Where can you experience new American opera? With any regularity, the only place has been New York and most significantly New York City Opera's VOX Contemporary American Opera Lab.
But maybe occurrence of this kind of risky programming (the producers of opera fear no one will show up and fill their seats) is changing. On November 19, 2012, Washington National Opera launched its American Opera Initiative, a public workshop for encouraging new American opera in small bytes. The program--a concert-style world premier--featured three 20-minute operas: Part of the Act by Liam Wade and John Grimmett, Charon by Scott Perkins and Nat Cassidy, and A Game of Hearts by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg. Sheparding this new program into life with promise of more was Christina Scheppelmann, the out-going WNO Director of Artistic Operations. Mentoring this set of three mini operas was conductor Anne Manson, composer Jake Heggie, and librettist Mark Campbell.
The Dresser, who has often enjoyed the opera excerpts presented in the NYCO VOX showcase, could only think of the WNO mini operas in this context. Twenty-minutes does not an opera make. Of the three presented, only one stood out and that was Charon. The libretto about the weary boatman ferrying newly deceased to Hades and the richly textured percussive music made the entire evening worth dashing from DC's Union Station after a trip that day to partake in the historic closing event of Coursera's Modern Poetry course. Bass-baritone Solomon Howard as Charon was a standout.
Overall mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer gave notable performances. Although the Dresser was not impressed with Part of the Act's collage of music that quoted everything from stripper bump and grind to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, Mintzer gave a memorable performance in terms of vocal range and acting. The story of Part of the Act concerns a Vaudevillian actress having an affair with a man whose wife (played by Julia Mintzer) comes gunning for them. This initial introduction to Mintzer made the Dresser pay attention with favorable pleasure to the mezzo's performances in the other two pieces. Mintzer was the only singer partaking in all three operas.
While Douglas Pew, A Game of Hearts' composer, took the trouble of writing for a variety of voices: soprano (Shantell Przybylo), mezzo-soprano (Julia Mintzer), light lyric soprano María Eugenia Antúnez), lyric tenor (Mauricio Miranda), and lyric bass-baritione (Norman Garrett), the lyrical music was not remarkable and neither was the libretto, whose story was set in a nursing home and focused on several widows and their losses.
Merrill Leffler's poem "Performance" not only captures story elements from Part of the Act, Charon, and A Game of Hearts, but it also speaks to the emotional state of collaborating artists premiering brand new work.
Do you think the I standing before you
doesn't want to seduce your attention
and hold you close to the erratic beating
of its heart? Do you think the I here is not performing
for your applause and approbation,
that' it's not needy or demanding
and doesn't want more than it knows it's entitled to,
that it won't pull from its hat every possible trick--
its brooding soulfulness, its comic shtick--
whatever it takes?
..............................Friend, look in the mirror.
Show me we are not a marriage of grief and joy,
of lust, desire, ambition, fear, of every need
that has clung since we are first thrust into this dark
and resplendent world, that all our stunting
our juggling, our masks, all our art and philosophy
want nothing from each other and are not in performance.
Friend, mon frère, ma soeur, astonish us.
by Merrill Leffler
from Mark the Music
Copyright © 2012 Merrill Leffler
Photo Credit: Scott Suchman