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Rocking the Cradle of 'Democracy': For Opera's Nurturers, a Labor of Love

At the time, Wheeler was determined to compose a full opera, and he earned a place in the workshop with a short score. "Every composer wants to write an opera," says Wheeler. In addition to serving as a faculty member of the music department at Emerson College in Boston, Wheeler is an active pianist, singing coach and chorus leader. "Vocal music is a big part of my work."

"I figured it was best to write some scenes on my own," said Wheeler. "I included two sets of lovers. It was just scored for piano and voice and was about 15 to 20 minutes of music. . . . That was the version that Domingo heard in New York." Domingo immediately realized that Wheeler's lyrical and colorful music could serve as the basis for a larger project, and a commission for Wheeler to compose a full opera soon followed.


"Democracy" composer Scott Wheeler, left, with Placido Domingo. The new work has its premiere in Washington on Friday. (C. Karin Cooper -- Washington National Opera)

Well before the actual commission, Wheeler -- a Washington native -- knew that he wanted a libretto from Romulus Linney, a successful novelist and playwright who had worked on opera projects previously.

"I knew he was a great writer and that he was a major figure," said Wheeler. "Something told me that he would be great to work with. I found Linney's play 'Democracy' at the Emerson library. It was hiding in plain sight."

This was in 1998 at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. The play's themes of passion, intrigue and scandal seemed to resonate in this controversial atmosphere.

"Linney's play gives you interesting people," Wheeler says. "The characters are dealing with important things. . . . I find if you can do it with comedy, then the points are more telling. Mozart's 'Don Giovanni' and 'Cosi Fan Tutte' are operatic comedies that deal with larger issues."

Linney was happy to work with Wheeler. "Since its premiere in 1975, the audience reacts every time I see it," said the playwright during a phone interview from his house near the Catskill Mountains in New York.

"Henry Adams was the best historian of the day. He knew how the country was put together. He was our Voltaire. He gives us a wonderful portrait of our country that is still relevant today. . . . Things that were wrong then are still wrong today. The things that were right then are right today."

Cooperation and respect dominated the relationship between composer and librettist. "I only asked that it be faithful to the play," said Linney.

"It was a case of cutting material. Scott didn't want to change the structure and meaning. Opera is a composer-driven media, and I was more than happy to give Scott what he needed."

Wheeler was able to complete the score in a few months. He says he tried to subtly combine a number of musical styles. "I am looking for a fresh approach to every musical situation," said the composer. "I am always searching for interesting chordal combinations and rhythmic patterns."

Wheeler cites important influences such as the great 20th-century composers Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky, as well as his own teacher, the American composer and musical critic Virgil Thomson.

"Democracy" is tuneful, though it can be heard on a number of levels, Wheeler says. "A connoisseur might be able to see something going on, but it should not be too difficult for any audience to get it. Do you hear some echoes of Broadway? I do. . . . This work has several operatic ensembles and arias, contemplative moments that develop the characters."

Yet Wheeler's most significant compositional hurdles were pacing the music to extend over two hours of drama and creating the "world" of the chorus.

"The chorus plays a very important part in 'Democracy,' " the composer says. "They help us do drinking songs in Act 1 and campaign songs for Grant. . . . They later become a Gilbert & Sullivan-like chorus, where, after a character says, 'That is a good point,' the chorus responds with, 'That is a good point!' "

The singers have been reading through Wheeler's score for a year and a half.

Since the key March reading, the company has followed an intensive rehearsal schedule and gradually added acting, choreography and sets.

Pascoe's sets and costumes are done in period design. The British director said he has accentuated only certain aspects of the story. He sparingly uses color and judiciously deploys moments where the cast freezes. These are designed to show that " 'Democracy' is part of a world that for the first time is being photographed," Pascoe said.

Wheeler has been making frequent trips from Boston to be part of the preparations. After the March reading, Wheeler happily added three arias in Act 2 for the main female characters at Domingo's request.

As the world premiere moves closer, there is excitement within the Washington National Opera. " 'Democracy' has grown into a big project," said Domingo. "To see it grow and to see all that has been accomplished since the March rehearsal has been fantastic. . . . It is going to call attention across the entire country."

Wheeler and Linney will be on hand for Friday's premiere. "The greatest moment is when you have real singers doing it," Wheeler says. "To hear these young singers bring the opera to life has been so thrilling. . . . We have felt that everything is going well, but we won't know that really works until we have an audience."


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