New WNO mini-operas light up the Terrace Theater

2013 American Opera Initiative highlights the immigrant experience. Photo: Duffy's Cut/Washington National Opera

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2013 – Unlike the wall-to-wall schedule of New York’s Metropolitan Opera, the Washington National Opera’s schedule has, over the years, generally consisted of a fall season, a mini-hiatus, and a concluding spring season.

More recently, however, under Francesca Zambello, the company’s current artistic director, this virtual winter solstice has been replaced by a mini-season distinguished by interesting, new creative fare, including a December slot for a family-oriented holiday opera. The company’s traditional seasonal intermezzo is morphing into a period where new work is explored and the young singers of the Domingo-Cafritz program get additional opportunities to perform before the public.

A case in point was last week’s second annual showcase of brand new mini-operas, aka the American Opera Initiative. As was the case with last year’s musical triptych, this year’s trio of mini-operas was created by three different composer-librettist teams and staged in semi-concert opera fashion at the Kennedy Center’s intimate Terrace Theater.

New works by relative unknowns are always interesting, although you never know what you’re going to hear and see. As opposed to a performance of, say, “La Bohème,” with brand new material by composers you’re not familiar with, you never know what you’re going to get.

Last year’s mini-operas—each limited to approximately 20-minutes’ duration—were surprisingly interesting. This year’s installment was largely the same.

Due to some computer issues, we’re a bit tardy in contributing our impressions of this year’s offerings. That said, as we did last year, we offer our comments here less in the sense of traditional criticism but more by way of encouraging this year’s composers and librettists to forge ahead.

SEE RELATED: WNO mini-operas sparkle in Kennedy Center premiere

The three new mini-operas in this year’s collection were themed around the notion of what it means to be—or become—and American. In fact, two of the three involved the not entirely positive experiences of new immigrants.

Duffy’s Cut

The first new opera presented on the program, was “Duffy’s Cut,” with music by Jennifer Bellor and a libretto by Elizabeth Reeves. “Duffy” is a brief, bitter slice from America’s immigrant past—in this case, early-to-mid 19th century Pennsylvania whose railroad construction companies made ample use of imported Irish labor at rock bottom wages. (See image above.)

Ironically, “Duffy’s” three would-be heroes appear in the opera as ghosts, because they’re already dead, casualties of an Industrial Age system that regarded the lives and wellbeing of immigrant laborers less seriously than it did its machines. 

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The central character in this riff on America’s immigrant history is fellow laborer Malachi Harris (Norman Garrett), who’s ordered by his heartless boss, the eponymous Phillip Duffy (Solomon Howard) to bury the bodies of his three former friends and comrades, John Ruddy, Catherine Burns and John Burns (Patrick O’Halloran, Shantelle Przybylo and Tim Augustin), so that no trace of their existence would remain, effectively erasing them from memory—and from the prying eyes of the law, which in those time was never too vigorously enforced anyway.

Rooted in early American labor history, the story was interesting, albeit front-end loaded with a solemn, unambiguous leftward tilt. Fortunately, the conflicted character of Malachi cut some realistic middle ground as he vacillated between a bitter but necessary loyalty to his boss and his devotion to his compatriots. Does he defy Duffy and lose his job and perhaps his own life as well? Or does he go along with the game only to be wracked by a lifetime of guilt? This opera is really about Malachi’s choice.

While Malachi’s dilemma proved to be the central morality tale of this short opera, however, the libretto proved somewhat prosaic in its treatment, and the music, while suitably funereal and contemplative for the material, seemed muddy at times even for a small ensemble.

But the performers contributed great heart and emotion to the effort, particularly Norman Garrett and Solomon Howard. Although Mr. Howard’s role as Duffy was small, he once again demonstrated the powerful voice and extraordinarily clear lower register that mark him as an up-and-coming star in tomorrow’s opera firmament.


Positioned between two mini-operas focused on the experience of past American immigrants, Michael Gilbertson’s and Caroline V. McGraw’s musical short-short quite effectively captured in words and music the crassness and essential heartlessness of the contemporary media.

As anyone who watches TV news knows, any senseless tragedy is quickly covered live by cold-hearted reporters who hunt down victims’ relatives, jam a microphone in their faces, and demand to know, “How does it feel, Ms. X, to have your life completely destroyed forever?” That’ what “Breaking” is all about—not legitimate news gathering, but unjustified and sensationalized intrusiveness.

Terrace Theater, performance of “Breaking.” Jacqueline Echols and Deborah Nansteel. (Washington National Opera)

Ms. McGraw’s libretto was an excellent bit of tight, efficient storytelling, moving things along as briskly as if we were in a real TV newsroom situation while intentionally peppering the dialogue with appropriate irony and satire.

Mr. Gilbertson’s music keyed in on this pace and attitude, carrying the breaking news tragedy at this little opera’s core along at a brisk, almost frenetic and slightly jazzy pace.

In short, there was a fine match between librettist and composer. A clearly evident mind-meld like this tends to be fairly rare in artistic collaborations. But here it demonstrated real teamwork and genuine promise should these young artists decide to collaborate again in the future.

The opera’s tiny cast did well, particularly Deborah Nansteel as Johanna, a fluttery yet crass  TV reporter on the make, and Jacqueline Echols as Zoe, the shattered yet unintended victim of Johanna’s cold careerism. Wei Wu (Sam) and Patrick O’Halloran (Davey) contributed key moments to this gripping little musical satire.

Uncle Alex

The final operatic stanza of the evening took the audience back to the American immigrant experience, this time moving to Ellis Island, that great American immigrant portal at the turn of the 20th century.

As anyone who’s visited this partially restored American monument lately knows, hundreds and thousands of new immigrants daily ran through the Ellis Island gauntlet, eager to get through to the Promised Land but also fearful that one or more of their family members—or they themselves—would fail brief but quite specific health screening or minimal cash or sponsor support, causing them to be shipped back home again, likely never to return.

Performance of “Uncle Alex.” Yuri Gorodetski and Deborah Nansteel. (Washington National Opera)

That’s the plot turn in Uncle Alex, whose central character, Alex Margolis (Christian Bowers), coming to America on his own and qualified to do so, must make a crucial moral decision: as a family unit he’s befriended confronts being turned back home to their native Russia because they lack a head of household, should Alex ignore their plight and move on to enjoy America’s streets paved with gold? Or should he risk everything by telling a lie to save them?

Yuri Gorodetski and Deborah Nansteel turned in fine, tense performances as a beleaguered mother and son. Tim Augustin proved quite adept as the surprisingly insightful if gruff immigration official who will make a brief but final determination on everyone’s fate. And Mr. Bowers cemented the ensemble with his crisp, flexible performance in this short opera’s key role.

Joshua Bornfield’s score was lively and surprisingly complex, and Caitlin Vincent’s libretto perfectly captured the tension of this crucial pivot point in three desperate lives.


On the whole, each of these three short operas had a compelling story to tell and all generated a surprisingly keen sense of drama and character despite being limited to 20 minutes’ running time.

Each libretto was focused and efficient, though all three struck us as prosaic to some extent and lacking in the kind of poetic rhythm and imagination we frankly prefer in a libretto. The near 100-year grip of the free verse malaise upon American poetry apparently continues to exert a lingering influence on at least some contemporary librettists as it still does upon academic poets.

Regarding the music, both Michael Gilbertson and Joshua Bornfield demonstrated considerable skill in evoking two different eras with scores drawing on popular idioms while at the same time blending these musical elements into a more serious and complex musical and instrumental fabric. Ms. Bellor’s music also demonstrated considerable skill in its construction yet also lacked the kind of breakaway moments that can give an operatic score a greater variety of textures and interest.

On the plus side, three more composer-librettist teams have had the relatively rare opportunity of getting their work staged in a major venue, performed by promising young singers as well as a small professional ensemble, all playing under the insightful baton of Anne Manson who also served as one of the mentors during the pre-performance workshopping that moved each of these new works from completed sketches to full, semi-staged productions.

Hat tips as well go to this year’s other two mentors, the prolific librettist Mark Campbell, whose libretto for the nearly Grammy Award-winning Wolf Trap Opera premiere run of “Volpone” demonstrated this art at its best; and composer Jake Heggie, whose opera “Moby Dick” will get its East Coast premiere here when the Washington National Opera stages the work at the KenCen in early 2014.


Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us section 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.


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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, movies and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was formerly the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2009) before moving online with Communities in 2010.  



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