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In opera, small is the new grand: The revamped In Series shows the way

Elizabeth Mondragon, center, as a Guatemalan immigrant separated from her child in the In Series’s adaptation of a Spanish zarzuela, “La Paloma at the Wall,” the action moved to the U.S.-Mexican border. (Brian J. Shaw)

The woman onstage looked like someone you’d seen on the news: an immigrant at a border crossing, in jeans and no makeup, eyes weary, being grilled by a customs officer — and separated, she said, from her young daughter. Then she burst into song.

Hearing music where you’d expect speech is the norm in opera. But in this context, it created a sense of displacement; an embodiment of problems of translation inherent in the scenario, as the customs officer’s spoken words and the woman’s song failed to communicate; and a very moving moment of theater.

I’ve often said that small opera is the future of the field. Loft operas and experimental companies are springing up everywhere to present vital creative work that isn’t always being done in conventional opera houses. In Washington this year, the company In Series — which in March presented the above-mentioned work, an adaptation of a classic zarzuela the company called “La Paloma at the Wall,” and which will present an adaptation of Handel’s “Serse” at the Atlas through June 9 — is adding strength to that argument.

The company’s new artistic director, Timothy Nelson, is no stranger to small opera. A polymath whose degrees are in composition, conducting and harpsichord performance, as well as opera directing, Nelson, 39, founded his own company in Baltimore in 2002. The American Opera Theater did striking work in the Baltimore and D.C. area — Charpentier’s baroque opera “David et Jonathas” reimagined as a gay love story; a cantata based on transcripts of the hearings of former attorney general Alberto Gonzales — before Nelson closed it in 2011 to go on to a bigger career in Europe. Yet now, after a range of directing experience in Italy, the Netherlands and England, he’s returned to Washington to work full time running the In Series — because he finds it more artistically fulfilling.

“As a young director,” Nelson said in a recent conversation as he was preparing for the current season, “you’re told the career you want is La Scala. And I got to Europe and started doing some larger productions, and I felt totally empty at the end of them. The compromises you have to make. It doesn’t matter how good it is in the end, it’s so far from how you imagined it. And I realized the work I was doing with AOT, regardless of how humble, was honest, it was me, and I hadn’t had to compromise the vision.”

The In Series, certainly, has allowed Nelson to try out projects that he probably couldn’t stage at the Dutch National Opera, where he ran the young-artist company for a few years. His opening shot across Washington’s bow, last fall, was a mash-up of the Verdi Requiem, performed by only eight singers instead of the massive chorus and orchestra usually employed, juxtaposed with excerpts of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” performed by a female actor, all called “Viva V.E.R.D.I.” It was reminiscent of Nelson’s work at AOT: pushing boundaries past a lot of people’s comfort zones, and with the potential to belly-flop but in practice was awesome. It was a sign of a director not afraid to step in and adapt existing works.

Nelson’s take on Handel’s “Serse,” an opera about Xerxes, the ancient king of Persia, is interwoven with the poetry of Rumi, the 13th-century Persian mystic. Next season, Nelson is adapting “Carmen” as a cabaret, offering a stripped-down “Madame Butterfly,” creating an adaptation of the “Tempest” from a woman’s perspective, to the music of Billie Holiday, and presenting a five-part festival of female composers — a foretaste of an all-women season he hopes to put on down the line.

“It’s hard to explain to people the frustration of having so many ideas, and then it’s like being mute and not being able to speak in a real way,” Nelson said. “Now the trouble is going to be tempering myself and not trying to do everything at once.”

Nelson isn’t alone. More and more small companies are appearing not as smaller echoes of larger companies, but as viable alternatives that allow artists more creative possibilities. Take the Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville, founded by singers who wanted more creative input than they usually got in large opera companies, and The Industry in Los Angeles, a home for experimental opera founded by Yuval Sharon, who subsequently got a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award.

Some small opera companies are short-lived; all seven of the companies I mentioned in a 2010 article on small opera in Baltimore, including AOT, are now gone. But many of them seem to be having increasingly long runs. The annual New York Opera Fest, a celebration of smaller companies that runs through June, includes some with long histories, such as Encompass New Opera Theatre, now in its 41st year, or Vertical Player Repertory, founded in 1998. And the D.C. scene is notably healthy: Opera Lafayette, an established player in the French baroque repertory, is 24 years old, while Bel Cantanti Opera has stalwartly presented four or more titles almost every season since 2003, with next season including a world premiere and a seldom-seen Rimsky-Korsakov opera. UrbanArias, which offers short contemporary operas (this summer brings a staging of Elvis Costello’s “The Juliet Letters”), was founded in 2009. And there are more.

One way the In Series is a model, however, is in elegantly surviving the departure of its founder, something not many small companies manage. Since 1981, the company had been the vision and passion of Carla Hübner, a Chilean-born pianist (and student of Claudio Arrau) whose performing career was gradually eclipsed by the demands of her burgeoning series, offering an eclectic and stimulating mix of rarely performed operas (Viktor Ullmann’s “The Emperor of Atlantis”), zarzuelas and cabaret.

Like many small-company founders, Hübner, 78, kept the company going almost single-handedly, drawing a part-time salary for round-the-clock work. She said that when she realized that it was time to retire, she began putting aside money to pay for at least one decent year’s salary for her successor. There were 18 applicants for her job — more evidence that small opera, these days, enjoys a certain level of prestige.

“I always thought the contribution a company like In Series could make given meager resources was to present pieces that aren’t done often,” Hübner said by phone last week from Denmark, where she was visiting her newborn first grandchild. She sees Nelson’s arrival as the start of a third chapter for a company that had two distinct 18-year periods on her watch, carrying on and developing what she began — with the distinction that Nelson adapts the works far more than she did. Her contribution to the smooth transition has been typically energetic; she still comes to all the In Series shows and is on a monthly stipend as an adviser. Partly thanks to Hübner’s championship, Nelson says he’s experienced virtually no resistance from the board or audiences at his innovations.

“Carla’s original vision was so new and fresh,” he says. “But after 37 years, it got a little stale. I think they were looking for something that lived up to the original mission.”

“The biggest difference is the exploration of combining more straight theater with opera theater,” says mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Mondragon, who has sung with the company since 2014 and who played the immigrant in “La Paloma at the Wall.” Though concerned about the possibility of the company using fewer local singers, Mondragon is for the most part enthusiastic about the new energy Nelson has brought, particularly in terms of “having an intersectionality between what we’re doing musically and the impact we’re having on the community.” The In Series has stepped up its community outreach; for “La Paloma at the Wall,” a group of children from the Latin American Youth Center created an original mural about their own immigrant experiences, painting directly onto the set through the week of the show’s run.

“I feel Tim’s building up on something that was already there,” Mondragon says, “but was maybe more conservative in execution.”

The small-opera model is hardly radical. Indeed, it’s harking back to the roots of the genre. But it also seems to fit the mood of the present day more comfortably than the big companies that Nelson has grown to distrust.

“I think the whole model for making opera is the past,” he said. “I think opera houses are this sort of symbol of socioeconomic dominance that’s masqueraded as culture, but they’ve spent almost 300 years telling people, ‘You’re not white enough, you’re not male enough, you’re not smart enough.’ And now we . . . hang up some sexy posters and say, ‘No, trust us, this is relevant, and we’re not elitist, but we cost $150.’ It is so disingenuous, and I felt dirty being a part of it. I missed AOT almost every day.”

Now, Nelson has a second chance, and to judge from the two productions I saw this season, he’s making the most of it.

The Tale of Serse will be performed on June 1, 2, 8 and 9 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center.

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