« Restoration Macbeth and the Clanking Cell Doors | Main | A First Woman on Stage: Nell Gwynn »

WNO New Operas--Snakes, Dogs, Drugs, Unwanted Babies

Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative Festival in a three-day program--January 11-13, 2019--presented four short world premieres: the hour-long Taking up Serpents by composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye and the three twenty-minute operas: 75 Miles by Matt Boehler and Laura Barati, Relapse by Molly Joyce and James Kennedy, and Pepito by Nicholas Lell Benavides and Marella Martin Koch. Partnering with these Washington National Opera commissioned works is the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program which features exceptional young opera singers who are given the opportunity and challenge to sing often difficult musical scores while also creating the roles of characters in these new operas.

The introduction to the January 12 performance included these tips from 2019 mentor Jake Heggie:

--Don't just set words, write music.
--Allow singers to use their instruments.
--Every note matters in the context of the storytelling.

Generally speaking, the Dresser felt that Heggie's exceptionally good advice was the measure against which these composers were working. Given the most working time, composer Kamala Sankaram in Taking up Serpents was able to create subtly textured orchestral music that included guitar and evoked the mystery of the Pentecostal story whose preachers handle poisonous snakes.

Serpents2.jpgJerre Dye's libretto focuses on the daughter of a man who goes from drunk to Pentecostal preacher. When the opera opens, Kayla stands on New Year's Eve in the parking lot of the Save Mart where she works, waiting to see the holiday fireworks. What the audience doesn't know until later is that her father had his Christian awakening in a parking lot where he and the ten-year-old Kayla were setting off firecrackers. Kayla has fled her father's extremism, but she calls out to God for a sign:

I thought somehow that leavin' home would give me wings,
break the hold you got on me.
I'm so damn tired-a circlin'.
This longin' is undoin' me.

Kayla looks up at the sky.
Give me a sign, Lord.

On cue, Kayla's irritated boss Reba appears:

Reba- Who the hell you talkin' to?
Kayla- (embarrassed) No one.
Reba- Out here like a crazy person talkin' at the air.
Break is over. Trash is full. Kayla? KA-YLA?(Claps her hands to get Kayla's
attention) Trash. (indicating she should take care of it.)

So Kayla gets back to work still longing for more than the life to which she has fled. Reba comes back to her. This time with her portable phone and a surprise call from Kayla's mother Nelda. Nelda tells Kayla that her father "got bit in the neck" by a timber rattler during the "Sunday past service."

Here's where the libretto rips open with emotion as Kayla goes to the hospital to confront her parents. Sankaram gives soprano Alexandria Shiner as Kayla and mezzo-soprano Eliza Boner as Nelda full opportunity to use their vocal instruments in expressing their complete frustration for how their lives have unspooled with Daddy (bass baritone Timothy J. Bruno). By the end of the opera, Kayla has come to terms with herself and her father in front of his church alter while simultaneous Nelda has put Daddy out of their collective misery by smothering him.

The Dresser thinks that this opera has a well-put-together libretto but there was a disturbing imbalance in being able to follow the details that bear on Daddy's emotional impact to the daughter and mother. At first the Dresser was thinking this opera might be better in a much smaller space than the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater in order to more fully experience the raw emotional load of these characters but only if the volume of sound could be dialed down. Alexandria Shiner, for example, has a powerful voice suited for singing in the Kennedy Center Opera House. The other thought, which might be more suitable, is a different staging which brings Nelda in the hospital smothering Daddy side by side with Kayla taking over the church service to find her own light.

Of the three twenty-minute operas, the Dresser's favorite was the comic opera Pepito about a somewhat mismatched couple who shows up last minute at an animal shelter wanting to adopt a dog, preferably a puppy. The dog Pepito is sung by bass baritone Samuel Weiser who at all times is a man dressed in a dog suit. Weiser makes the part charming (e.g., he tells the interested woman he loves her and soon dips her as if she were a dance partner), and more so because the dog speaks Spanish and everything need translating, especially to the husband. The music, especially the duet about "the right dog" that is between Camila (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) and Pepito, lingers in memory.


75 Miles concerns a 16-year-old girl who tells her mom she needs an abortion. They are poor with one car which the father needs to get to his job so the clinic at 75 miles away is too far. The daughter Avery (soprano Alexandra Nowakowski) doesn't want her father to know. She is an only child and the apple of his eye. She tells him as her mother nearly spills the beans that a friend of hers is pregnant and wants an abortion. Earnestly, baritone Joshua Blue as the father suggests keeping the child and then tells her how much her birth meant to them and still does. During the course of the 20 minutes, mezzo-soprano Alexandra Christoforakis as the mother runs the emotional gamut from mad at her daughter, scared of her husband to determined Avery will abort this unwanted child. The libretto is straight forward, and the music has touches of American folk music.

A timely look at a young woman who nearly dies of a drug overdose, Relapse deals with those who enable and the doctor who can only do so much to help. It's a big subject for just 20 minutes. However, the music has interesting texture, such as touches of bowed vibraphone and piano strings played by mallets.

The Dresser doesn't see any of the these three 20-minute works being more fully developed but applauds Washington National Opera for allowing these newcomers to work with seasoned artists and to practice the discipline. Taking up Serpents could be further developed or stand as a chamber work.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman


Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on January 14, 2019 4:54 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Restoration Macbeth and the Clanking Cell Doors.

The next post in this blog is A First Woman on Stage: Nell Gwynn.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.