Short-form chamber opera appears to be the wave of the operatic future. So the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative, which commissions 20-minute operas and hour-long operas from rising composers, would appear to be atop the crest. The company presented its fourth annual crop of three 20-minute operas at the Terrace Theater on Wednesday night.
Inevitably, these short pieces are uneven; that I wasn’t as excited by this year’s crop as I was by last year’s is a matter of chance rather than the program’s quality. Short opera allows young composers to work out the kinks of their approach: All three of Wednesday’s operas felt as if they were on a learning curve. It’s also a chance to experiment and break out of the grand-opera mold, but when an opera company is the commissioner, it’s perhaps no surprise that the works can tend to default to the aesthetic indicated by David Gockley, currently in his last season as general director of the San Francisco Opera, when he recently described mainstream opera as “a bourgeois art form.”
First question: How do you cram an opera into 20 minutes? Composer Sarah Hutchings and librettist Mark Sonnenblick answered this, in “Twenty Minutes or Less,” by setting their work in a pizza parlor that guarantees delivery within that time frame. Hutchings wrote appealingly for instruments, with a sinuous muted trombone adding a big-band flavor, but needed work setting the text so that it could be understood; some of the cute humor of Sonnenblick’s libretto was lost, though the broad strokes of it (such as the franchise owner’s orgiastic hymn to pizza) were unmistakable. Dramatically, the piece ended with a huge and uncertain surprise, in which new employee Osha, while rushing to make a delivery, hits something or someone with her car and then drives off to perhaps kill herself, or perhaps not. This clearly would be hard to stage even in a full performance, let alone a concert version.
With “Alexandra,” composer David Clay Mettens and librettist Joshua McGuire presented an appealing vignette in which a widow, returning a book her late husband took from his college library years ago, stumbles upon the decades-old notes of two male lovers in 1942, whose furtive love story ended when one went off to war. It was a bittersweet piece set to fragmented music: Here, the words came through, but the music was a little muted.
The crowd-pleaser was “Service Provider” by Christopher Weiss and John de los Santos, a sketch about a couple whose anniversary dinner in a restaurant is compromised by the wife’s constant texting and the husband’s lover’s subsequent intrusion. The main role here, unexpectedly, was that of the effete waiter, Dallas, who lingers lovingly over long descriptions of fare that nobody is particularly interested in eating: musically and dramatically more interesting and less cliched than the situation and the instrumental evocations of ringing phones.
The young members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program did themselves proud. The bass Wei Wu, as one of the men in “Alexandra,” sang with warmth and feeling; Daryl Freedman, a mezzo, stood out in her first WNO stage outings as both Osha in the first piece and the texting wife, Autumn, in the last; Leah Hawkins showed her big, full, tactile voice to advantage as Alexandra; and Rexford Tester had a lot of fun as the prissy Dallas, among other strong performances.
The next production of WNO’s American Opera Initiative is the hour-long “Better Gods,” on Jan. 8 and 9.