American Opera Initiative 2015: A mixed bag of mini-operas

American Opera Initiative 2015: A mixed bag of mini-operas

The 2015 edition of the Washington National Opera’s 20-minute opera series debuted a trio of uneven new works sometimes weighed down by overly-academic libretti.

WNO's cast invites us to order a 20-minute delivery pizza from Pizza Queen in Sarah Hutchings' and Mark Sonnenblick's "Twenty Minutes or Less." (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)

WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2015 – As with any contemporary new music series, the short opera edition of the Washington National Opera’s (WNO) American Opera Initiative can prove to be a mixed bag. That was certainly the case Wednesday during the 2015 edition of this now-annual WNO event, which is held each year around this time in the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater.

Yet this is to be expected in an initiative such as this, which encourages new excursions into the complex world of opera by writers and composers who’ve never worked in this difficult genre before.

Read also: Bloody Politics 2014: WNO’s new 20-minute American operas

Happily for WNO, the public’s interest in this venture seems to be on the increase. Now in its fourth year, The Initiative’s latest 20-minute opera program attracted enough of an audience Wednesday evening that the company added a second performance later that same evening: a significant first.

One thing is guaranteed for each performance: You never know what will happen.

Here’s a rundown on this year’s slate of new mini-operas listed by title in the order they were performed on Wednesday:

“Twenty Minutes or Less” by Sarah Hutchings and Mark Sonnenblick.

Synopsis: A night of nights at the Pizza Queen for a new employee who’s worried about fitting in, doing the job right and finding a place in the human cosmos. (Cast pictured above.)

Comedy has often proved a winning path for WNO’s new libretto teams, and from its outset, “Twenty Minutes or Less” seemed to be shaping up along these lines.

Dressed up in very Pizza Hut-like outfits, WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz-centric cast quickly created the initial scenario in which a somewhat confused new employee-trainee Osha (Daryl Freedman) gets an overload of rules and information from the local outlet’s party-line manager, Candice (Rachel González).

Adding to the initial sense of fun, the chorus of “Pizza Queens” (Rexford Tester and Mandy Brown) launch into a spirited version of the company’s cute but trite commercial jingle at the least provocation. (It’s actually the best bit in this opera.) But there’s darkness afoot in pizza paradise.

The sullen Damian (Timothy J. Bruno) keeps raining on everyone’s positive parade. À la former U.S. Veep Spiro T. Agnew, Damian is a veritable nattering nabob of negativism, contributing his own nasty counter-story, unfavorably comparing both the product and the working conditions of a popular local pizza joint with what Pizza Queen is offering.

The inevitable complications ensue when the local Pizza Queen personnel learn they’re about to be snap-evaluated by the company’s hypercritical CEO, who has just ordered a pizza. It’s at this point, however, that this useful comic story line gets lost by traveling to another dimension.

Driving frantically across town to deliver an increasingly ill-fated pizza to the Ultimate Boss, Osha gets lost in the dark recesses of her own mind as she examines her own troubled past and ponders her eventual fate in the universe to the point where she (apparently) runs over her local manager.

Sarah Hutchings has composed a reasonably good score for this story, one that really comes to life during the satirical pizza jingle yet sometimes becomes murky elsewhere in the opera.

But the problem Ms. Hutchings faces here, it would seem, is her partner Mark Sonnenblick’s wandering libretto, in which a story that starts out as a problem comedy suddenly transforms into a psychodrama involving cosmic theories of life, meaning and everything. Color us dense, but we genuinely lost the track of where this story was going once Osha got into the car. Comedy? Tragicomedy? Or an existential trick in which comedy somehow does a sudden 180 into tragedy?

It’s not so much that a shift like this is tough for an audience to follow. Linear plotlines, particularly in films, are no longer as common as they once were and audiences have adapted to this. But in an opera a short as 20 minutes, we don’t think there’s time to flesh out such a shift. As a result, both plot and music lose their way in an indistinct conclusion.

In David Clay Mettens' and Joshua McGuire's "Alexandra," the title character (Leah Hawkins) embarks on a virtual time-traveling expedition via a mysterious book. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)
In David Clay Mettens’ and Joshua McGuire’s “Alexandra,” the title character (Leah Hawkins) embarks on a virtual time-traveling expedition via a mysterious book. (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)

“Alexandra” by David Clay Mettens and Joshua McGuire.

Synopsis: A young widow tries to return a stolen library book once liberated by her now-deceased husband. But instead she confronts the keys to a possible time warp accessed via the book. Should she follow her husband’s wishes and return the book. Or would keeping it lead to a different kind of conclusion?

Unfortunately, “Alexandra” seems to share similar plotting issues with “Twenty Minutes or Less.” As we’ve just noted, the title character (Leah Hawkins) is a deeply saddened and perhaps depressed young widow carrying out the seemingly trivial final request of her deceased husband to return a way-overdue library book.

Does "Alexandra" have anything to do with the vintage computer game "Myst" (library scene here) or the made-for-TV "Librarian" movies? (Image via Wikipedia)
Does “Alexandra” have anything to do with the vintage computer game “Myst” (library scene here) or the made-for-TV “Librarian” movies? (Image via Wikipedia)

But in the process, Alexandra somehow unlocks a literally parallel universe, discovering a story involving the very book she’s holding that unfolded somewhere around the outset of World War II. With the book and its marginal note supplying clues to a puzzle, Alexandra somehow accesses an ill-fated wartime gay romance involving Alex (Michael Brandenburg) and Ray (Wei Wu), a GI who’s about to head off to war.

Unfortunately, unlike “Twenty Minutes,” whose story is initially accessible, the plot of “Alexandra” seems confused from the outset. The opera’s time-travel story line initially reminded us of “Myst,” a wildly popular, initially Macintosh-only computer adventure-puzzle game from the early 1990s. Its plot was advanced by means of a linking book that took the player to different “ages” and “worlds” in search of a logical solution. The plot may also have been influenced by “The Librarian” series of TV films.

“Alexandra” plays out somewhat like “Myst,” except that the fantasy element (if it exists) is replaced by a more down-to-earth Hercule Poirot-style detective puzzle that, via penciled in marginal annotations, leads the searcher to other books containing additional notes and clues.

Once again, however, it’s never clear where we’re going. Is the whole point to allow Alexandra some closure on a tragic event? Is it to follow the narrative of a forbidden 1940s romance? Is there a clear connection between Alexandra and Alex? Is Alexandra’s dead husband somehow involved with all this? Joshua McGuire’s libretto is apparently intended to leave us to our own conclusions, but we don’t actually get much to work with.

As in “Twenty Minutes,” the composer’s music—in this case, from the pen of David Clay Mettens—must once again grapple with difficult and often indistinct characters and plotlines. Indeed, it’s the pair of 1940s characters that seems most fully realized in the libretto. They, not surprisingly, get more distinct music to sing than does Alexandra.

Yet throughout it all, we were never quite certain what everything was really all about.

Dallas (Rexford Tester) holds forth on the virtues of food and service while Beau (Hunter Enoch) squirms and Autumn (Daryl Freedman) only lives for her smartphone in Christopher Weiss' and John de los Santos' fascinating "Service Provider." (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)
Dallas (Rexford Tester) holds forth on the virtues of food and service while Beau (Hunter Enoch) squirms and Autumn (Daryl Freedman) only lives for her smartphone in Christopher Weiss’ and John de los Santos’ fascinating “Service Provider.” (Credit: Scott Suchman for WNO)

“Service Provider” by Christopher Weiss and John de los Santos.

Synopsis: A modern comedy in which the marriage of a young couple competes with the omnipresence of mobile communications technology during their anniversary dinner.

Of the three short operas premiered this past Wednesday, “Service Provider” was for us at least the most fully realized in terms of plot, character, action and music.

The first thing this little opera had going for it was its painfully recognizable plot device: the addiction of a key character… no, the symbiosis between a key character, Autumn, and her omnipresent smartphone.

In celebration of their third anniversary as a married couple, Beau (Hunter Enoch) has taken his wife Autumn (Daryl Freedman) to dinner at a fancy restaurant they’ve both apparently enjoyed before. But a big problem in their relationship becomes obvious almost from the start.

Whether it’s Tweets, emails, Instagrams or emoticons, Autumn seems physically conjoined with her smartphone, casually and thoughtlessly interrupting a supposedly romantic occasion again and again by giving primacy to whatever garbage demands her immediate response. Beau’s justifiable irritation continues to grow.

It’s at this point that librettist John de los Santos’ sophisticated and efficient narrative really takes off, as two more key characters are introduced: Dallas (Rexford Tester), the skilled, talented but condescending waiter and a sexy single diner named Charlene (Mandy Brown).

It doesn’t take us long to figure out that even more marital pain is on the way, as it quickly becomes clear that the frustrated Beau is having a secret fling with Christine. The latter, however, has arrived at the same time specifically to bring this issue to a head. At the same time, Dallas himself chooses to become even more intrusive, resenting the fact that all this marital discord is distracting his patrons from his chef’s all-important creations.

It’s a testament to Mr. de los Santos’ skill that he’s able to compact this all-too-familiar urban tale—including its additional complications—into a functional and satisfying plot. While his characters are a bit of a cliché, this is intentional as we’re dealing with a well-crafted satire in this opera and not simply a standard story line.

But Mr. de lost Santos also contributes in two additional key areas. In a short period of time, he crisply and efficiently defines each character, while piling on additional characters and complications so quickly and efficiently that he’s able to bring his story quickly to the boiling point leading to a decisive climax and a satisfying denouement. He also provides efficient dialogue and verse forms with plenty of vowels, giving composer-collaborator Christopher Weiss a load of great musical material to work with.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Weiss was in turn inspired to provide the snappiest, most sharply defined music of the evening, helping flesh out the opera’s characters and providing the best single set piece of the night in which Dallas—in rapid-patter Gilbert & Sullivan mode—delivers a hymn of praise to food, to his chef and to his superior tableside skills. As astonishing as it is funny, it’s written, composed and sung like a mini-version of Figaro’s famous aria, “Largo al factotum.”


Of the three mini-operas presented Wednesday, it’s clear at least to this reviewer that “Service Provider” comes the closest by far in terms of being ready for prime time.

Both “Twenty Minutes” and “Alexandra” have their moments. But in the end, plot, pace, character and ultimately musical ideas in these operas succumb to libretti that seem trapped in the realm of academic theory. Real-world musical theater favors a more direct approach to story, music and audience.

That’s why the well-written, well-crafted “Service Provider” seemed to work out best on Wednesday evening. Neither its story nor its hair-trigger characters ever flag; its instantly recognizable narrative remains humorously on target; the opera’s pace has a way of auto-accelerating right on schedule; and perhaps most important, its score pumps up and defines each character and defines each plot twist in a way that proved satisfying to Wednesday’s large and appreciative 7 p.m. audience.

With regard to the performances themselves, as always, WNO’s fine young cast did a great job working with brand new (and perhaps still in-progress) material, and the on-stage chamber orchestra under the baton of John DeMain gave a solid reading for each opera as well. Congratulations to all, and the best of luck to all three teams.


Coming up for the Washington National Opera: WNO’s annual Christmas opera—a revival this year of the company’s charming production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel” (Dec. 12-20); American Opera Initiative Part 2: the world premiere of Luna Pearl Woolf’s and Caitlin Vincent’s “Better Gods,” a story of Queen Liliuokalani, the last reigning monarch of Hawaii (Jan. 8-9, 2016); the first-ever WNO performances of Kurt Weill’s last stage work, “Lost in the Stars,” based on Alan Paton’s “Cry the Beloved Country” (Feb. 12-20); and, starting April 30, 2016, WNO’s long-awaited complete “American Ring” cycle. For additional information and to purchase tickets, visit WNO’s Kennedy Center Website.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17