Sold-out opera performances are not unheard of, but they usually involve major stars singing “La Boheme” or some other well-worn weeper. So when Washington National Opera’s Dec. 2 performance of never-before-heard operas featuring student singers sold out, the opera company’s staff scrambled to add a second show later that same night.
“This is the first time that’s ever happened,” WNO spokesman Michael Solomon says. “We were happily surprised.”
In its fourth year, “Three 20-Minute Operas” is a semi-staged performance of one-act pieces commissioned by WNO’s American Opera Initiative, featuring up-and-coming singers from WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. The annual event’s growing popularity shows that audiences are ready to expand their definition of opera, Solomon says:
“Not all opera is a six-hour ordeal with a woman beating on a breastplate. Opera can also be short and in English. It can deal with modern-day problems and even, God forbid, be funny.”
As it turns out, two of this year’s operas are dark comedies, and one is just plain dark. We caught up with the composers to learn more.
Don’t you hate it when your date refuses to put down his damn phone? That’s a pet peeve of Christopher Weiss, composer of “Service Provider,” a 20-minute opera about a couple who gets into a fight at a restaurant over that very issue.
The first music he wrote for the piece was each character’s ringtone.
“I wrote 40 different ring tones, and got my librettist John de los Santos on the phone, and had him tell me which ones he liked.”
The ring tones they settled on reflect the personalities of each of the characters. Bubbly Autumn’s phone has a piping melody played by a flutist in the pit orchestra. Her husband has an outdated phone, so it’s voiced by a pianist banging out alternating chords to approximate an old-fashioned ring.
Then there’s the ring tone of Charlene, who interrupts the couple’s dinner.
“Charlene’s ring tone is played by the most irritating instrument I could think of: the xylophone,” Weiss says.
Though it’s a comedy, “Service Provider” has its serious moments. Relationships are strained and one of the
cellphones meets a tragic end, but the opera’s mood doesn’t stay somber for long, Weiss says.
“The show does end in a food fight,” he says.
The title character of “Alexandra” is a young widow who goes to the library to return a book stolen by her late husband. Before she can complete her task, she notices notes written in the book’s margins.
“She starts to trace a conversation between two men in the 1940s,” says composer David Clay Mettens, who wrote the piece with librettist Joshua McGuire. “She never talks to them directly, of course, but the audience sees that they have this quasi romantic relationship that’s only realized in the short notes written in books.”
When the two men duet together in the past, Mettens gives the music a hazy quality by having the orchestra’s strings and horns play with heavy mutes.
“I wanted to make it sound like you are looking at a message that’s blurry and you have to struggle to make out what’s being said,” he says.
Alexandra becomes wrapped up in the men’s drama, which comes to a head when one of them demands an in-person meeting. As he extols the importance of having a real, flesh and blood relationship, the story’s heroine realizes that’s what she needs, too.
“That’s really what allows her to return her husband’s book and move on with her life,” Mettens says.
‘Twenty Minutes or Less’
Back in high school, composer Sarah Hutchings worked at a pizza place. So when librettist Mark Sonnenblick suggest they set their opera in a small chain restaurant called Pizza Queen, she was all for it.
“It’s a little fast, but pizzas can be made and delivered in 20 minutes, and I loved the idea of an opera that could happen in real time,” Hutchings says.
In “Twenty Minutes or Less,” heroine Osha has just started a job at a Pizza Queen. The company’s CEO calls in an order, and it falls upon Osha to deliver the pizza hot and on time.
Obstacles arise, but Hutchings is cagey about the details.
“Osha has recently gotten out of jail, and her past comes back to haunt her,” Hutchings says.
At its core, the opera is about finding one’s identity.
“Osha has this wonderful aria about how she tends to assume other people’s personalities, and she needs to learn to be herself,” Hutchings notes.
Throughout, a pair of Pizza Queen mascots provide commentary and comedic relief.
“We originally thought of them as stationary statues but they could also be giant pizza slices — it’s up to the costume designer,” Hutchings says. “But it’s only a semi-staged performance, so you might need to use your imagination.”
Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Dec. 2, 7 p.m., sold out, 9 p.m., $15.