At WNO’s American Opera Initiative, three glimpses into the future

At WNO’s American Opera Initiative, three glimpses into the future

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On Friday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, three new operas took their first steps as part of the American Opera Initiative (AOI), the Washington National Opera’s enduring incubator program for young teams of composers and librettists.

Under the guidance of three mentors — conductor David Bloom, playwright and librettist Deborah Brevoort, and composer (and AOI alumnus) Kamala Sankaram — the creative duos are tasked with turning one year of work into 20 minutes of opera. This is no small challenge on two fronts. For one, fully staged operas can require several years of development before they even graze a stage. For another, 20 minutes of time has all the flexibility of an iron bar — bending it into a narrative arc is nothing short of a feat of strength.

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These are, to be sure, works in progress; and reviewing them feels a bit like reviewing bites of cookie dough (an assignment I would also be okay with). Who knows how they’ll come out?

As test kitchens go, the AOI has a strong track record. Now in its 11th season, the initiative has commissioned over 40 operas and mentored dozens of creative teams, more than half of whom continue to work together. Damien Geter and Lila Palmer’s “American Apollo,” for instance, first emerged as a short for AOI in 2021 and will receive its fully-staged world premiere by Des Moines Metro Opera this July.

And while the lightning-round approach to opera taken by AOI produces mixed results each year, that’s sort of the point: Ideas set loose in these operas often seem like the products of either deep personal memories or flashes of sudden inspiration. They have a snapshot energy in an art form that most often must endure the slow dry of an oil painting.

But, like a snapshot, short operas produced in a rush can also conspicuously lack the very elements that make opera work: artful framing, comprehensive orchestration, and the time it takes to replace one reality with another.

With a strong ensemble of singers from the Cafritz Young Artist Program singing the roles, and 13 players from the Washington National Opera Orchestra supplying the music from onstage, each of these short operas admirably managed to surmount the roughness and draftiness of a rough draft.

With “A Way Forward,” composer Laura Jobin-Acosta and librettist José Alba Rodríguez capture the crisis point of the family behind Panaderia Gabriel — a Mexican bakery in Queens, specializing in conchas and facing imminent foreclosure. Appropriately, it’s a tale told with warmth and sweetness, even if its attempt to weave a multigenerational tapestry comes off a bit like hurried knitting.

Mezzo-soprano Winona Martin and soprano Kresley Figueroa whipped up instantly convincing chemistry as abuelita Helena and her distractible granddaughter Julia — Rodríguez’s lithe lines effectively threading long traditions through simple details (“Flour! Water! Butter! Cinnamon!”). The sturdy bass of Sergio Martínez served the financially stressed patriarch Gabriel well, despite the character’s sole emotional note as he strives to update the bakery with organic fruit juice, imported coffee, and touch screen menus.

Rodríguez suffuses his libretto with lovely detail and realism. And while some of the poetry was perplexing (“Your hand moves are in my blood”) and some of the expression wooden (“If we use social media, the word will spread!”), and while the characters sometimes felt more like avatars of motive than examples of people, Jobin-Acosta’s music bestowed an ease and vivacity that made the inner lives of the family easily accessible. “A Way Forward” could be a revelatory treat, given a bit more time to proof.

I was especially moved by “Hairpiece,” a smartly-situated study of otherness from composer Joy Redmond and librettist Sam Norman. Centered around the midtown Manhattan shop of veteran wig maker Esther, the story follows her encounter with 21-year-old Ari, an “aspiring artist questioning their gender and much else,” and the latter’s encounter with the widower Gale, “a young man wrecked by grief and early hair loss.”

Hair becomes the connective thread that intertwines the characters: Ari, splendidly and sensitively voiced by tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes, sports a cheap mop of bubblegum pink. Gale, compassionately embodied by baritone Justin Burgess, dons a tragic rug. And Esther, sung by the standout soprano Tiffany Choe, tends to an exquisite $5,000 masterpiece on her workbench. In the hands of this trio, hair becomes a material of access, identity, desire and dignity.

Somehow, Redmond and Norman keep a multitude of emotional and melodic themes from tangling up in knots. Choe’s opening aria “To Make a Wig” was a bracing introduction to Redmond’s music and Norman’s poetry — each well-paced and keenly sharpened. Redmond is especially good at capturing the uncertain energy between strangers, a tension suspended in long lines of woodwind, blinks of piano, nervous pulses of percussion. And she’s a stunning singer, nimble and controlled.

And despite the heavy emotional stakes at play, the opera — brief as it was — was buoyed by a welcome lightness and a hopeful note. “Hairpiece” has great potential to tell a grander story about the many ways we become ourselves. Color me teased.

But the highlight of the evening was its centerpiece, “Forever” — quite easily the strangest opera I’ve ever seen. Rather than dig into humanity for material, composer Elizabeth Gartman and librettist Melisa Tien dispose of it altogether, opting instead for a world populated by humanistic petrochemicals and tenacious microorganisms.

Thus, “Forever” stages a meet-cute of sorts at an abandoned superfund site between two star-crossed polyfluoroalkyl substances — one derived from an Applebee’s Quesadilla Burger Wrapper (soprano Teresa Perrotta), the other left over from an Apple Watch Ultra Wristband (tenor Sahel Salam). Into this solution enters a temptress Tardigrade (contralto Cecelia McKinley), the last of her kind, who threatens their budding love by luring one of the polyfluoroalkyl substances into a crater of liquid mercury. We’ve all been there.

Provided the apocalypse doesn’t arrive first, a wave of post-apocalyptic opera is currently approaching. In a production at 2023’s experimental Prototype Festival, Gelsey Bell’s “mɔɹnɪŋ [morning//mourning]” recently explored “a world in which all humans have disappeared from Earth.” And this month’s installment of Prototype featured the premiere of Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s “Chornobyldorf,” an opera in which “the remaining descendants of humanity find themselves in a post-societal world following the death of capitalism, opera, and philosophy.”

But Gartman and Tien’s approach to the end of days is refreshingly absurd and giddy with whimsy. Musically, “Forever” feels composed from the wreckage of the world it leaves behind — especially a portentous jingle that feels like a curse on the human folly of microplastics: “Plastic makes the world go round / everywhere it can be found / Fertilizer, hats, shampoo / Even deep inside of you.”

As the three elements work to bond and discover a new mode of … polymer-amory (?), a new idea of what opera can do is quietly affirmed in “Forever.” Even when all might be lost in a hopeless desert of lifeless toxic sludge, the future feels bright.

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