally at the home of a host family who had volunteered through Wolf Trap to put a singer up for the summer. Linda Kauss, the deputy managing editor of USA Today, and Clark Hoyt, the former public editor of the New York Times, have a spare mother-in-law apartment over their garage in Great Falls; Bird, who is based in New York, is one of several singers who have stayed there over the last eight years.

The relationship has blossomed: Kauss and Hoyt have followed Bird’s career, traveled to hear her sing at the Metropolitan Opera and even attended her wedding to bass-baritone Matthew Burns, which began with a proposal in their apartment. Now, Bird, her husband and her son are staying with Kauss and Hoyt for “The Inspector.” “They become part of your family,” says Kauss.

For singers, who lead nomadic lives, such relationships create a particular bond. “This is one of two places in the world,” Bird says, “that I can get around without a map.”

Wolf Trap has also established a familial relationship with its composer and librettist, John Musto and Mark Campbell, who wrote both “Volpone” and “The Inspector” — as well as “Later the Same Evening,” which the Maryland Opera Studio gave its world premiere in 2007. It’s an odd chance that has led these two New York-based artists — Campbell voluble, Musto with a reserved dry humor — to premiere all of their major stage works in Washington, each directed by Leon Major.

Musto seems to regard the process of midwifing a new work not with anxiety, but with slightly sardonic pragmatism. “There comes a point when you say, ‘I think I know what I’m doing,’ ” he says of writing an opera. “And you put the work in the hands of people who know what they’re doing. There’s no reason to get that exercised.”

Still, there are considerable challenges. The music of “The Inspector” is at once melodic and tricky; Bird calls it “the perfect combination of accessibility to the audience and challenge to the performer.”

Then, there’s the challenge of any comedy: to be funny. “If they aren’t laughing,” says Campbell, “you know that you failed your job.”

For Witman, putting on new work such as “The Inspector” is simply part of Wolf Trap’s larger mission of identifying and fostering the next generation of operatic talent. “We deal with almost every aspect of the industry,” she says. “This is the one piece that was missing: find someone who should be writing operas.”

Her next step is to get the word out and make the opera world aware of the fact that Wolf Trap isn’t only working with young artists, it’s also creating new work. She’s been looking for producing partners for years and at last is having some success: “The Inspector” is going on, next season, to the Boston Lyric Opera.

In fact, the morning after the third and final performance on Sunday, a crew from Opera Boston will show up at the Barns to receive the sets and costumes. It’s not that Wolf Trap is in a hurry to get rid of this production. It’s just that, in those tiny barns, there’s no place to store it.

The Inspector

Will be performed Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna. Visit wolftrap.org/barns or call 877-965-3872.

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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