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WNO American Opera Initiative #4--A Deluge of New Chamber Operas

On December 2, 2015, the 7 P.M. house at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater was full for the fourth annual Washington National Opera American Opera Initiative. WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello in introducing the program of three new twenty-minute chamber operas said there is no other program in the United States quite like this one, which gets backing from a major opera company including seasoned mentors (2015 mentors are conductor John DeMain, composer Ricky Ian Gordon, and librettist Mark Campbell) and outstanding singers from WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. The Dresser finds this program and its popularity (given the Terrace Theater is an intimate space seating 474) quite exciting and the way contemporary should be attended.

The short operas addressed in this order--pizza delivery time (Twenty Minutes or Less), a stolen library book (Alexandra), and the disruption that cell phones can exact on human relations (Service Provider)--aim at behavior familiar to everyday Americans. Each opera interested the Dresser. However, given the limitation of runtime set by the WNO program, no masterpiece was produced.

WNO AOI 20 - 1 - Twenty Minutes or Less - photo Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
The Dresser's favorite of the three was Twenty Minutes or Less by composer Sarah Hutchings and librettist Mark Sonnenblick. And yes, the title seems ironic given that the WNO American Opera Initiative only allows 20 minutes each for the three operas this program will help deliver, produce and premier. The music features engaging harmonies and a libretto that interjects la condition humaine into the exigency of delivering a delicious pizza within 20 minutes of the order time. There are quite a few quotable passages but the Dresser will limit herself to two:

Is the key
Think how messy life can be
There's no time
For a mess
When you get twenty minutes
or less.

My friend Alicia says I get
dressed in people.
I wake up put on my mother,
breathe with her lips
And see with her eyes
My father...
My father I never knew.
But my older sister...
I slip her on for a summer and
dance with her feet.
[Note: the arpeggios in this section about the sister were notably lovely.]
My friend Alicia says I get
dressed in people.
Now I'll get dressed in a
uniform. My own uniform!
I want to want to wake up
every day and cook a pizza!
I want direction. I want desire.
I could be fire, Baby!

Favorite singers for their passionate performances in this opera were mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman (Osha) and soprano Raquel Gonzalez (Candice).

Service Provider by composer Christopher Weiss and librettist John de los Santos addressed that all too familiar scene of cell phone users abusing the living people with whom they should be engaging. The story takes place in an upscale restaurant where Autumn (Daryl Freedman) and Beau (baritone Hunter Enoch) are celebrating three years of marriage. The problem is that Autumn won't stop texting her friend and then little by little we learn that Beau has been cheating on Autumn with a woman named Charlene (soprano Mandy Brown) whom he no longer wants to see, but she makes sure to impose herself on him first by texting so Autumn can see these messages and then in person.
WNO AOI 20 - 3- Service Provider - photo Scott Suchman for WNO.JPG
Dallas, the waiter (sung by tenor Rexford Tester), gets the best music in this opera. His recitation of the menu and his exhortation to the married couple to wake up and see the beauty in their relationship is lushly lyric in a style that pleasingly echoes the best of classic operas of the 19th century. The Dresser thinks composer Weiss, with his stylistic choices for the tenor's arias, is invoking an ironic contrast against the 21st century demons represented by the cell phones and the bad behavior of their users.

WNO AOI 20 - 2 - Alexandra - photo Scott Suchman for WNO.jpg
In Alexandra, composer David Clay Mettens and librettist Joshua McGuire are overly ambitious for their twenty minutes. The story about a present day young widow (mezzo-soprano Leah Hawkins) who debates whether to return a library book stolen by her now dead soldier husband is complicated by marginalia in the book dating from 1942 when two male students expressed their love for each other and how this love could not be realized. So Ray (bass baritone Wei Wu) writes in the book to Alex (tenor Michael Brandenburg) that he has enlisted. While Leah Hawkins as Alexandra gives a tour de force performance, the opera is dramatically static and the Dresser could not get interested in the exchange between Ray and Alex, though the story, once it is understood, has great potential.

In Kim Roberts's unrhymed sonnet "Stormy Seas," we hear the voice of Robert Falcon Scott, an explorer intent on reaching the South Pole, something no one else had done. Scott absorbs the magnitude of challenge in his exploration and in particular the problem of getting to Antarctic--could he survive "the heavy plunge" of the stormy seas encounters? Venturing into uncharted waters parallels what the Washington National Opera--its artistic director, mentors, musicians, and singers--takes on when inviting in teams of creating composers and librettists. Will the audience walk away thinking that was a valuable experience and therefore come back next year or, for that matter, will they buy tickets for full-length operas scheduled in the coming months? The Dresser sweeps off her beret in salute to Francesca Zambello for her willingness to present American teams of new opera creators and for risking such stormy seas.


The seas continuously rise, continuously break
on weather bulwarks. And they scatter clouds
of heavy spray upon the backs of all
who venture into the waist of the ship.
From four o'clock last night the southwest wind
freshened with great rapidity, and soon
we sailed just under topsails, jib, and stay
alone. The sea stood up and soon we found
ourselves in heavy plunge. We hove to,
still taking water over the lee rail.
The sea rose up like mountains. It rushed forth
across the lee rail and the poop, a press
of green; the ship wallowed in green; a great
piece of the bulwark carried clean away.

Kim Roberts
excerpt from Fortune's Favor: Scott in Antarctica

copyright © 2015 Kim Roberts

Photos: Scott Suchman


Comments (2)

Ilo-Mai Harding :

Cool! Keep up the good work.

Anna Jhirad:

Great work you've done laying out the details of these short operas and the insights you offer on performers and scenes. Fascinating. Also, love your concluding poem.

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