Horror opera: Is it a genre? It may be now. On Friday night, the Washington National Opera presented a harrowing world premiere, “Proving Up,” by Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek, that literally gave me chills. As powerful as it is bleak, it cannot leave audiences cold: You may hate it, or you may love it, but you will definitely have some reaction.
“Proving Up,” a 70-minute work that’s one of four world premieres WNO offered this weekend as part of its American Opera Initiative, is the eagerly awaited venture of a much-touted creative team whose “Breaking the Waves,” which premiered in 2016, was one of the best new operas in recent years. “Breaking the Waves” was also harrowing, and “Proving Up” is, if anything, even more so: Closely mining the short story of the same name by Karen Russell about homesteaders in Nebraska trying to gain title to their land under the provisions of the Homestead Act, it presents a vision of the American Dream as American nightmare. Our nation’s rosy myth of resilient homesteaders, the wholesome world of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books, is exposed as a chimera in which people were lured with the promise of “free” land into sacrificing their entire lives — all in a 70-minute work that could be summed up as “The Turn of the Screw” meets Willa Cather, as told by Stephen King.
Librettos are much emphasized in new opera commissions these days, and a few individuals have emerged as preeminent: Mark Campbell, the librettist mentor for WNO’s initiative (which included the world premieres of three 20-minute operas on Saturday night) and the prolific Vavrek, whom I once called a “Metastasio of the downtown opera scene.” Vavrek has a particular dark, dystopian vision and an ability to bring it home with a kind of tightening of thumbscrews: Other examples include “Dog Days” by David T. Little and “Midwestern Gothic,” the trailer-trash musical not-comedy that played at the Signature Theatre in the spring. It’s striking to see someone with such a distinctive sensibility having such a wide effect on a single field. “Proving Up” veritably wallows in its own darkness with an approach that is very much reminiscent of King’s — down to the two sisters in the family tableau, a pair of wild-haired girls in petticoats and close harmony (Madison Leonard and Allegra De Vita) who reveal, early on, that they are actually dead. Indeed, the opera featured a little too much repetition and extension of its painful moments, particularly in a dark ending that went on too long: hammer blows delivered in slow motion.
Mazzoli, certainly and happily, continues to show herself a natural opera composer: Her music responds keenly to the story’s time and place as well as to its characters’ respective journeys. “Proving Up” opens with a whiskery-dry orchestration of rustling strings, evoking dying crops in the Nebraska drought, and includes a lot of the post-Minimalist repetitions that were less evident in “Breaking the Waves” — and which here are used to reflect the inward-turned stasis, the neurosis, even the stuck-ness of the characters. It also involves a lot of dense ensemble singing, creating a tapestry against which the protagonist, the 11-year-old Miles (the tenor Arnold Livingston Geis), stands out with an extended monologue as he rides his horse through a blizzard and into death. Mazzoli’s vocal writing, too, is admirable, allowing the words to be clearly expressed and showing off singers such as Leah Hawkins, who has developed her rich voice admirably in her time at WNO, or Christopher Kenney, playing the alcoholic, resolute, deluded father. Christopher Rountree conducted capably.
The three 20-minute operas are valuable ways for composers to test their opera legs and for audiences to develop a sense for new work, not least by being able to compare several pieces at once. This year’s crop opened with “A Bridge for Three,” depicting three people jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge at different epochs in history, with a melodious, neo-Romantic score by Nathan Fletcher; continued with “Fault Lines,” a melodramatic vignette of a Japanese American woman victimized by the family she works for in 1942, by Gity Razaz; and concluded with “Precita Park,” about a family in the wake of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, which had a strong score by John Glover but a diffuse libretto by Erin Bregman involving a lot of bickering among the siblings around their long-suffering and more mature sister Lilah (Alexandria Shiner). The young singers assumed multiple roles; the baritone Michael Hewitt, the tenor Frederick Ballentine, and the soprano Laura Choi Stuart were among those who particularly caught my ear.
But it was “Proving Up” that left me ruminating in its wake, torn between an experience that was in many ways deliberately unpleasant and the power of the statement its creators were unabashedly hammering home. It’s a work for its time: Its subject, at bottom, is the promises politicians make to the American people, and the staggering human cost to those who don’t realize that their efforts go against their own self-interest. Hard to watch on stage, yes, but even harder to live.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, Christopher Kenney was misidentified in the caption.