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.
"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."