The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WNO pop-up opera truck delivers music to the public, but it’s not a perfect fit

William Meinert and Suzannah Waddington perform Tuesday on the Washington National Opera’s truck stage in Crystal City. (Caitlin Oldham)

Trucks have long played a vital part in making the performing arts happen — hauling sets, costumes and sound equipment. But in the wake of the pandemic, they’ve suddenly been cast in a far more prominent role: as the stage.

Lately we’ve seen flatbeds rolling up to polling places carrying the precious cargo of DJs and Grammy-nominated Latin star Bad Bunny dodging traffic lights as he delivered a truck-top set from the Bronx to Harlem. Even the New York Philharmonic has jumped on the bandwagon with its series of pickup truck throw-downs.

And this week, the Washington National Opera and its Cafritz Young Artists program are rolling up on unsuspecting Arlingtonians with performances from its freshly tricked-out pop-up opera truck — a standard moving van retrofitted by Baltimore company the Concert Truck into a mobile venue, complete with piano, lights, sound and, as is de rigueur, plenty of plexiglass.

I caught one of two afternoon performances on Tuesday in Crystal City, where the truck had pulled into the cul-de-sac behind the Courtyard Green, employing the plaza of the National Cooperative Bank building as an ersatz amphitheater.

A couple dozen people strayed over from the adjacent farmers market (where, side note, some highly worthwhile empanadas can be had), lured by Cafritz Director Robert Ainsley’s rallying intro, the first notes of William Woodard’s piano, and the familiar coloratura spikes of “Der Hölle Rache” from Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte,” here powerfully sung by soprano (and Cafritz Young Artist) Suzannah Waddington. Her silvery voice scaled the facade of the building as the setting sun seemed to stall awhile to listen.

This impromptu assembly benefited bass William Meinert, whose assured and polished take on “In diesen heilg’en Hallen” (Sarastro’s aria from “Zauberflöte”) still struggled to surmount surges of street noise. By the time Meinert followed Waddington’s “Jewel Song” with Mephistopheles’s aria, “Vous qui faites l’endormie” from Gounod’s “Faust,” he had secured more solid footing within the plaza’s intrusive acoustics — it was even oddly in tune with a passing train at one point.

And thus we come to the other key player in the performance: the world around it. Horns honking, planes making their very-final descent, sirens heckling from around the neighborhood — they come with the territory of performing outdoors in any city. But there’s something about opera in its current freed/exiled state that makes the intrusion of the outside world feel especially cruel.

For all the power and dramatic force opera can generate, it remains a sublimely vulnerable form, its fantasy created onstage and tenuously protected from the elements by the eggshell shield of the proscenium. Here, outside among the hum and honk of afternoon traffic, it doesn’t really stand a chance.

(Please note: This should be taken more as me indulging in pent-up critical whimpering and pining for the return of some form of normal than as any kind of slight against the efforts of either of the performers — both of whom I’d love to hear minus coughing buses — or the WNO. Outreach efforts such as the pop-up truck are crucial to maintaining a place for the arts in our much-abused public consciousness through this extended intermission. But these tastes of what’s been taken away are nothing if not bittersweet.)

After a pair of deftly sung show tunes — Waddington taking “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” and Meinert singing “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific” — the two singers came together (within reason) for “Là ci darem la mano,” the “duettino” between storied dirtbag Don Giovanni and Zerlina.

Perhaps it was merely the appearance of two singers on the same substitute stage, or the strange spectacle of two maskless humans connecting in public, or maybe it was the chemistry coded into the music by Mozart himself — but the closer on this little half-hour teaser of a program hinted at the seductive powers of opera (not to mention the Don).

These novel little samples of the grandeur we’re missing may leave you hungering for something more substantial, but they can also remind us why we’re waiting so patiently for the performing arts to return in the first place. (In the meantime, those empanadas really hit the spot.)

The Washington National Opera’s pop-up truck will be back in Arlington on Friday at two locations: 3 p.m. at Quincy Park, 1021 N. Quincy St., and 6 p.m. at Penrose Square Plaza, 2501 S. Ninth Rd.