An incestuous affair. A murdered baby. A woman scorned by her family and society, struggling for happiness.
They are plot elements of operatic proportions, and in the case of the new work "Nancy," they're also home-grown. Composer Garrison Hull, an Alexandria native, found his inspiration in Virginia history. And it proved to be a perfect match for Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, which has chosen it as its first commissioned piece.
Four years ago Hull approached Opera Theatre with his idea for the three-act "Nancy," and the company found it hard to resist.
Hull's work is based on the scandal-plagued life of Nancy Randolph, a young woman in colonial Virginia who was suspected of an incestuous affair (with her cousin/brother-in-law) and the murder of her infant, believed to have been conceived during the liaison. Cleared in court proceedings but banished by her prominent family, Nancy made her way north and eventually started a new life in New York with her marriage to wealthy statesman Gouverneur Morris. Vengeful family members later conspired to discredit her, but Nancy, to their surprise, fought back to save her reputation.
Now, after several years of planning, composing and workshops, Opera Theatre will premiere the finished work in concert performances this weekend in Arlington.
Hull, 48, who moved last year from Virginia to Rhode Island, says he was drawn to Randolph's history as a "great epic story," and chose musical forms of the era -- including Scottish fiddle tunes, Sacred Harp singing and field holler -- to inform his compositional approach. Hull also wrote the libretto for "Nancy," only his second opera.
"I like to be seen as both forging new musical territory and following tradition," Hull said by phone from his home in Providence. "But I hope I've used traditions in ways no one else has."
This week, Opera Theatre personnel assembled for the first rehearsal of "Nancy" in the performance venue at Gunston Arts Center. Their sense of excitement -- and a hint of understandable anxiety -- was palpable.
"It's a huge undertaking for a small company," said Opera Theatre board president Jean Shirhall. The volunteer-driven organization, which has an annual budget of less than $100,000, has relied on special grants from county and state arts agencies to support "Nancy."
Although Opera Theatre specializes in lesser-known operas, the audience appeal of a new work -- even one as Virginia-connected as "Nancy" -- is far from certain.
"It's like ordering food when you don't know what it tastes like," said John Edward Niles, the company's artistic director and conductor of "Nancy." "You've got to convince people it's good."
He says the company has made special efforts to reach out to historical groups, music clubs and university music departments to spread the word.
Niles also sees Opera Theatre as playing an important role in the development of new American opera.
"It's the job of smaller companies like ours to do these works," he said. "We do the grunt work and work the kinks out."
Whether "Nancy" will one day have a place on the schedules of major companies remains to be seen, though Opera Theatre is already exploring the possibility of a fully staged co-production during its 2005-06 season. Niles says the company is also ready to consider a commission that would yield another premiere a few years from now.
Several of the principal singers agree that working on a new opera is a valuable experience, since opera artists rarely have the opportunity to create a role for themselves.
"You're more free to explore vocally and dramatically," said Carmen Mason, who sings the title role in "Nancy." " 'La Traviata,' 'La Boheme' -- those are great roles, but everyone has an expectation of how they're done."
There's also the undeniable appeal of "Nancy's" operatic plot. According to Ingrid Cowan, who sings the role of Nancy's revenge-seeking sister Judith: "The story is very juicy and fun."
Artists from the District, Maryland and Virginia who are 18 and older are eligible to compete for the second annual Trawick Prize: $10,000 goes to the first-place winner; second- and third-place winners receive $2,000 and $1,000, respectively. Another $1,000 prize will also be awarded to a young artist born after May 21, 1974.
The competition will be juried by Jeffrey W. Allison of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Peter Dubeau of the Maryland Institute College of Art and Kristen Hileman of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Winning artists and finalists will be invited to exhibit their work this fall at Bethesda's Creative Partners Gallery.
Nearly 500 artists entered the 2003 competition, according to Trawick Prize organizers. This year's deadline is May 21. For more information, call the Bethesda Urban Partnership at 301-215-6660 or visit www.bethesda.org.
Nancy, at Gunston Arts Center's Theatre One, 2700 S. Lang St., Arlington. Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. $25-$30. Call 703-528-1433 or visit www.novaopera.org.