washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > Seasonal > Fall Arts

Putting 'Democracy' to a Vote

In a Town Where Politics Rules, New Opera Could Win Bipartisan Support

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page N10

Very few composers have elected to set operas in Washington, D.C. True, there was a climactic scene in the Willard Hotel in Douglas Moore and John Latouche's "Ballad of Baby Doe" and, yes, Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein used some stock American historical figures in their yearning and fanciful "Mother of Us All." But there is no genre of "Washington operas" in the way that there may be said to be "Washington novels" ("Advise and Consent," for example) or "Washington films."

All the more reason to cheer on the world premiere of "Democracy," a new piece by composer Scott Wheeler and playwright Romulus Linney, which will receive its first performance early next year. The work -- which was commissioned and will be presented by the Washington National Opera, with a Jan. 28 premiere -- is based on the waspish social comedy of the same name by Henry Adams, originally published anonymously in 1880.


William Parcher, left, and Robert Baker prepare for the world premiere of "Democracy," which composer Scott Wheeler describes as "a comedy and a love story." (C. Karin Cooper)

_____Fall Arts Preview_____
Season Highlights: A complete guide to fall's best shows, concerts, movies and more.
SELECTED CLASSICAL MUSIC VENUES

CLARICE SMITH

PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

University Boulevard

and Stadium Drive

University of Maryland, College Park

301-405-2787

www.claricesmithcenter.umd.edu

CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART

500 17th St. NW

202-639-1700

www.corcoran.org

EMBASSY OF AUSTRIA

3524 International Ct. NW

202-895-6700

www.embassyseries.orgEMBASSY OF THE FEDERAL REPUBLIC OF GERMANY

4645 Reservoir Rd. NW

202-471-5558

www.embassyseries.org

EMBASSY OF SWITZERLAND

2900 Cathedral Ave. NW

202-745-7900

www.embassyseries.orgDUKE ELLINGTON THEATRE

35th and R streets NW

202-315-1323

www.savoyards.org

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD THEATRE

Rockville Civic Center Park

603 Edmonston Dr., Rockville

240-314-8690

www.rockvillemd.gov/arts/theatre.htm

FINE ARTS RECITAL HALL

University of Maryland,

Baltimore County

1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore

410-455-2787

www.umbc.edu/arts

GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY

CENTER FOR THE ARTS

4400 University Dr., Fairfax

703-993-2787

www.gmu.edu/cfa

GRACE EPISCOPAL CHURCH

1041 Wisconsin Ave. NW

202-333-7100

www.cantate.org

HIRSHHORN MUSEUM

AND SCULPTURE GARDEN

Seventh Street and Independence Avenue SW

202-633-4674

www.hirshhorn.si.edu

KENNEDY CENTER

2700 F St. NW

202-467-4600

www.kennedy-center.org

LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

101 Independence Ave. SE

202-707-5000

www.loc.gov/rr/perform/concert/

LISNER AUDITORIUM

George Washington University

730 21st St. NW

202-994-6800

www.lisner.orgMEYERHOFF SYMPHONY HALL

1212 Cathedral St., Baltimore

410-783-8000

www.baltimoresymphony.org

NATIONAL MUSEUM

OF AMERICAN HISTORY

14th Street and

Constitution Avenue NW

202-633-1000

www.americanhistory.si.eduNATIONAL MUSEUM

OF WOMEN IN THE ARTS

1250 New York Ave. NW

202-783-5000

www.nmwa.org

NATIONAL

PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH

4101 Nebraska Ave. NW

202-537-0800

www.natpresch.org

NATIONAL MUSEUM

OF NATURAL HISTORY

Tenth Street and

Constitution Avenue NW

202-633-1000

www.mnh.si.edu

RACHEL M. SCHLESINGER

CONCERT HALL

3001 N. Beauregard St.,

Alexandria

703-845-6156

www.schlesingercenter.comST. PAUL'S LUTHERAN CHURCH

4900 Connecticut Ave. NW

202-966-5489

www.cantate.org

STRATHMORE HALL

10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda

301-530-0540

www.strathmore.org

WASHINGTON

NATIONAL CATHEDRAL

Wisconsin and

Massachusetts avenues NW

202-537-6200

www.cathedral.org

"I hope this is the sort of opera that will be enjoyed not only by opera lovers but by people who like any sort of modern, compelling drama," Wheeler says. "The sort of opera -- or play, or film -- I most love is when you say to yourself, What will that remarkable person say or do next?

"That's the reaction I had to Linney's play 'Democracy.' It's real literature by a major playwright, full of wonderful characters and memorable, singable lines. At the same time, it has the advantage that it isn't such a well-known work as 'Streetcar Named Desire' or 'A View From the Bridge,' " both of which have recently been turned into operas.

The setting is 1875, in the midst of the corruption-plagued U.S. Grant administration. Wheeler has made no attempt to approximate a 19th-century sound in his score, although he does make occasional references to marches, waltzes and drinking songs of the period. "My music is not 'modern' in that sense of being off-putting and abstruse," he says. "I hope that ideal of modernism has finally disappeared."

Wheeler, a native Washingtonian long resident in the Boston area, says that he feels a kinship to the music theater of Stephen Sondheim, the operas of Benjamin Britten, Kurt Weill and Thomson, the modern strain of American songwriting that combines poetry with eclectic musical sources, and modern orchestral works ranging from Aaron Copland to Gyorgy Ligeti.

" 'Democracy' is full of singable tunes," Wheeler says. "It's an opera, of course, but not quite like any opera you might already know -- not the sort with murders, suicides or any other acts of violence. Rather, it's a comedy and a love story -- actually two interwoven love stories with parallel paths. But love gets mixed up with politics and religion -- and, of course, with power and money."

The production, to be staged by director and designer John Pascoe and conducted by Anne Manson, will be the WNO's first commissioned work in more than a decade. The cast will be made up of members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and mark the company debut of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas. There will be only two performances open to the general public, both of them at GWU's Lisner Auditorium. This paucity is unfortunate, because, on paper at least, "Democracy" looks like the most interesting production the WNO is offering in the coming season. The Young Artists have been working on sections of "Democracy" since early last year. Wheeler believes that such extended preparation gives a new piece "the greatest advantage it can have: It has been learned over a long enough period to play out naturally as a drama."

And, as of Jan. 28, there will be another "Washington opera."


© 2004 The Washington Post Company