The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Kennedy Center makes a case for modern opera with the American Opera Initiative Festival

Composer Missy Mazzoli, left, and librettist Royce Vavrek stage the premiere of “Proving Up” in D.C. (Scott Suchman/Washington National Opera)

Think opera has no place in today’s world? Think again.

“We’re living in a new golden age, especially of American opera,” says Brooklyn-based librettist Royce Vavrek. “It seems like there’s a hunger for new work, and companies are really understanding how much potential in new work there is.”

The Washington National Opera will shine a spotlight on contemporary opera this weekend as four new works — including “Proving Up,” an hour-long piece that combines Vavrek’s words with composer Missy Mazzoli’s music — get their world premieres during the 2018 American Opera Initiative Festival at the Kennedy Center.

The American Opera Initiative was founded in 2012 to develop emerging talent and bolster the future of American opera. “We all love the masterpieces of Mozart and Verdi, but we want to tell modern, relevant stories that relate to the American experience,” says Robert Ainsley, director of the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and American Opera Initiative. “Contemporary opera lets us tell the story of our time. It preserves the culture of a period, which you can only do by creating art during that period.”

Topics being tackled in new operatic works include gender equality and diversity. “There are a whole range of very thorny political issues [to be explored through opera], and if we’re going to tackle them, we might as well do it in D.C.,” he says. “We do like, without courting controversy, to talk about the issues of today.”

“Proving Up,” which will be staged Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., examines the concept of the American dream through the eyes of 19th-century Nebraska homesteaders. Based on a short story by Karen Russell, the opera follows the settlers as they struggle to “prove up” to meet the requirements for claiming their land under the Homestead Act. It’s set in the past, but there are plenty of purposeful parallels to the world today.

“It’s beautifully intense how almost Sisyphean it is in the way these people are doing everything they possibly can, yet the American dream is never fully realized in their lives,” Vavrek says. “I hope that people reflect that some people’s American dream is more easily attained than others.”

On Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m., three new 20-minute operas — dealing with issues including classism, suicide and loss — will be performed in a concert staging. Vavrek encourages people to give these kinds of contemporary works a try, especially younger audiences who many not know an aria from a falsetto.

“You don’t really need to understand the mechanics of it; you can get swept away in the storytelling and exciting music,” Vavrek says. “I hope that people will come give opera a chance, because it’s moving in a direction that’s really colorful.”

Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW; Fri.-Sun., $19-$49 per show.