Bloody politics 2014: WNO’s new 20-minute American operas

Daughters of the Bloody Duke.
Jacqueline Echols, Patrick O'Halloran and Kerriann Otano in The Washington National Opera's production of "Daughters of the Bloody Duke." (Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2014 – The Washington National Opera’s plucky American Opera Initiative continued at the Kennedy Center last Friday, unveiling its now customary late autumn trio of brand new, never-before-performed mini-operas. As with previous editions, this year’s short program featured chamber/concert opera performances of the winning entries in 2014’s 20-minute opera competition, featuring the young singers in WNO’s Cafritz-Domingo Young Artists program in each opera’s roles.

The idea behind this portion of the Initiative is to encourage teams of younger composers and librettists to make a foray into the difficult world of contemporary opera by expertly mentoring them through the creation, rehearsal and performance of new short operas. Subject matter, libretto and compositional form and technique are up to each team. The main stipulation in this program is that the subject matter of each short work must be American-themed.

The eventual aim (and hope) is that at least some team members will use the experience gained here later on to create significant new operas that draw upon uniquely American history, mythology, politics and social interactions.

A brief recap of this year’s short operas: the first two focused on socio-political themes and were fitfully successful. The third and most notable was a wildly out-of-control horror-satire on nearly everything pervading contemporary American pop culture.

The Investment

First up on the program was “The Investment,” a short trip into the unpredictably intense complexities of ethnic politics as they unfold in a country that—on paper at least—was founded primarily on a rational, Age of Enlightenment ideal rather than on tribal loyalties.

The Investment. (opera)
“The Investment.” L-R: Alexandra Christoforakis, Raquel Gonzaelz, Aleksandra Romano. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Composer John Liberatore and librettist Niloufar Talebi set this intellectual excursion in which a wealthy art patron has commissioned a painting by a well-known and highly regarded artist. In this case, the wealthy art patron, his wife and the painter are all Iranian immigrants who’ve done well in their adopted country, having departed post-Shah Iran—presumably under some duress—some time after Ayatollah Khomeini and his Revolutionary Guards fundamentally transformed that still unhappy country.

Most native-born American citizens would presume this trio of Iranians and their families fled their own country due to serious political and religious opposition to the current dictatorial regime. But in “The Investment,” the audience gets a peek inside the tent of a conflict that defies easy definitions. Our paterfamilias art patron takes serious issue with the artist’s religious and political sympathies as portrayed in her painting.

Further, as women, both the artist and the patron’s wife are clearly expected to bow to his wishes. Having already experienced the freedom of being American women, however, neither is prepared to knuckle under without a fight.

“The Investment,” might have been better as a short story than as a short opera. The sophisticated arguments at the core of this story are a bit cerebral. There is potential depth here, but a 20-minute opera format can only graze the surface. Given the length requirement, the opera’s characters become types rather than fully developed human beings. The format itself prohibits the larger story and characters from being developed more fully.

An additional issue here is the plain English language of the libretto itself. There was a time in opera when one experienced more art, more poetry in the text, which, in turn, lent greater substance and meaning to the music. This libretto, as has been the case with several in this now 3-year program, generally employs everyday American English to tell the story, resulting in a literally prosaic storyboard.

None of this is the direct fault of “The Investment’s” librettist. Ms. Talebi is operating within the milieu she’s been handed and one that even today is fairly rigorously enforced in academia where what remains of American poetic tradition or lack thereof has gone to live out its days. Her libretto is incisive, understated, concise, and loaded with layers of meaning. Lacking traditional metrics, when set to music the words do not dance.

Mr. Liberatore’s music does succeed in putting some life into the libretto’s social argument. But even here, we still sense some need for academic approval by this creative team when it’s audience approval contemporary classical composers and librettists should be seeking.

Perhaps both composer and librettist will want to revisit this vehicle some time in the future to create something larger where they can stretch out their ideas, their words, their characters and their music to focus on a compelling story with significant implications for our own time.

An American Man

The second short opera on the program, “An American Man,” by the team of Rene Orth and Jason Kim, was, perhaps, more direct than “The Investment,” but had similar issues. The overall theme in this work could be summed up in two very Washingtonian words: “spin control.”

"An American Man" (opera)
It’s cynical politics as usual in “An American Man.” L-R: Michael Brandenburg, Aleksandra Romano. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

The plot here comes right out of the daily newspaper—or, in 2014, its online equivalent. An ambitious man running for office is suddenly horrified that his late father’s sexually sordid past will be unearthed and used by the press and by his political enemies to destroy his candidacy. This leads him to a Hamlet-like moment. Does he try to bury the story, get out in front of it, or, even more creatively, use it to extol his own virtue?

His young aide encourages bold deception, while his conflicted sister is horrified at the whole amoral scene. It’s a good story, really, and one that no Washingtonian can fail to recognize, sadly, as business as usual in this town.

We’re left at the end having to deal with the moral dilemma on our own, which is actually the aim of good literature. But is this good opera? Hard to say.

Again, like “Investment,” the libretto is prosaic, although it does contain brief flashes of what amounts to political poetry—those high-flown yet meaningless phrases that sound good but mean nothing. The music tracks pretty well with the words—purposely self-important, delusionary, with occasional, acidic musical references to the false patriotism that’s the chief stock-in-trade of today’s retail politicians.

But again, in the end, development is limited by the short form. The politician, the aide and the sister remain two-dimensional characters in search of more room to spread out. So, like “Investment,” we have a good idea here that’s limited by form and length. It’s a detriment in the shorter form, but demonstrates some promise in a conjectural longer work that might flesh out its form.

Daughters of the Bloody Duke

The final effort on last week’s program, “Daughters of the Bloody Duke,” was both the most rewarding of these three efforts and the only comedy on the bill. The fact that it was the most energetic and appealing of the three short operas could perhaps be attributed to the fact that comedy often goes down easier than straight drama or tragedy.

That observation aside, however, “Bloody Duke” gets a big thumbs-up here because composer Jake Runestad and librettist David Johnson took their “American” theme in an entirely different and unexpected direction. While many current and past efforts in this WNO program earnestly reach for high seriousness, given the perceived sense of the operatic form, the Runestad-Johnson team decided to deploy comedy and satire in a sendup of both mythic and popular American culture.

We should state at the outset that if there’s anything America needs right now, it’s a heavy and continuous dose of political- and entertainment-oriented satire. The U.S. has become a living, breathing arena of theater-of-the-absurd. Why few in the artistic world (aside from the creators of TV’s “South Park”) choose to confront this mother lode of possibilities has long puzzled us.

"Daughters of the Bloody Duke." (opera)
Will she complete dad’s murderous mission? “Daughters of the Bloody Duke,” Kerriann Otano, Patrick O’Halloran. (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Perhaps Mr. Runestad and Mr. Johnson were sensing this void when they brewed up their highly effective 20 minutes of madcap musical mayhem. Removing themselves from politics, history and class structure, Runestad-Johnson focused their satirical laser beam instead on America’s continuing love affair with horror, blood and gore, primarily in the world of film but touching other quadrants as well, including literary horror.

From the early 1930s film versions of “Dracula” (with Bela Lugosi) and “Frankenstein” (with Boris Karloff), Americans have never been able to get enough of the horror genre in their entertainments. Early horror films were based on medieval myths, evolving in the 1970s and 1980s into an equal fascination with mass murder, the more blood and guts the better. Why else would the mass audience flock to “Halloween CCI” or “Friday the 13th MM”?

Glomming onto this fascination, librettist David Johnson also ranges to and fro, pulling in additional references and antecedents including the sense and sensibilities of (perhaps) Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle,” gothic “bodice-ripper” novels, “The Rocky Horror Show” and—(are we pushing this?)—“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

The plot—such as it is—of this crazyquilt opera involves the mass-marriage of 40 sons of one nobleman to the 40 daughters of another, the opera’s eponymous and notoriously murderous “Bloody Duke.” The objective, as we soon learn, is that once comfortably ensconced in a cocoon of married bliss, the Duke’s daughters are to wreak horrific vengeance by dispatching all 40 of their hapless husbands.

Logistics aside—(how many wives, mistresses and/or concubines did it take these royal dudes to sire so many sons and daughters?)—this story goes over the top from the initial downbeat. Mixing colloquial narrative, metrical rhymes and ditties reaching back to traditional poetry and blank verse, Mr. Johnson goes all “South Park” on both the horror genre and the operatic format.

In turn, he creates such a tempting literary skeleton for composer Jake Runestad that he, too, jumps out of classical music’s academic prison, creating a score perfectly tailored to support his librettist’s humorous hallucinations. Indulging in all manner of musical styles, the composer takes the libretto and, in the words of the late Frank Zappa, “puts the eyebrows on it,” right down to fleeting riffs on themes from “Psycho” and “Jaws.”

Instead of seven sappy brothers, we get a total of 40 clueless oafs ripe not so much for marriage as they are for slaughter. No “Sobbin’ Women” here either. Each murderous bride is a psycho in her own right, save perhaps for one, our anti-heroine, who sort of likes her lovably gullible lunk. Egged on by her drunken sister and challenged by the ghost of her bizarre grandma, her dithering provides most of the ammunition for this rollicking little production. It’s a musical three-ring circus.

Both composer and librettist are acutely aware of various operatic and horror memes and conventions, particularly those that attract American audiences. With a firm grasp of mythic and popular culture, “Bloody Duke” throws it all back at the audience, making us laugh at the show and at ourselves.

All three of this year’s 20-minute opera offerings are good beginnings, which is the whole idea behind WNO’s interesting American Opera Initiative. But of the three, it’s just possible to imagine that “Bloody Duke” could be picked up by a talented community or high school musical theater troupe as an entry in one of hundreds of one-act play competitions held annually in this country.

More importantly, should Mr. Runestad and Mr. Johnson wish to develop this idea—or a similar one—into something more substantial, we think they just might have the chops to pull it off.


Next on tap at the Washington National Opera: The company’s Christmas production of Rachel Portman’s 2003 family opera, “The Little Prince,” based on the cherished fairy-tale story by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. December 19, 20 and 21 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. Tickets are a modest $49-75 although we see that they are already scarce. Link to the WNO website here for details, or call 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

The America Opera Initiative, Part II, resurfaces in the new year with another hour-long world premiere opera entitled “Penny.” WNO’s website tells us that the opera is the story of “a woman with a disability who discovers her talent for music, and the ensuing conflict with her family as she changes and grows more independent.” Significantly, “Penny” is a new work by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg, whose 20-minute opera “A Game of Hearts” was first performed here in 2012, leading to this commission. Dates are January 23 and 24, 2015 and both performances are in the KenCen’s Terrace Theater. Tickets are $32 for all seats. Link to the “Penny” page in WNO’s section of the Kennedy Center website for details and to purchase tickets, or call 800-444-1324 or 202-467-4600.

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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