In 'Dream of the Pacific,' a Trip for The Whole Family

Byron Jones, Amanda Squitieri and VaShawn Savoy McIlwain in the Washington National Opera production.
Byron Jones, Amanda Squitieri and VaShawn Savoy McIlwain in the Washington National Opera production. (By Karin Cooper)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 7, 2006

The creation of quality books for the youth market has become a central, and increasingly lucrative, obsession for the publishing industry. With the exception of a few titles (the "Harry Potter" and "Lemony Snicket" series being perhaps the most obvious examples), these volumes may not have much to say to older audiences, but the best of them can be profoundly influential where and when it matters most -- namely, in inspiring teens and preteens not merely to dip into a single book on a single occasion but to cultivate a lifelong habit of reading.

And so with music theater. It was exhilarating to watch the faces of the young singers taking part in Washington National Opera's production of "Dream of the Pacific" on Saturday afternoon at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda. Whatever their future involvement with the arts may be, they will come away from this experience with firsthand knowledge of how an opera is made -- the music, the drama, the costumes, the direction, the exhilarating challenges and occasional vexations of putting on a show.

This was the culmination of Washington National Opera's first venture into what it calls "Family Opera," and it was a collaborative effort by members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, some recent graduates of the troupe's Opera Institute for Young Singers (for singers between the ages of 15 and 18) and 23 members of this year's Opera Camp for Kids (open to children as young as 10), all accompanied by the Youth Orchestra of the Americas.

The opera itself -- with a score by the St. Louis-based composer Stephen Mager and a libretto by Elkhanah Pulitzer -- aims directly at its target audience and scores a hit. It is a retelling of the Lewis and Clark Expedition westward to the Pacific Ocean in 1804-1805, and the narration, while always remaining suitably "inspirational" (this is for young people, remember) does touch on some of the less happy aspects of this history -- slavery, imperial expansion, complicated relations with Native Americans, and even the nascent depression that would lead Capt. Meriwether Lewis to take his own life in 1809.

The music is always skillfully made and often eloquent. Mager's influences are obvious -- the overture calls to mind Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat," the finale could have come right out of one of those British choral exaltations of the sea that we remember from Vaughan Williams or Delius, and the tenor-baritone duet seemed to derive in equal parts from "Pearl Fishers" and "Sweeney Todd."

Still, blazing stylistic originality is not nearly so important in a piece of this sort as effective emotional argument. And Mager excels at conveying a wide variety of feelings -- affection, sentiment, exuberance, doubt, pain, deepest satisfaction -- all in a musical language that is both lyrical and comprehensible. I suspect that "Dream of the Pacific" is probably more exciting to perform than it is to listen to, but that is no shame in an opera for young people -- and I'll take this over "Amahl and the Night Visitors" any day.

"Dream of the Pacific" was commissioned by Opera Theater of Saint Louis, Opera Omaha and WNO, and received its first performance in Missouri in 2004. For this East Coast premiere, Mager conducted the small orchestra and Pulitzer directed the stage action, both authoritatively. Tenor Byron Jones made much of the high, plaintive and sinuous music Mager wrote for the character of Lewis, while baritone Trevor Scheunemann was a sturdy, likable Clark.

Baritone VaShawn Savoy McIlwain did noble double duty as both the doomed Sergeant Floyd and the wise Chief Cameahwait. Soprano Amanda Squitieri made a lovely, dulcet Sacagawea. There was worthy support from Barret Armbruster and Darrick Speller, the last of whom was called upon to execute a jubilant, balletic leap into the air that would have done credit to a Washington Wizard. And I mustn't forget to credit the anonymous angry bear, who looked like a taxidermist's rug come to life and flashed some impressive teeth before he was shot calmly in the snout, a moment of surreal humor that made me laugh out loud.

For further information on WNO's educational programs, call 202-295-2400 or visit http://www.dc-opera.org/ .

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