WNO mini-operas sparkle in Kennedy Center premiere

Washington National Opera's surprisingly poised 'American Opera Initiative' begins. Photo: WNO

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2012 – This past Monday evening at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, the Washington National Opera staged its first in what promises to be an ongoing annual series of world premiere mini-opera programs. Dubbed “The American Opera Initiative,” the company’s innovative new effort is focused on nurturing the development of new short operas by young American composers and librettists. 

The multiple goals of this WNO program are to give younger composers needed real-world guidance and experience in writing for the genre; providing them with audience and critical exposure; and gaining them the kind of crucial performing arts “credential” that could lead to key commissions later on in their careers. 

An additional potential bonus: introducing and exposing younger composers, writers, librettists, and audiences to opera and opera writing in the hopes of adding new life to a genre that in many ways has lost touch with the contemporary audience. 

The American Opera Initiative at its outset has to be recognized for what it is: a program that presents new, untried works by new, relatively untried but highly talented people as part of a long-range plan to help reboot American opera. For this reason, audiences and critics need to understand at the outset that each program in this series is going to be a roll of the metaphorical dice. True, WNO’s selection process (which is still evolving) assures this program will present the best of the best each year. But necessarily, each program will be a bit of a mixed bag.

Such was the case with Monday’s intriguing program which presented three short operas whose mandatory length maxed out at twenty minutes: “Part of the Act” by composer Liam Wade and librettist John Grimmett; “Charon” by composer Scott Perkins and librettist Nat Cassidy; and “A Game of Hearts” by composer Douglas Pew and librettist Dara Weinberg. All three operas took surprisingly divergent musical and dramatic approaches. Yet all three were also alike in the sense that their composers were clearly writing short works that were meant to appeal to the emotions and the intellects of a reasonably sophisticated contemporary audience.

In other words, all three composers, along with their librettists, seem to be adding their voices to a younger, classically schooled generation that is trying to reconnect to the popular audiences that academic composers arguably lost in the 20th century with their rigidly modernist, atonal, mathematically oriented scores whose cold ugliness never found favor with mass audiences, let alone classical music die-hards. It’s an encouraging trend.

Cast members in ‘A Game of Hearts.’ L-R: Mauricio Miranda (Dr Vergera), Sylvia (Shantelle Przbylo), Harriet (Julia Mintzer), Jean (Maria Eugenia Antunez), and Jerry (Norman Garrett).(Credit: Washington National Opera.)

Monday’s WNO offerings were presented in a concert opera setting. Singing was primarily provided by current or past participants in WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and music was provided by a minimalist onstage ensemble consisting of a piano, a few strings, assorted wind instruments, and a large but generally unobtrusive array of percussion instruments.

“Part of the Act” 

The first of the three operas on Monday’s program, “Part of the Act,” was perhaps the closest any of these works came to an obvious intersection with 20th century traditions. Liam Wade’s music was eclectic, often tense, and more than occasionally humorous, dropping in the occasional ironic reference to 19th century Romantic music, (such as the wry insertion of the opening bar of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) and a couple additional allusions to the coloratura fun in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide to underscore a comedic point in lieu of the traditional vaudeville rim shot.

Oh yes, “Part of the Act” is a humorous musical melodrama that pits vaudeville-era stage star Ginger Taylor (soprano Shantelle Przbylo) against the gun-toting, vengeful Mabel McGinley (mezzo Julia Mintzer). Mabel invades Ginger’s dressing room right after the star takes her bows, confronting her with allegations of an alleged, ongoing affair with her wayward husband Seamus.

Employing some stock vaudeville chutzpah and shtick, Ginger applies spin control to the evidence that would embarrass even the most ardent Clintonista, convincing Mabel that this has all been a ruse by Seamus to regain his wife’s affections. It’s her story, and she’s sticking with it, even when the hapless Seamus (baritone James Shaffran) tumbles forth from Ginger’s closet mid-ruse.

It’s all over-the-top funny, driven by a good, silly story that seems tailor made to play out right at the 20-minute time out. But it wasn’t our pick hit of the evening. John Grimmett’s libretto, while witty, was a bit prosaic, although it seemed well matched to Mr. Wade’s dominant compositional style which seemed to favor a modernist approach to the verismo or “sung drama” tradition rather than a tilt toward a more melodic approach. The musical balance, too, was occasionally off, as in the brief instrumental introduction during which the percussion wiped out the instrumental ensemble almost entirely.

Our admittedly subjective view is that “Part of the Act” is a decently amusing show with music. But it doesn’t quite approach the operatic, at least for us, lacking at times a necessarily interactive instrumental complexity underlying the vocal lines.


Monday’s second operatic stanza—Perkins’ and Cassidy’s “Charon”—was, as Monty Python might have put it, “something completely different.” Gloomy, almost serious to a fault, this mini-opera’s musical mood was somber and sorrowing, yet entirely in keeping with the depressive psyche of its eponymous, major character, the mythical boatman of the River Styx, the final crossing for mortal shades as they enter forever into their afterlife in Hades. 

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Charon” was the free-flowing imagination of librettist Nat Cassidy, who invented his entire story based on a brief, almost ephemeral tale of the same title penned by the now somewhat forgotten Irish writer, poet, and playwright Lord Dunsany, aka, Edward J.M.D. Plunkett (1878-1957).

In this brief tale, Lord Dunsany simply relates a sequence during which a puzzled Charon gradually transports a greater and greater cohort of dead souls to Hades, which then drops to a trickle and then to a single, lonely soul who informs the boatman that he’ll be the last ever to make the journey. Dunsany leaves it at that, and the reader must ponder, if he wishes, what this final scene implies. 

Mr. Cassidy grabbed the idea and ran with it in his libretto, gradually revealing the growing horde of souls—by implication and suggestion—is actually the mass casualty of a human Armageddon. The opera’s Charon, sung with majesty and authority by bass Soloman Howard, is appalled but is even more stunned when his last, lone passenger—a child in this opera—is indeed the very last. There are no more, and his job, which seemed, like that of an undertaker, to be perpetually secure, now has no meaning.

It’s a brief, intense setting for this quietly apocalyptic libretto that expands in a truly unsettling way the idea-kernel that Mr. Cassidy brilliantly extracted from Dunsany’s fictional speculation.

Making the setting even more unusual, Mr. Cassidy adds a second, disconcerting element to his story. The miasma enshrouding the River Styx is buzzing with swarms of peculiar, annoying mosquitoes. But these are not ordinary mosquitoes. They drain from their post-human victims not literal drops of blood. Instead, they suck out the last memories, emotions, and familial connections of the dead, leaving the husk of each soul like a psychic zombie dead to its past. 

Mr. Cassidy’s libretto is not perfect—why he inserts a Spanish-speaking character into his otherwise English libretto seems a bit capricious, since the character’s lines don’t seem to add an ethnic dimension to his story. But his treatment is nonetheless what any composer could want: a good, tight story; a compelling major character; a text loaded with rhythmic metrics, sing-able vowels; and the whole driven with choruses in a “dies irae” funereal chant style, perfectly orchestrated by Mr. Perkins. The sum of its many parts provides a haunting atmosphere for the composer’s haunting music. 

Mr. Perkins in his turn provides a score that both accompanies and foreshadows the gradual revelations in the story’s unsettling plot. The sound and the texture, modern yet not always discernably so, was remarkably complex in a chamber setting that involved very few instruments. Like a rising tide, the music ebbs and flows, punctuated at times by weird, skittering sounds emanating from the strings—those roiling swarms of mosquitoes, poised for their next attack—before building to a final climax and fade to black. 

WNO’s young singers again made a favorable impression as they interpreted this troubling short opera. In addition to Mr. Howard, the remaining singers—María Eugenia Antúnez, Julia Mintzer, Yuri Gorodetski, and Norman Garrett—together and in ensemble, added a genuine if sorrowful human dimension to the story.

“Charon” is a terrific little set piece. With a couple additional characters and on-topic human interest forays, it could easily be expanded into a legitimate one-act opera—one of the future possibilities for this initiative’s short works. It’s actually, in many ways, a story for our times. The machinations of one fanatical rogue state seem to be putting the option of nuclear holocaust back on the table in the 21st century, not to mention the many other varieties of Armageddon that science has perversely put on the table, all exacerbated by the current, persistent economic failure of Western democracies.

In short, the young of rising generations once again have every reason to fear the kinds of things that Boomers were taught to fear in the 1950s. In “Charon,” both the composer and librettist have an uncanny ability to capture and project this barely-beneath-the-surface fear of the future. And in so doing, their short work does what a great composer like Verdi once did and what so many modern classical composers fail to do—make a visceral connection to their own times. And that’s what makes “Charon” a remarkable and welcome musical surprise. 

“A Game of Hearts” 

The final operatic entrée on WNO’s musical bill of fare, “A Game of Hearts,” lightened the mood once again, albeit in an occasionally bittersweet manner. Dara Weinberg’s libretto snips out a twenty-minute real-time moment in a nursing home on America’s Left Bank. The story line more or less focuses on the seeming tedium involved in the endgame of four elderly lives, three women and one man—plus their doctor. But its outlook is more hopeful than the one that gripped us in “Charon.” 

“Hearts’” elderly female characters, as we soon learn, are among the last statistical  survivors of America’s “Greatest Generation,” wives and/or former lovers of the World War II GIs who clearly saved Western Civilization from an earlier kind of Armageddon. 

Harriet Oshiro (mezzo Julia Mintzer) had been among the immigrant and Nisei (second generation) Japanese-American citizens interned in the Western U.S. for the duration of that war, even as many of their husbands fought on the U.S. side. The Bierbaum sisters, Sylvia (soprano Shantelle Przybylo) and Jean (soprano María Eugenia Antúnez) are also survivors of that era, with the former having lost two husbands while the latter lost her fiancé in the war and never married. 

The women are later joined by their physician, Dr. Steve Vergara (tenor Mauricio Miranda) and nursing home resident and part-time handyman Jerry Rosenberg (Norman Garrett) whose own wife, also in residence, will not live much longer. 

There’s not much of a plot here, at least in the linear sense. “Hearts” is about just that, not necessarily the card game so much as it is about the personal, emotional attachments and reminiscences of elderly individuals who themselves sense they’re about ready to take that trip with Charon. Their physician, more attuned to the mechanics of life, isn’t much help as they revisit their memories and demons from the past. On the other hand, Jerry—even as he’s about to lose his own wife—sees great solace in the good memories of the past and refuses to leave them. 

Ms. Weinberg’s libretto is brittle and surface, as such conversations are. Likewise, Mr. Pew’s playful, easy-to-digest conversational score. 

But again, as in “Charon,” there’s an unexpected surprise. Unexpected, at least, for those who’ve endured—and been disappointed by—many a 20th century opera. As Jerry enters into a deep discussion with Jean on rolling with what life dishes out, both the nature of the libretto and the music change. The brittle dialogue slips into poetry, and Mr. Pew’s score—mirabile dictu—soars into a beautiful, Romantic vocal triptych, with the Doctor adding the third voice.

It was a stunning, quality little moment. Whatever the future holds for this particular short opera, both Mr. Pew and Ms. Weinberg ought to hold onto these pages, even if for redeployment elsewhere. 

Here’s why. A number of years ago, this reviewer interviewed a professor-composer (who shall remain anonymous) who has been quietly promoting and recording for years his/her modal/tonal compositions. When asked why modern composers, particularly composers for the voice, so studiously avoided melody in their compositions, this professor gave an answer whose second half was rather surprising.

After first noting the quiet but ongoing academic hostility toward re-engaging with many of the old musical traditions, this professor than said, “As for melody? Vocal composers today are still haunted by Puccini. They fear Puccini, fear his gift for melodies and arias, and are deathly afraid to be compared unfavorably to him. So they just avoid this.”

Mr. Pew and Ms. Weinberg did not avoid this. Evidently, they do not fear Puccini either. Monday evening’s Terrace audience didn’t miss this magical moment during which this young team fully re-engaged with tradition. The audience greeted the singers, the musicians, and above all the composer-librettist team with a vigorous and appreciative round of applause. They noticed this little bit of magic, too.

A bit about the supporting cast

After the conclusion of the final opera, composers and librettists re-appeared on stage to field audience Q&As. In addition, three key players in the background of this year’s initiative also appeared, conductor Anne Manson, composer Jake Heggie, and veteran librettist Mark Campbell, well known in the metro area already for his sparkling libretti for two enthusiastically received John Musto operas that were premiered by the Wolf Trap Opera Company.

These three mentors were also recruited by the WNO initiative to coach and criticize (in a constructive way) each of the chosen opera teams in order to help them shape the final product and bring it to fruition. In theater, at least, we tend to dislike such “workshopping” of new works as we’ve found that such activities in play writing tend, in the end, to produce less-than-compelling final results. 

In this case, it’s very clear that WNO’s three 2012 mentors interacted with a collectively light but sure hand. Each of these three operas retained its own startling originality, proving that nothing had been imposed on them from the outside. Nonetheless, the three short works also exhibited a power and professionalism that must have benefited from each team’s interactions with the mentors. 

Monday’s short-opera event showcased writer-composer teams of great promise, each team in its own unique and occasionally quirky way. Shaped, promoted, and guided by WNO’s Christina Scheppelmann, invented and realized by three highly creative composer-librettist teams, and guided toward a genuine professionalism by three highly-involved veteran mentors, this, the first venture in WNO’s new initiative, was a welcome surprise that both the company and the Kennedy Center should be rightfully proud to support.

(No rating. Beginning program.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.

Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17



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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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