OPERA GENE – American Opera Initiative: New Operas 2021 and Future Plans

Human beings want to be members of groups, in fact, are born into groups, but we need to be individuals as well.  One of my favorite Far Side cartoons shows a field of penguins all looking the same with one penguin in the middle loudly singing, “I gotta be me.”  Groups need uniformity, a set of commonalities that distinguishes who is and who isn’t in the group, rules, standards that enable the group to feel a collective validation and safety.  Individuals need a tolerance for diversity, understanding, and freedom to be who they really are, to self-actualize and receive validation through acceptance.  As a boss of mine once said to me, “These are your priorities. They are in conflict.  What are you going to do?”  It does make life interesting…and often painful.  Human beings also need stories to see where they stand, and some of us need operas to help remind us that we are standing together.  Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative has been important in addressing that need with currency.

AOI’s “Three Twenty-Minute Operas” has been an annual affair premiering new operas meant to reflect themes in today’s America and to encourage emerging creative talent.  This year’s operas had to be produced under COVID-19 restrictions and performances online was the only viable option (still available online). The opera premieres were delayed from the usual January performances in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater to online availability in May.  I think for that reason that they are flying a bit under the radar.  I am unable to find a review by a professional critic, neither regional nor local.  Last year, reviews of the AOI new operas appeared in Washington Classical Review, the Washington Post, DC Metro, and DC Theater Scene; this year not one of the Knights of the Opera Table took up the challenge.  That’s unfortunate because emerging talent needs to be recognized, and these are among the most enjoyable of the program’s twenty-minute operas that I have seen. 

The AOI program pairs emerging composers and librettists, selected from applicants to the program, to create short American operas that are presented on stage at the Kennedy Center, performed by members of the Cafritz Young Artists Program and accompanied by the WNO orchestra.  Robert Ainsley, Director of the AOI program, offered comments about their process: “Yes, they [composers and librettists] apply separately and are usually paired up at the discretion of the panel. However, the application gives them an opportunity to list any collaborators with whom they would like to apply or have worked with before.  Established teams are welcome to submit applications, and state that they prefer to be accepted only as a pair if they like.  To promote fairness within the application process, we have required our mentors to independently choose both members of a team if we are to invite them to participate as that established team, which has happened in the past.

The AOI process has always been more about process than product, with a focus on learning about the collaborative process and being open to mentorship. Candidates are always asked whether they would be willing to explore a new collaboration, and our mentors work very hard to try to pair complementary personalities, styles, and interests. There have been one or two occasions in the past where a pairing has not worked out and a different direction has been suggested a short way into the process. That said, many of our collaborations have been extremely successful and yielded fruitful new teams who have gone on to make more work together, and the new collaboration has meant that candidates are often more open to experimentation and trying new approaches.”

Importantly as the operas are developed, the composers/librettist teams are paired with mentors and the WNO/Kennedy Center facilities and resources are made available to them.  This year’s mentors were composer Anthony Davis, librettist and dramaturg Kelly O’Rourke, and conductor David Neely.  Usually, one new hour-long opera is also presented each year; however, the pause button was hit on the one-hour opera last year to present instead the opera Blue, and the pandemic precluded the hour-long opera’s development this season.  The stage director for all of this year’s operas is Amanda Consol, and the singers are accompanied by twelve players from the Washington National Opera Orchestra, led by Concertmaster Najin Kim.  Costumes by Costume Director Marsha LeBoeuf and Associate Director Mark Hamberger were a critical part of the partial staging, with limited sets for each 20-min opera.  Each year, the 20-minute and the hour-long operas are typically sell-outs.  An advantage of being online is that they are available to a much wider audience.

This Year’s New 20-minute Operas

The new twenty-minute operas for the American Operative Initiative’s 2020-2021 season  are:

Las Auténticas by composer Ben Morris and librettist Laura Fuentes

the barren(s) by composer Amber Vistein and librettist Rebecca Hart

American Apollo by composer Damien Getter and librettist Lila Palmer

I enjoyed viewing all three.  The first was charming and heart touching and involved tacos; the second was fun while also expressing some deep human emotion and had ghosts, and the third was a compelling drama that left me wanting more – if only there had been social media in the 1920s.  Each tells an engaging story.  Each provides a perspective on the conflict between who we need to be and expectations imposed on us by other.  The music in each works to help tell the story and create its own interest.  And as is always true of good opera, the emotional impact of each story is strongly conveyed by the singing. 

Las Auténticas has three characters: a niece/aunt team who are vying for an internet influencer’s imprimatur for making the most “authentic” tacos in LA.  Cafritz Young Artists playing the roles are soprano Marlen Nahhas as Aunt Luz, soprano Katerina Burton as the niece Jenny, and bass-baritone Samuel J. Weiser as the influencer, Esteban.  Luz relates life’s lessons to Jenny while Jenny stresses over her inability to speak fluent Spanish, expected of her because of her Mexican heritage; then there is Esteban, the self-appointed judge, who pontificates on how to judge a taco and wants to be known as Gary.  These talented singers performed well.  Ms. Burton convincingly displayed heart tugging angst.  She has a lovely voice that graced the aria “Nuevo Leon” with gentle emotion.  The story flowed well enough, given the twenty-minute time constraint. Ms. Nahhas’ enjoyable aria about a punk rock band seemed an unnecessary add on but added some depth to Luz.  I could see this as a plot for a Netflix series with music.  Librettist and playwright Laura Fuentes resides in Baltimore and was reared in Oakton, VA.  She says this work was a valentine to her husband and two daughters, who are of first- and second-generation Mexican descent, respectively.  The music is pleasant and accents the action.  Composer Ben Morris is a Colorado-based jazz pianist, as well as composer.  The influence of jazz in his score is both evident and welcomed; one gets whiffs of Gershwin in listening.

the barren(s) has five characters: two friends Debbie and Amanda, who are touring the Pines Barrens, home of the legendary New Jersey Devil; the Ranger responsible for the park area; and two internet voices (podcasters?) commenting on the legend.  Cafritz Young Artists playing the roles are soprano Katerina Burton as Debbie Leeds, mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell as Amanda Shroud, baritone Jonathan Bryan as the Ranger eager to steer visitors away from the area of the legend, and tenor Duke Kim and baritone Dennis Chmelensky as the internet commentators.  The Kim/Chmelensky team were effective in adding spookiness to the horror aspects, Halloween-style, and Jonathan Bryan’s portrayal of the serio-comic Ranger was perfect.  Ms. Burton and Ms. Thelwell deliver some impressive singing, both solo and in duet, with Ms. Burton able to demonstrate even greater depth of emotion than in the first opera.  the barren(s) packs a lot into its twenty minutes, comedy, horror, and deep pathos.  A ghost story about the New Jersey devil, the legendary result of a woman who did not want her 13th child, becomes a searing portrait of societal expectations of women in their childbearing years.  Kudos to librettist Rebecca Hart for her rich composition.  Composer Amber Vistein’s music reflects the moods in each scene and her western motif for the Ranger is an amusing pleasure. 

American Apollo has four characters: a famous painter, his model/muse, the painter’s patron, and the patron’s driver, all real characters from the early 1900s.  The story focuses on the complex relationship between model and painter, attached to each other but also separated and isolated by issues of race, sexuality, wealth, and social standing.  Cafritz Young Artists playing the roles are tenor Matthew Pierce as John Singer Sargent, baritone Justin Austin as his model Thomas Eugene Mckeller, soprano Suzannah Waddington as his patron Isabella Stewart Gardner, and William Meinart as her Driver Jimmy.  Composer Damien Geter and librettist Lila Palmer chose for their opera the fascinating real life story of Sargent and McKeller, Sargent a world-famous, wealthy white painter, thought to have been gay, and McKeller, a poor black Boston hotel bellman selected as his model for mythological figures for murals, including the Greek god, Apollo – “my body except my head” said Mr. McKeller, and the mural figures all had white bodies.  A planned, but pandemic-foiled, 2020 exhibit of Sargent drawings of McKeller was named “Boston Apollo” (Sebastian Smee’s March 2020 Washington Post article recommended).  Sargent’s drawings of McKeller, planned for exhibit, and a color, nude portrait of McKeller, never exhibited by Sargent, suggest their ten-year relationship might have been more than professional.  Composer Geter and librettist Palmer treat the knowns with respect and the unknowns gingerly, only intimating what might have been…until they dance.  Does the gifted painter see the soul of his model, or only his body?

Baritone Justin Austin delivers an outstanding performance as the model, both in the sensitivity shone in his acting and the beauty of his vocals and dancing.  Tenor Matthew Pearce delivers a fine performance singing, though I would have thought the voice types for these roles might have been reversed.  Soprano Suzannah Waddington is a treasure as Ms. Gardner, a wealthy patron who is also well grounded and aware of the forces at play.  In a very brief role, bass William Meinert as the driver manages to convey the element of racism.  Composer Geter’s music seemed to me the most compelling of the three operas in its sophistication and participation in the drama. 

AOI Plans for the Future

WNO will forego producing 20- and 60-minute new operas in the 2021-2022 season and instead have premieres of four new operas as part of WNO’s Written in Stone in 2022.  Is the American Opera Initiative continuing I wondered?  I posed the question to Mr. Ainsley, his response:

“The American Opera Initiative is really a catch-all term for WNO’s new works and commissions, although the 20-minute and one-hour commissions have been particularly prominent and ongoing parts of that work. Indeed, this coming season, AOI has morphed into Written in Stone, which is really the ‘third tier’ of AOI which we had also planned for – a mainstage commission drawn from previous participants of the program, in this case, Carlos Simon, Kamala Sankaram, Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang. The Cartography Project is also an integral part of our commissioning work over the next three years at least.

[Note from the KC 50th anniversary announcement: The Center’s previously announced curatorial music program and one of the eight channels of its Social Impact work, The Cartography Project, will feature the work of an inaugural cohort of 12 librettists and composers. Led by the NSO and WNO, the multi-year commissioning project has engaged these artists from across the nation to respond to extrajudicial killings that have galvanized the country. Comprising seven works that together create a musical map of these incidents, the commissions premiering during the 50th Anniversary season focus on the road forward on our country’s racial timeline with an emphasis on the concept of “Black Dignity]

It remains to be seen if we will bring back the 20- or 60-minute program, or in what format it would exist going forward. That said, we are very proud of our catalogue of works to date and new works and commissions for early-stage career composers and librettists will surely remain a focus for WNO.”

The creative efforts of the emerging composers and librettists truly deserve a larger audience, and this year’s three new 20-min operas are easily accessible online.  While you wait for Mozart, Puccini, Wagner, and Verdi to return to the stages of re-opening opera houses, and as an interlude from Netflix, I recommend you binge on these three.

The Fan Experience: The AOI three 20-minute operas, originally available through the Kennedy Center “Digital Stage+” for members, are now available to all at this AOI link or more directly at this YouTube link.   The operas are sung in English and closed captioning is available on the feed.  The visual and audio feeds are excellent, and I especially enjoyed the audio using my Air Pods.  WNO anticipates they will remain available through May, 2022.