For innovation in opera these days, you have to look small: loft opera companies and other organizations that workshop new works or are able to present less-performed ones.
This weekend, I had two chances to see offbeat opera in intimate settings. On Friday night, the composer Lembit Beecher presented scenes from his new chamber opera at Halcyon House, a converted 18th-century manor in Georgetown. The opera will be premiered in Philadelphia in the fall. On Saturday, the In Series, an enterprising and tenacious small company, opened a new production of Weber’s “Oberon,” a rarely performed grand opera by a seminal German Romantic composer, at GALA Hispanic Theater, a former grand movie palace in Columbia Heights. I am eager to encourage such ventures, and happy that both events took place. But I can’t say that I personally enjoyed either one very much.
Five scenes from Beecher’s opera, “Sophia’s Forest,” were presented under the auspices of Septime Webre’s Halcyon Stage, part of the latest offshoot of the growing network of initiatives and other support for artists by the S&R Foundation (also responsible for the ongoing concert series at Evermay, another restored Georgetown mansion). Presenting work in progress at this level brings to Washington some of the flair of the Works & Process series at the Guggenheim in New York, a significant forum for ongoing new projects. Friday’s concert was performed by some top-of-the-line performers: the Aizuri Quartet, which gave tremendous passion and flair to a reading of Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata” quartet, and the remarkable soprano Maggie Finnegan, who managed to execute unusual vocal techniques and immaculate diction in a silvery, pitch-perfect voice.
The work itself has a ways to go. Beecher is unquestionably talented but seems, despite years of experience, still to be at a stage of absorbing influences. The evening’s opening piece, an a cappella song from a cycle about aging, was a kind of mellifluous homage to Luciano Berio’s “Sequenza III,” a seminal and once-daring foray into extended vocal techniques, mingling the theatrical and the musical, from the 1960s. It was refreshing to hear a contemporary opera composer venture outside the now-standard neo-Romantic vocal line, but the result was pretty docile.
As for “Sophia’s Forest,” the five scenes presented here, involving a woman’s memories of a tangled and tragic immigrant childhood, were musically competent but dramatically stagnant. A prominent feature were sound sculptures developed in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, featuring bicycle wheels mounted upside down a la Marcel Duchamp and wine glasses mounted on a kind of tower device to create a glass harmonica effect; they were visually arresting but seemed more trouble than they were worth in terms of the actual effect they produced.
The In Series provides a forum for young artists in a field where roles are hard to come by. “Oberon” is a massive work for them to tackle. Nick Olcott, the director, adapted it into a fairy tale less offensive than the original Crusade setting (the soprano is imprisoned by a dragon, not a Muslim), and the company assembled a willing cast, including Katherine Fili as an energetic Puck and Anamer Castrello as a voluptuous-voiced Floria (Fatima in the original score). The chamber orchestra, under Stanley Thurston, had some trouble finding its feet and its pitches at the start, but the series doesn’t promise professional polish — just ardor in the service of underperformed work. Additional performances are scheduled for this coming Saturday and Sunday.
Don’t give up on small-scale opera. UrbanArias just made a very credible showing with “Independence Eve.” And on Saturday, Halcyon Stage teams up with the Wolf Trap Opera for Philip Glass’s “Fall of the House of Usher” at Dock 5 at Union Market. Overall, it’s exactly the kind of thing that Washington can use more of.