On a chilly Saturday afternoon last March, a new opera came closer to life. In one of the large gray spaces of the Washington National Opera's rehearsal facility in Takoma Park, the company's young singers gave the first reading of "Democracy," the new two-act comic opera about American politics by the gifted American composer Scott Wheeler. Over the course of an hour, the young artists moved skillfully through the first act of Wheeler's melodic, rhythmic and colorful score, which will receive its world premiere Friday at Lisner Auditorium.
After the last measures, there was extended applause from Placido Domingo, the company's general director, as well as other top opera administrators in the select audience. Such well-wishers as the distinguished British composer Nicholas Maw extended their hands to Wheeler, who was clearly pleased to hear his music performed live with such energy and polish.
"Democracy" composer Scott Wheeler, left, with Placido Domingo. The new work has its premiere in Washington on Friday.
(C. Karin Cooper -- Washington National Opera)
Everywhere there was a steady hum of enthusiastic chatter: This music was ready for production.
Yet that private reading was just one way point in the creation of the opera -- the first new commission for the main stage of the Washington National Opera in almost a decade and the first during Domingo's directorial tenure. It has been a novel undertaking. "Democracy" takes its libretto from the 1975 play of the same name by Romulus Linney, which is itself based on two novels, "Esther" and "Democracy," by the 19th-century historian and writer Henry Adams.
"Democracy" deals with themes of love, honesty and power. The opera is set in Washington, D.C., in 1875 during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, whose administration was known for corruption and scandal.
In the first act, Madeleine Lee, a transplanted New York socialite, and Esther Dudley, a photographer and daughter of a Supreme Court justice, fall in love with, respectively, an influential Illinois senator and a fire-and-brimstone clergyman. The second act consists of the realizations and reactions of the women to the sometimes dirty realities of government.
A series of strongly drawn characters, including Grant and a highly cynical foreign ambassador named Baron Jacobi, swirl through the opera and spark much of the action in the comedy.
In what Domingo describes as an "experiment," the company is giving most of the main roles to the singers in its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
"I always looked at the possibility of commissioning a world premiere, but I wanted to make sure that it would have a second chance after the first performances," Domingo says. "Since it has been my desire to do an American opera each season, it seemed natural to do something for the young artists."
Michelle Krisel, director of Washington National Opera's education and training programs, says the thought was to produce a lean yet highly creative production that other, less-well-off opera houses across the country with younger singers could replicate. Such rising artists as mezzo-soprano Keri Alkema, soprano Amanda Squitieri and baritone Lee Poulis sing the passionate central roles, while two student ensembles -- the Youth Orchestra of the Americas and the George Washington University Chamber Choir -- will supply Wheeler's music.
Yet what separates the Washington National Opera's production from other student opera efforts is the way more experienced artists will be integrated into the performance at every level. Some of the company's expert singers, such as baritone William Parcher and mezzo-soprano Kyle Engler, take the more stately supporting roles. Tenor Robert Baker, who has sung more than 200 roles for the company, fills the critical part of Jacobi. The veteran director and stage designer John Pascoe has directed two subscription productions for the company, and conductor Anne Manson works frequently with the world's great orchestras.
Despite this depth, the Washington National Opera has hedged its bets. To keep costs under control, the company has offered "Democracy" apart from its main subscription series, limited the production run to two performances (the second is Jan. 30) and opted against staging it at the Kennedy Center. "We just couldn't assume too much financial risk," Krisel says.
The Washington National Opera production of "Democracy" indeed falls into a novel category. It is not quite like the productions of new American operas by other major companies, such as the Houston Grand Opera's 2004 staging of "The End of the Affair" by Jake Heggie. Yet it is also not quite the approach that the Wolf Trap Opera Company and the University of Maryland School of Music recently took, respectively, with John Musto's "Volpone" and Robert Convery's "Clara," productions that were almost purely designed for student singers.
It was in New York in 2001 when Domingo realized that the prolific composer Scott Wheeler was the artist to help the company fulfill its unique plans. Each year, the New York City Opera puts on its Showcasing American Composers series, which puts more than a dozen operas-in-progress before an audience of producers and other interested artists.