Book lovers, as a rule, do not shy away from a new novel because it is not likely to be as great as Dickens or Cervantes. Yet opera lovers routinely avoid new works for just this reason: They’re not going to be on a par with the masterpieces that still make up the bulk of the operatic canon.
Part of the problem is the delivery mechanism: New opera is less available than a new book and, generally, a lot more expensive. Wouldn’t it be great if new opera were presented like a film festival? Yes — and more and more festivals are trying it.
This month, the Prototype Festival in New York is celebrating its fifth season. A highlight, on Jan. 6, was “Breaking the Waves” by Missy Mazzoli, which Opera Philadelphia gave its world premiere in September during a test run for the launch of that company’s own new opera festival in the fall of 2017.
And this past weekend, at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, the Washington National Opera held a mini-festival to celebrate the fifth year of its American Opera Initiative, which every year commissions three 20-minute pieces and a one-hour piece. Call it the anti-masterpiece program: The point is to give the company and its artists (including the singers in the Domingo-Cafritz apprentice program) freedom to try things out away from the tyranny, and investment, of a mainstage production. Admittedly, not all of the young composers are opera newbies: Mohammed Fairouz, who wrote this year’s one-hour opera, “The Dictator’s Wife,” is only 31, but he will have two major mainstage operas premiere this calendar year, starting with “The New Prince” at Amsterdam’s Nederlandse Opera in March.
Yet Fairouz’s relative experience didn’t give “The Dictator’s Wife” the edge you might expect. The opera had musical polish but was dramaturgically adrift, so earnest in its attempt to create political satire that it struggled to be actually funny. It’s based on a dramatic monologue that Mohammed Hanif, its librettist, wrote in 2008 about the wife of an autocratic, wealthy dictator in an unnamed country, but the addition of other characters for the operatic version — the wealthy do-gooder C-list starlet, the protesters demanding “Stop the war!” and “Start the war!” by turns — freighted an originally slender and biting piece with a certain amount of dead wood. The auxiliary characters were funnier for what they represented than for what they actually said, and even what they represented was sometimes unclear; one of the protesters (the outstanding singer Leah Hawkins) wanted to sell her children to a family “with a fridge full of food.” Wait, what?
And the idea that the work could be taken as a topical satire featuring Melania Trump proved to be something of a red herring. To be sure, the absent dictator’s “uniform” was a Trumpian suit with a red tie, but despite references to the briefcase with the nuclear codes and the protesters’ chants of “this wall, that wall, about to fall,” the opera’s jokes weren’t really pointed enough to draw blood. It felt more like a satire of a stock Third World country.
Fairouz certainly writes ably for the voice and created a nice showcase for the soprano Allegra De Vita, who embodied the beautiful pampered wife to a T; and he wrote the music in a pastiche-y, slightly cabaret style with touches that could easily have been comic had the ideas been funnier. (A waltz-duet for the Wife and the Aide-de-Camp, Hunter Enoch, had a recurring chorus about bringing tea to the protesters that came off like a punchline looking for its joke.) Conductor Nicole Paiement was a firm leader of the onstage chamber orchestra, and director Ethan McSweeny created a real show out of what was essentially a semi-staging. But the whole thing never quite took flight.
Saturday saw six operas: two performances of this year’s trio of 20-minute operas, back to back. The 20-minute opera is a tricky genre, challenging creators not only to find outlets for performance but to come up with a story that can make a dramatic impact in such a short space of time. This year’s crop combined melodrama and intimacy, grasping eagerly for the audience’s heartstrings (every one of them involved a dead child or parent) in three-person works.
Matthew Peterson and Emily Roller’s “Lifeboat” began dramatically with a storm scene, then moved onto the tranquility of the becalmed, focusing on three shipwreck survivors in a lifeboat, and culminating in a vocal trio that Peterson was able to make truly beautiful (not every composer can write stirringly on command). Zach Redler and J. Douglas Carlson verged on science fiction with “Adam,” about a scientist who creates an artificial man in memory of her dead brother, only to understand he is destined to be deployed in battle to save the lives of humans. (The Kennedy Center claimed all three of the 20-minute operas as part of its somewhat dubious, under-the-radar, year-long festival honoring John F. Kennedy; the relationship between these works and Kennedy was especially taxed by a program note equating the scientist’s quest for artificial intelligence to Kennedy’s support of the space program.)
And “What Gets Kept,” by Frances Pollock and Vanessa Moody, is a deliberate tear-jerker that moves through the final day and death of a terminally ill cancer patient who has decided to take her own life, reluctantly aided by her husband and teenage daughter, and supported by the kind of elegiac string music one might expect. You could make a case for this piece — sung very well by Daryl Freedman as the dying Amy, Jennifer Cherest as her daughter and Frederick Ballentine as her husband — as the most dramatically complete of the bunch, although the one I’d like to hear again is “Lifeboat” (with Freedman as the doctor, Raquel González as an angry young soldier and Andrew McLaughlin as a stuffy professor), in which I thought Peterson packed a lot of music. Frederick Ballentine also sang very well as Adam, and Redler’s music conveyed some of the fresh beauty of an unspoiled awakening and then sang Adam back to sleep at the end.
Masterworks? Who cares. This kind of program is a necessary artistic complement to yet another “Madame Butterfly,” and the whole weekend was sold out. One can only hope it fosters more real appetite for new opera. A festival like Prototype certainly draws good houses and much attention with larger-scale operas like “Breaking the Waves.” (On that opera’s opening night, Mazzoli’s effective, expressive music bore a notable influence of Benjamin Britten in its melismatic, sometimes intricate writing, sensitively conducted by Julian Wachner, while the soprano gave a standout performance in the leading role.) Yet an opera house like WNO often struggles at the box office when it dares to put new works in its mainstage season. In February and March, WNO will presents two operas by living American composers, Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” and Terence Blanchard’s “Champion,” and I’ve already heard complaints from regular ticket-buyers. Yet if we want opera to gain a greater measure of popularity, we have to allow it to live a little. We don’t want to read only Proust — or listen only to “Madame Butterfly.”