Opera is dying! Long live opera! In the face of concerns about the future of the art form, opera houses are commissioning one new work after another. Often, though, these works languish after their premieres — sometimes because they’re not very good, and sometimes because other companies want to save their money to create something new of their own.
So kudos to the Washington National Opera for giving Philip Glass’s “Appomattox,” which had its premiere in San Francisco in 2007, another chance. And kudos to the opera’s creators for continuing to put in serious creative work on a piece that was already, in the minds of many, “done.” Composers and librettists often revise their operas after the first run, but “Appomattox” has received such a thorough overhaul that its November outing in Washington is being called a second world premiere. While the original Civil War-era opera included a few “flash-forwards” to scenes of the future, the new version has an entirely new second act set in 1965, including the roles of Lyndon Baines Johnson (sung by Tom Fox, who plays Abraham Lincoln in Act I) and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., sung by WNO’s rising homegrown star Soloman Howard, who also sings Frederick Douglass.
To the more conservative arm of the classical establishment, Glass remains a maverick. Yet he’s also America’s leading opera composer, at least by the numbers; according to the official tally on his Web site, he has written 27 operas (some of them chamber operas), and many of them — “Satyagraha,” “Akhnaten,” “Orphee” — have had frequent performances around the globe. In an interview in 2006, Glass stressed how challenging it was to learn the craft of opera-writing and how hard he had worked on it; so it’s not surprising to see him make extensive revisions to get it right.
But the reworking of “Appomattox,” the opera, was actually spurred in part by the librettist. Christopher Hampton, best known as a playwright and screenwriter (“Dangerous Liaisons,” “Atonement”), has written three operas with Glass, including works based on J.M. Coetzee’s novel “Waiting for the Barbarians” (2005) and Kafka’s “The Trial” (2014). “Appomattox,” by contrast, was based on original research, and Hampton reworked the material into a stand-alone play of the same title, which had its premiere at Minneapolis’s Guthrie Theater in 2012 and which the new version of the opera echoes.
Tazewell Thompson, who will direct, is already familiar to D.C. audiences from his work at Arena Stage (including a production of his play “Mary T. & Lizzy K.” in 2013). He’s about to become more familiar to local opera audiences as well because he’s also directing the WNO’s “Lost in the Stars,” Kurt Weill’s musical adaptation of the Alan Paton novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” in a production originally created for the Cape Town Opera and seen at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2012.
It’s all part of a strong season for Washington National Opera — a season inevitably dominated by the long-awaited production of Wagner’s “Ring,” which arrives here in the spring. But “strong” is in the eye of the beholder, of course; to some operagoers, the presence of these two less-known works in the season is something to be endured rather than extolled. The question of what people actually want from opera was aired a number of times this summer — familiar tunes or new music? Comfort or theatrical impact? Or, as David Gockley, about to start his final season as head of the San Francisco Opera recently suggested, music you can play at a middle-class dinner party? Opera is, of course, like any art form that is allowed to exist in a range of guises, but it’s nice to see a couple of unusual and worthy ones making their way to the Washington National Opera stage in the season ahead.
Appomattox Nov. 14-22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets: $25-$300. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.