WASHINGTON, January 22, 2017 – In addition to its annual trio of newly-commissioned 20-minute operas, the Washington National Opera’s (WNO’s) evolving American Opera Initiative Festival also presents a yearly world premiere of a brand new one hour, one act opera by new or rising American composers. This year’s offering — debuting last weekend with a pair of performances at the Kennedy Center Family Theater — was entitled “The Dictator’s Wife,” with music penned by composer Mohammed Fairouz and lyrics by librettist Mohammed Hanif.
The aim of WNO’s initiative is to encourage American composers and librettists to get involved in writing and composing new American operas on American themes, whether historical, political, moral or philosophical. As was abundantly clear in last week’s debut performances, “The Dictator’s Wife” certainly fit this objective.
Billed in the program as a satire aimed at “a world filled with political, social, racial, and economic conflict,” Fairouz’ and Hanif’s new short opera—based on a stage play of the same name by the librettist—takes us to an unnamed, apparently third-world country that, in some ways, also reflects our own. This country is run by a dictator we never actually get to see, given that he generally rules from his throne—a porcelain throne to be specific—located in an adjacent room offstage.
Given the dictator’s peculiar and secretive habits, we learn about his country and its politics primarily through the words, thoughts and actions of its actual central character, the country’s First Lady (mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita), the opera’s eponymous “Dictator’s Wife.”
Other characters in the opera include the First Lady’s Aide-de-camp (baritone Hunter Enoch), her political advisor/PR guru Ms. Holy (soprano Ariana Wehr), and a trio of mostly but not entirely consistent protestors: an impoverished mom who pursues economic salvation by trying to sell her children (soprano Leah Hawkins), a boisterous, one-issue man who only lives for cheaper fuel prices (tenor Rexford Tester), and a gloomy father who’s trying to save his AWOL former-soldier son from execution (bass Timothy J. Bruno).
The score for this opera is eclectic and inventive, somewhat typical for this stage in American opera and classical music development. This is an era where younger American composers, looking to regain the audience hard-edged modernists lost in the last century, are working to unite the disparate elements of classicism, romanticism, modernism, jazz, and even a bit of rock to come up with a style of music that will appeal to a greater cross section of listeners.
In this, Fairouz’ score generally succeeds, although the massing of the accompanying chamber orchestra—heavy with percussion—does occasionally succeed in drowning out the singers.
The satirical elements of the opera are fitfully successful as well, particularly when it comes to the periodic appearances of a trio of protestors who pop up at discreet intervals, roaming through the theater and occasionally accosting audience members to voice their various grievances.
The protestors’ wildly dis-unified causes in and of themselves, while bizarre, are also typical of contemporary demonstrators who can always find something to complain about, but their causes range from bizarre to poignant, characterized at times by an illogic that somehow seems logical. The best example of this is the mother who’s trying to sell her children as a way of regaining solvency. Logically, that’s a good choice—for her. She’ll get the cash she needs, plus, she’ll no longer have to spend money to support her kids. The morality of her approach, however, is another thing entirely.
The pro-cheap-petrol protestor takes a similar path. He’s the kind of single-issue guy who’s willing to support a candidate favoring his pet issue, regardless of whatever nefarious issues that candidate may represent.
The disgruntled dad is less funny and more real, as he tries to save his wayward son from the fatal consequences of the bad choices he’s made. This periodic episode draws attention to the unpredictable vagaries of war, where accepted values and pieties can be and are turned upside down in a battle for survival.
Perhaps the most amusing placard carried in these various protests is the one denouncing war on one side and supporting it on the other. It’s flipped from side to side as the occasion seems to warrant, a poke at the obvious mindlessness of so many demonstrators today.
The character of Ms. Holy is betrayed by her name. Ostensibly an advisor to the First Lady, she’s actually a political hack, a Washington-style spinmeister who reinvents and reshapes “truth” on the sly, the better to co-opt and bamboozle the ignorant masses.
But the demonstrators are meant to highlight a buffet of modern grievances highlighting just how out of touch the Dictator’s government is with what’s left of the will of the people. This gets to the dramatic core of this little opera. The Dictator’s glamorous but obviously disaffected wife is well aware of what’s going on and quietly resolves to do something about it, leading to the opera’s climax.
One’s initial impression is that the First Lady is modeled somewhat on the late, iconic former first lady of Argentina, Eva Peron. But one would be wrong.
While Evita was perhaps an early inspiration for this character, as she’s currently drawn, this haughty, glamorous First Lady, costumed in simple and sexy white dresses of varying length, seems very much to be a stand-in for Melania Trump.
But that’s just a start. As we watched this opera unfold over its allotted hour, what initially appeared to be a musical drama set in some anonymous third-world country was, in fact, a fairly heavy-handed satire on our own system and particularly on our new 45th President, Donald Trump. Both music and occasional lyrics broadly hinted at this, to the point where this opera began to feel more like propaganda than satire.
Our suspicious were more than confirmed during the post-opera Q&A session, featuring, among others, WNO’s artistic director Francesca Zambello and the composer, Mohammed Fairouz. Fairouz proved to be his own worst enemy in this illuminating Q&A round, heartily confirming his anti-Donald Trump angle while talking up a storm and pretty much taking the stage away from the other participants despite Francesca Zambello’s valiant and appreciated attempts at diplomacy
Again and again, Fairouz skipped no chance at denouncing Trump, et. al. in no uncertain terms. He essentially claimed that this had been his aim for the opera from the beginning, even before Trump took the brass ring in last fall’s presidential contest. However, it seemed clear to this reviewer that what had started out, perhaps, as a more general political satire had been continually revised to become even more pointed and Trump-centric as the day of the performance approached.
That leads us to the very real problem with this opera and with the arts in general in this century. There is a difference between artistic satire and propaganda. Artistic satire is high art that also serves as a biting and humorous metaphor for something else. Propaganda is unvarnished, ideologically-based political preaching that tells rather than shows, and, as in this opera, offers little humor aside from the moments we’ve already discussed.
In the case of “The Dictator’s Wife,” the composer at some point crossed the line and let his rage—valid or not—get the better of his art. This has become a near universal problem in today’s artistic world where, as in so many other venues, the personal has become the political.
Novels, paintings, movies and TV shows, plays, music, dance—all these are increasingly being made subservient to a single political outlook which, at least in this country, are not shared by the majority of the populace. All the propaganda, rage and vulgarity is becoming tiresome in its predictability, and audiences that don’t feel like paying to spend an hour—or two or three—getting hectored, lectured or simply yelled at are going to learn to stay away.
We’ll have more to say about this alarming phenomenon in a future, separate column. As for this year’s new WNO opera debut, “The Dictator’s Wife,” on balance, fails as a work of art, perhaps because that was never the composer’s intention in the first place. This new opera condescends to the audience with vulgarity, mean-spiritedness and a strong tendency to preach a hackneyed party line.
WNO’s American Opera Initiative is a unique and welcome program that aims to help promising American composers and librettists showcase a new short opera at a prestigious venue in the nation’s capital city. It’s unfortunate that Mohammed Fairouz and his librettist betrayed the company with this hour of worn-out propaganda.
On the bright side, WNO’s cast of Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists turned in sterling performances, certainly offering proof that many of them will go on to rewarding operatic careers. Mezzo-soprano Allegra De Vita in particular was excellent in her key role as First Lady. Her clear and forceful voice radiated a paradoxically icy passion every time her regal character took the stage.
Another plus: Under the baton of conductor Nicole Paiement, the accompanying WNO chamber ensemble supported the singers with a crisp, occasionally sharp performance, becoming a key part of the narrative element.
Rating: * (One out of four stars)