“Admissions,” with music by Michael Lanci and text by Kim Davies, features a TV-star mother and business-magnate father (Amanda Lynn Bottoms and William Meinert) informing their spoiled children (Nahhas and Matthew Pearce) that the family is snared in a college-admissions bribery scandal. “Night Trip,” by composer Carlos Simon and librettist Sandra Seaton, is a vignette of race in 1958 America: A black Chicago teenager (Rehanna Thelwell) driven by her two uncles (Joshua Conyers and Joshua Blue) to an anticipated idyllic summer in the south instead encounters discrimination from a gas-station attendant and a police officer (Pearce and Samson McCrady).
The readings were first-rate. Conductor Anne Manson and a 13-piece chamber orchestra confidently navigated new scores. The singers, from the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, were excellent; Nahhas’s vivid soprano and characterizations and Thelwell’s dynamic presence made the strongest impressions on this reviewer, but everyone had superb moments, without a weak link.
The three operas varied distinctly with 21st-century musical strategies, triangulating film music, Sondheim and latter-day minimalism’s consonant drive. Svay’s script for “Woman of Letters” was all telling and little showing, feelings announced more than enacted, but Ugay’s washes of evocative cinematic color somewhat cushioned the explicitness. Davies introduced the broad “Admissions” characters with efficient, broad strokes; Lanci’s music had a kind of fractured musical-theater spark, while using operatic vocal flourish to freshen facile jokes about online influencers and gluten-free diets.
The collaboration in “Night Trip” seemed most seamless: Simon’s lyrical sweep threaded with big-band jazz and the blues, and Seaton’s candid, vernacular text gradually revealing dramatic and poetic substance. All three works had their strengths; but “Night Trip” most consistently engineered operatic necessity, in which character is revealed in the physicality of singing, and the music opens out words into larger, ineffable vistas.