“Invest in what you love.” Washington National Opera and The Kennedy Center have put their considerable forces behind doing just that, and what Artistic Director Francesca Zambello loves is new American opera. Wednesday evening, November 13th, on the Terrace Theatre stage, she announced the second season of Washington Opera Initiatives, corralling three teams of composers-librettists, three strong artistic mentors, and a raft of talented young singers and musicians to give not only the creators a first-rate hearing of their works but the enthusiastic audience a taste of what American opera may become in the twenty-first century.
You can tell Zambello is fearless. She strides onto the Terrace Theatre stage and tells the audience to ante up for the kind of work ahead. Come to The Lion, The Unicorn and Me, Jeanine Tesori’s new work for the whole family at Christmas. Come to Jake Heggie’s operatic adaptation of Moby Dick later this season. Her hutzpah is admirable; her passion is infectious. If new opera is going to succeed, it will need stewardship and an informed expanded and embracing audience.
It’s no easy task. These were twenty-minute pieces, thus demanding a lot of crunching. The teams had first to select an American story that appealed to both composer and librettist. They presented the idea, then produced raw libretti that were carefully dissected. American librettist Mark Campbell whose work has been seen locally at Wolf Trap, National Gallery of Art/University of Maryland as well as around the country, had the initial task of making the writers hone every word. “It’s not like writing plays,” he reminded them. He kept pounding his message: compress, compress, compress.
Then came the composers’ turn for their work to be reviewed. Composer Jake Heggie, whose own full-scale opera, Moby Dick, will no doubt get this kind of fine tuning, went over the three composers’ piano scores, challenging every one of their precious musical motifs. He was joined by American conductor Anne Manson, who also helped bring the operas to term and oversee the orchestrations.
There were wrangles, tears (one imagines), and all-night rewriting sessions. Composers were given parameters: no huge ensembles, no children’s choruses, and a limited number of instruments to fulfill the sound in their heads. More than one composer complained that subsequently the low range of sound was limited then to one horn and a cello. What if a composer builds his aural tapestry from the bottom up? “Get over it,” was Zambello’s answer. “ Working in opera you don’t want to create too heavy a sound that threatens to drown out the singers.” The composers worked to solve the problem as well as they could.
The result was a transparency of sound and three distinct colors achieved by the small orchestral ensemble under the fine and sensitive musical direction by conductor Manson. She clearly knew the operas word for word, often mouthing the text to the singers, while her lithe body and clean conducting style lifted both singers and instrumentalists to a high level. She served as both cheerleader and a consummate professional who obviously treated their works seriously.
The three chamber operas were sung at music stands, grouped to clarify the characters’ relationships, and enhanced by some simple but effective lighting. The emphasis was on the works as written, and no attempt was made to hide the weakness or embellish the strengths with clever staging.
Duffy’s Cut by Bellor and Reeves is a ghost story based on a true incident where Irish railroad workers were murdered at a Pennsylvania work camp. In the opera, Malachai, the camp’s blacksmith, struggles with his conscience as he hears the warring forces of his boss’ admonitions to bury the ugly evidence and the evermore insistent sounds of the ghost chorus trio. The text blends English with Gaelic, and the music draws on some folk motives within a contemporary classical music palette.
Norman Garret gives a very compelling performance as Malachai, laying wide-open the interior struggle of Malachai. He not only emotionally stepped up from his previous roles I’d enjoyed but his singing was inspired, especially in blending well his rich baritone with Solomon Howard’s darker sound. Howard had incidentally knocked my socks off this past summer in another WNO new opera, the inspired Approaching Ali, where he had given a masterful portrait of the iconic boxer in his last years.
The music is not easy, but the ghost chorus of Patrick O’Halloran, Shantelle Przybylo, and Tim Augustin deliver the challenging overlapping passages and nuanced shadings.
Gilbertson and McGraw took their inspiration for Breaking from the American media’s breaking coverage of tragedy that claims many lives and our attention. An eager young reporter wants to make her mark with a big story, but her ruthless ambition and her in-your-face style are exposed by a young woman on the scene, whose brother is one of the hostages and subsequent victims of a mass shooting.
One weakness of the opera is that there are no personal stakes or authentic investment amongst these characters, who seemed not fully realized. We see this situation acted out on our television daily, but nothing was really added to what we already know.
There was a lovely but all-too brief vocal opportunity for Jacqueline Echols. A native of Detroit, this young woman is a lovely, versatile singer and charmed me this past summer in Glimmerglass. Regrettably, her character is introduced too late in this work, and the writing team has not prepared her or us to connect deeply to the emotional pitch that the frightened then grieving Zoe must deliver.
Uncle Alex is by far the most mature and satisfying work, judged so not just by me but the enthusiastic applause the audience gave the work at its end. Composer Bornfield and librettist Vincent seem to have come to the table with already developed a working relationship. It shows. They had seized on an idea that had deep, personal roots for them – the Ellis Island experience of immigrants.
From the first moment when Tim Augustin as the official inspector bellowed “Next” and the jarring chords came with swiftly changing rhythms, I knew we were in good hands. This was going to be satisfying dramatically and musically.
While the characters were not drawn from traditional operatic “grand” scale, the stakes and their connections made for a tightly-packed dramatic build. In twenty minutes, this small gem of a piece brought together a mother and son, threatened to be torn asunder, with a stranger, another immigrant, who suddenly is asked to step up and claim them as relatives, risking his own ability to make it into America.
All four performers gave themselves over completely to the piece, sustaining their character through-lines even while not singing. Yuri Gorodetski was beautifully cast in the role of the young, gaunt immigrant struggling to communicate over the language barrier. He had crafted his role compellingly, bringing both pathos and humor to every moment. Deborah Nansteel, as his mother, is a beautiful singer. She not only carries us to the emotional heart of the piece with her wrenching disclosure that she has lost both her husband and other children on the Atlantic crossing, but she reaches across the boundaries between the old and new worlds by touching the inspector’s heart, reminding him of his own ancestral immigrants. Christian Bowers, as the man whom they would call “Uncle Alex” and to whom their success to step out on American soil, imbues his character with a solid working-class nobility.
There is no heavy-handed political rant in this piece. It’s a nuanced and honest a character portrait. But when Augustin, with his beautiful piercing tenor at the end, reaches his hand out to the audience as if summoning us up, “Next?,” he implicates us and connects then and now. Not only does the work complete its arc, but the resonances to the issue of new immigration is clear. In twenty precious moments Vincent and Bornfield have engaged us totally in a music-theatre experience and have also reminded us we are a nation of immigrants.
The singers come from the WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program and what a fine stable of talent this has proven to be. They’re a credit to the American Opera Initiative.
American Opera Initiative: Three 20-Minute Operas . Composers: Jennifer Bellor, Michael Gilbertson, and Joshua Bornfield . Libretti: Elizabeth Reeves, Caroline V. McGraw, and Caitlin Vincent . Musical Direction by Anne Manson . Produced by Washington National Opera . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
This performance occurred on November 13, 2013.