The Dictator’s Wife at Washington National Opera (review)

Watching an opera take its first life breath is witnessing a high-risk birth. There were some serious devotees on hand at Kennedy Center’s Family Theatre to support Washington National Opera’s fifth commission of a new hour-long opera.

The Dictator’s Wife sounded most promising indeed. I grew up in a Southeast Asian country where a dictator presided and I had something of a ringside seat to what followed, including corruption, personal retaliation, and despotic abuse of power. To over half of Americans, the United States may be rumbling dangerously close to experiencing similar seismic shifts.

If opera is all about grand stakes and quintessential story telling then this would seem to be a fascinating and powerful theme to illuminate. Giving librettist Mohammed Hanif and composer Mohammed Fairouz the financial and organizational support that the prestigious WNO can assembled including Nicole Paiement as Conductor and Ethan McSweeny as Director, seems a great boon indeed.

Cast of The Dictator’s Wife: (l-r) Leah Hawkins as I-Will-Sell-My-Children Mom, Timothy J. Bruno as Death Row Dad, Allegra De Vita as the First Lady, Rexford Tester as Give-Me-Cheap-Petrol Protestor, Hunter Enoch as Aide-de-camp (ADC), and Ariana Wehr as Ms. Holy (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The Dictator’s Wife was not what we had hoped for. “Bitingly satirical?” Not even close.

The plot doesn’t thicken. A sumptuous boudoir, very “femme” filled with red roses. A woman enters through a small door, clutching a briefcase.   She is stunning with her long legs in her white sheath dress. She sings about all the roses. “Today I received 5,000 roses.” They are from her husband the dictator. We learn she’s come in from the bathroom, or rather the “loo” which lends an easier rhyme and so it is featured throughout the hour. She’s also carrying a sharp knife. We surmise the ending. No further surprises.

The characterizations are not complex. As First Lady, the mezzo soprano Allegra De Vita is given to strutting and posing, all too one color, the color of disdain. She’s drawn as a modern, more sensuously tropical Marie Antoinette whose tune is the equivalent of “Let them eat cake.”  There are three protesters, carrying placards, and they, sadly too, have been assigned as much two-dimensionality as their cardboard signs.  Mostly reduced to marching in the aisles, the printed messages are occasionally flipped for new ones. Were the creators intending to communicate that all protestors are the same? 

The Dictator’s Wife

This production ran January 13 – 15, 2017

There were two other characters, one an advisor to the already dead dictator, who serves as kind of aide-de-camp, but his function as a singing-actor in a chamber opera was not clearly defined. The other represented a modern American meddling do-gooder. She was just silly.

The libretto is not much beyond banal. Although devoted to modern music-theatre, I don’t mind crude dialogue if it can be clever or, more importantly, if the expressions honestly fulfill the truth of a character’s world. This seemed forced and for that reason, abrasive.

The music was a kind of hodge-podge.  Some pieces were not set to make the most of the singers’ voices. Da Vita has an impressive range, but even she seemed to be struggling at times to allow the beauty of her voice to ride and float. (It is what opera audiences come to hear.) Other tunes were derivative.

Timothy J. Bruno had a poignant aria singing about his son on death row, and we got a glimpse about how a good voice and a strongly defined emotion can create a memorable character.  Leah Hawkins is a beautiful singer, and she could have had a “plum” role, delivering to us the heart of a woman who would be so desperate as to sell her children.  Rexford Tester was given the less sympathetic role of a protester demanding cheaper fuel for his “Corolla and Toyota.” I wished more had been written for all of them.

But as we roll into the end, what often is truly a grand finale of an opera, instead we get the dictator’s wife, standing alone on a suggested balcony with arms outstretched in an iconic pose of another dictator-wife, and breaking into an Evita-like tune.

Here’s another no-no. A reviewer should not confuse a work with a talkback. But to gain some greater perspective I stayed, only to hear composer Fairouz admit when asked whether he purposefully used familiar melodies to satirize them, he said something approximating, “There were two tunes at the beginning and the end, and the rest  in the middle was bullsh***.”

The politics of the piece became more shrill but even murkier the more I listened to the talkback, where a highly energetic Fairouz seemed to get stuck in his own loop, continuously rolling over and interrupting Zambello and McSweeny as they were trying respectfully to do artistic due diligence and engage the audience. Was the piece meant to be universal or specific – a third world dictator or something closer to home? Fairouz insisted he wrote this about Trump although he began the work over two years ago and Hanif had already produced a play as a precursor to the opera.

To sum it up: a chance wasted.  We have much to learn from what this opera was not.

To would-be audiences of opera –

This year Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has assembled quite the early spring line up, demonstrating she is making a WNO signature with new American Opera.  Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking is due to arrive next month followed by Champion, a work that includes a libretto by former local playwright and actor the Pulitzer Prize Winner Michael Cristofer. Three new twenty-minute operas were also on display for good measure this past weekend. The works give the singers of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program challenging and exciting “break out” opportunities and help to inject the future of American opera with new vitality.

So come back, give new music-theatre another chance. To Zambello and team: you were not wrong to have offered this slot. And to composer and librettist teams, especially locally, keep trying: this story, indeed many stories, have yet to be told.


The Dictator’s Wife . Music by Mohammed Fairouz. Libretto by Mohammed Hanif. Conducted by Nicole Paiement. Directed by Ethan McSweeny. Lighting Design by A.J. Guban. Costume Designed by Lynly A. Saunders.  With Timothy J. Bruno, Allegra De Vita, Hunter Enoch, Leah Hawkins, Rexford Tester, and Ariana Wehr. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith






Susan Galbraith About Susan Galbraith

Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi beta kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan was part of the acting company at Boston Shakespeare Company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan adapted and directed Kafka's Metamorphosis and is currently collaborating with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic musical.This Fall she directs an "apartment performance" of Vaclav Havel's Protest which will perform in D.C. and NYC.


  1. Your criticisms are well taken. However, it is so refreshing to engage opera that speaks to our time and not to audiences of hundreds of years ago.



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