Opera has a promising future, judging by this past weekend’s plethora of riches delivered in the newly renovated Terrace Theatre at The Kennedy Center. As part of the American Opera Initiative, Washington National Opera (WNO) produced the opera Proving Up, and teamed up three pairs of young librettists with composers who were mentored in a year-long process to deliver twenty-minute operatic works in semi-staged concert performances with orchestra.
In 2014, a local music critic raised the question whether writing in short form really prepares composers and librettists to write a full-length opera. Judging by how several of the creative teams from previous years have gone on to have these and other works produced, I would holler a resounding, ”Yes.”
While I would argue that in many ways the process for these young creative artists was more important than the product in each of the cases, the performance is nonetheless an opportunity to take a serious look and ask what works and what needs further tweaking. It does not take away from the importance of artists able to hear all the elements assembled together, including or perhaps especially an orchestra. Getting a close reading of a work by a conductor plus the response of an audience is invaluable.
There has been much valuable mentorship in the American Opera Initiative model. For instance, you could not have had a more sympathetic reading of the three very different scores than what George Manahan conducted from the podium. Likewise, Mark Campbell, whose interview you can find online at DCTheatreScene, has shepherded the librettists, while he and his sometime collaborator composer Kevin Puts have worked intentionally and sensitively to keep the creators working diligently and happily together over the course of the year to ready the three works.
It is not my intention to judge either the individual works or the generally fine singing of the individual performing artists. I would like to mention just a few things that caught my ear and identify the stories-as-opera.
Bridge for Three was the most lushly and one might say traditionally written score by Nathan Fletcher and, as such, very pleasant to the ears. It also had a very pared-down premise and narrative, positing three characters from different times singing in kind of shared-monologue fashion how they got to that point in their separate lives that they wanted to jump from the Brooklyn Bridge. The libretto by Megan Cohen is a kind of nugget appropriate to the short form of twenty-minutes. Cohen manages to create three character journeys that, while different, in some cases start with despair and the desire to disappear but by the end all suggest the weighing of the value of life.
Fault Lines tackles a most timely issue in telling the story of a powerful male who abuses his power to harass and force women who are vulnerable in his orbit. It is the most clearly plot-driven opera of the evening, and librettist Sara Cooper doesn’t hold back from the form’s traditional love for pushing for high dramatic moments. There’s even a nod to opera’s most famous Japanese female character, who dies tragically. Sometimes, the composer Gity Razaz has chosen to set so much language, that it moves forward through extended passages of what feels like recit. But the team also clearly experimented with operatic forms of duet, trio, and even quartet. I loved when it ventured beyond patriarchal transgressions and let the music and the singers hit the “sweet spot.”
Precita Park, the third opera of the evening, was in many ways the most experimental musically and its tone succeeded in that most dangerous of operatic waters – comedy. Its premise is, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, five individuals are forced to share a somewhat tight common living space. Librettist Erin Bregman tackled the libretto by layering phrases with deft repetition that shifted in meaning and other curious convolutions. John Glover worked closely musically, magnifying Bregman’s layering, switching back and forth between characters, changing rhythm and tempi, as the characters protest and bicker over their situation. At one point they ceased sounding like human beings altogether, and the opera moved hysterically into a movement that can only be described as bleating of goats.
The singers, all part of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, managed juggling roles and musical styles with their skills and daring-do, bringing to mind the proverbial Barnum and Bailey three-ring circus. Performances by Alexander McKissick, Michael Hewitt, Eliza Bonet, Laura Choi Stuart, and Frederick Ballentine were all commendable with Bonet and Hewitt pulling off the equivalent of an operatic triathlon. But this project has certainly given all the performers experience of inestimable value working on new works that will make them stand out as they further launch their careers.
Investing in new works and finding stories we all need to hear is part of how a community finds renewal.
Bridge for Three. Composed by Nathan Fletcher. Libretto written by Megan Cohen. Fault Lines. Composed by Gity Razaz. Libretto written by Sara Cooper. Precita Park. Composed by John Glover. Libretto written by Erin Bregman. All Conducted by George Manahan. Stage Directed by Andrea Dorf McGray. Mentored by George Manahan Mark Campbell and Kevin Puts. Lighting Design by A.J. Guban. With Alexander McKissick, Michael Hewitt, Eliza Bonet, Laura Choi Stuart, and Frederick Ballentine. Produced by Washington National Opera. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.