“It’s a ridiculous thing to sing at the top of your lungs about your vulnerability,” American composer Laura Kaminsky observed to this year’s Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative audience.
So why do it?
It’s a facet of a larger question I have been asked in one fashion or another several times recently–namely, what is opera’s value?
Here’s my own observation: opera has endured for centuries in both the East and West. Despite tensions between traditionalists and innovators, its use as a narrative vehicle replete with stagecraft married to instrumental music continues to evolve. The obvious conclusion is that opera must matter if we bother to keep finding new ways to employ it.
Back to Kaminsky, who as this year’s AOI composition mentor, was making the point that because in opera the voice is so exposed, the music paired with it has to support rather than overpower it. I would add that opera’s relevance is its implicit vulnerability and thus its overt humanity. For all our powers of intellect, we are still creatures of instinct, with one of our strongest instincts being to connect with others. That’s why some of us are willing to stand on a stage and be so exposed, and the rest of us are willing to witness, be moved by, and support it.
The human voice offers a direct route to the heart of an emotion, and emotions are universal. In that way, opera is a binding agent. That’s its value.
By this reasoning, the WNO’s annual commissioning through its AOI of three 20-minute long, semi-staged operas sung exclusively by members of the current class of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, is an important event. The program offers opera-goers the opportunity to collectively but safely emote and reflect on our current American experience. This year’s focus was on the price we pay in exchange for being American.
In Woman of Letters by composer Liliya Ugay and librettist Sokunthary Svay, the price is the threat of loneliness. The immigrant widower, Sam, soulfully sung by bass Samuel J. Weiser, whose education and sense of dignity outstrips his janitorial job at a local university, is stricken with the fear that his sense of rootlessness is soon to be compounded with abandonment when his only child, Sonya, sung by soprano Marlen Nahhas, is accepted to her college of choice overseas.
The story suffers from too little time for the necessary character development to support the opera’s conclusion, but the piece does have some clever inventions. Most salient is its surprising use of opera itself as the necessary “change agent” in the father’s stance on his daughter’s desire to leave home. The work’s most confident and coherent music is given to Sonya’s aspiring opera singer friend, Dara, delightfully sung by soprano Alexandra Nowakowski.
Although there are several lovely passages for strings, the work suffered at times from questionable phrasing, unless the intention was to expose errant syntax in the immigrant family’s speech. More than once, the emphasis was on syllables native American English speakers wouldn’t emphasize. This was particularly evident in Sonya’s lines, which was confusing since logically as a first-generation American, she would have mastered the vernacular. The score also was disappointingly lackluster in the moment when Sonya opens her acceptance letter, an evident mismatch between how Ugay and Svay heard the moment in their respective inner ear.
Admissions, by composer Michael Lanci and librettist Kim Davies, is a comedic opera based on the recent celebrity offspring college admissions scandal. It was the most ambitious of the three pieces on the program, and also the most skillful. As AOI director Robert Ainsley told the audience in between the performances, getting comedy right in opera is no small task. Lanci and Davies, however, expertly exposed the price of having it all with hilarity, and with music and words that matched precisely how so many celebrities talk, while also communicating the false perception of one’s character and worth that wealth and privilege are likely to promote.
In addition to being simultaneously conversational and musical, Admissions also benefitted from an excellent ensemble acting-singing cast. Nahhas superbly affected the self-absorbed and social-media savvy teenaged daughter, tenor Matthew Pearce showed his own comedic chops as her vapid brother, William Meinert lent his lovely lyric bass to the role of the father, and mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms, as the mother, thoughtfully interpreted her lines intended to convince herself that she was the victim, not the perpetrator, of the crime.
Whereas the first two works on the program intimated the price of choosing citizenship and celebrity, composer Carlos Simon and librettist Sandra Seaton’s Night Trip is a poignant look at the price of simply being black in America. The score and book succeeded in ranging an emotional kaleidoscope, with excellent transitions between its moments of exaltation and its moments of despair. The jaunty music and colloquial libretto perfectly reflected the joy of a teenaged black girl leaving her 1950s Chicago home to embark on a nighttime car ride with her two WWII veteran uncles to spend the summer at a family home in Tennessee.
In darker turns, the work also perfectly reflected how in a “Whites Only” world, black Americans have always had to rely on family and community, and how they must always think fast, and act faster, often choosing between their dignity or their survival. The cast not only sang this work with technical grace, but were impressive in their respective ability to communicate what felt like genuinely personal insights into the loss of innocence and power their characters were experiencing in what was the most intimate of the three works.
Conchetta was movingly sung by mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell. Baritone Joshua Conyers showed great pathos as Uncle Wesley. Also excellent was Uncle Mack, sung by tenor Joshua Blue. Baritone Samson McCrady as the integrity-challenged police officer and Pearce as the gas station attendant were both menacing without being caricatures.
WNO dramaturg Kelley Rourke was the librettist mentor for this year’s AOI commissions. All three works were conducted by AOI veteran Anne Manson and directed by WNO veteran Amanda Consol. Another WNO veteran, Laura R. Krause, was stage manager for all three works, with lighting by A.J. Guban. The cover conductor was Ken Weiss.
The Washington National Opera’s 2020 American Opera Initiative was heard in two performances on Friday, January 10, 2020, at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. For tickets to future WNO performances at The Kennedy Center, go online.