WNO scores quiet success with its shiny new ‘Penny’

World premiere of Douglas Pew’s and Dara Weinberg’s one-act opera treats the uncomfortable subject of autism with dignity, hope and a touch of humor.

Cast of WNO's world premiere opera
Cast of WNO's world premiere opera "Penny" at the Terrace Theater. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2015 – The Washington National Opera (WNO) staged its third annual one-act opera world premiere event this past weekend at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, unveiling “Penny,” a brand new, one-hour long work by composer Douglas Pew and librettist Dara Weinberg.

Created under the auspices of WNO’s American Opera Initiative, “Penny” packs quite a lot of drama, music and an unexpected touch of humor into its brief running time. The happy result is a surprisingly successful short opera that somehow manages to involve us sympathetically in the life of its initially inscrutable and slightly spooky central character.

"Penny" composer Doublas Pew (L) and librettist Dara Weinberg (R).
“Penny” composer Doublas Pew (L) and librettist Dara Weinberg (R). (Photo courtesy of Washington National Opera)

Penny Rutherford (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel) is an autistic woman who has never lived on her own and apparently cannot or will not speak to her caregivers. Prior to the opera’s opening bars, we learn she’s lived with her uncle after the death of her mother, until he, too passes away.

Now it’s the turn of her officious sister Katherine Tate (soprano Kerriann Otaño) to take over as caregiver, something not much appreciated by her sister’s bitter, one-time pianist husband Gary (baritone Trevor Scheunemann), a proud artist who’s been forced to shelve his career due to an injury that sounds a lot like carpal tunnel syndrome.

As one might expect, Penny doesn’t react well to this change of venue, grunting or groaning as her only response to queries, effectively shutting everyone out of her space.

Making matters worse, social pressure begins to escalate for Penny and we soon find out, at least in part, the big reason why. She’s inherited $600K—likely in a trust fund—intended to cover the cost of her continuing care, and that money is a tempting target.

Her sister’s husband is eager to use at least some of it to pay for corrective surgery he can’t afford. Meanwhile, her crisp caseworker Jaeson Shaw (bass Wei Wu) seems a bit too eager to land Penny—and her fortune—for an area continuing care institution. And last but not least, a sunny associate of her brother-in-law named Raymond Fasten (tenor Patrick O’Halloran) wants to latch onto Penny for entirely different and seemingly more benign reasons.

Confused and frightened, Penny can only turn to the ghost of her Uncle Martin (baritone James Shaffran) for advice—advice that leads to a surprising conclusion.

“Penny’s” composer-librettist team scored a mini-hit back in November of 2012 with their American Opera Initiative-supported 20-minute opera “A Game of Hearts” became the mini-hit of that AOI season, which eventually led to their chance to develop a somewhat larger work for the Initiative.

“Penny” evolved from a story developed by Ms. Weinberg and based on some real life experiences. As the project developed, Ms. Weinberg, Mr. Pew and members of the AOI team carefully researched the subject of autism and actually conferred with families involved with caring for an autistic child, virtually all of whom prove to be highly, though uniquely, intelligent and most of whom run the gamut between completely dysfunctional to apparently normal as they become adults.

Given this background, Ms. Weinberg developed an hour-long libretto that conveys both understanding and a notable sense of authenticity when treating this difficult subject as the basis for a musical drama.

While somewhat prosaic in the opening moments of the work, Ms. Weinberg’s language eventually waxes poetic and lyrical providing both the scaffolding and the art for Mr. Pew’s quite-interesting score. His opening bars at times reflect the initial flatness of the libretto, which, like so many contemporary American libretti, begins with flat, everyday American speech that proves rather uninspiring, we suspect, for a composer.

Mr. Pew’s score here seems to tilt in the now very-tired direction of the kind of atonal-dominated music that dominated throughout the 20th century, much to the detriment of classical music as a whole.

Happily, however, as Ms. Weinberg’s words became more poetic, more magical, so, too did Mr. Pew’s music, which flowed sinuously into a minimalist-romantic mode where shimmering percussion combined with beautiful lyric moments that seemed to channel the fog of Penny’s complex feelings where intelligence and decisiveness whirled about in an attempt to overcome confusion and lack of focus.

What this weekend’s audience eventually got was a remarkable payoff where the narrative and the music united to convey the kinds of thoughts, feelings and emotions rarely encounter—a seamless package that ultimately led to a surprisingly emotional and effective conclusion.

All the more remarkable was the fact that librettist and composer were required to create a work that conformed with AOI’s strict parameters: one hour in length and a limited number of musicians in the orchestra pit.

Under these constraints, both librettist and composer were able to create what this critic at least thinks was the most effective of AOI’s three new short operas to date. And in so doing, the team shows great promise and potential should they next have an opportunity to create a larger work of two to three hours’ duration.

A new work, of course, can look great on paper. But it still takes a fine cast and crew to make things happen effectively and beautifully on stage. Fortunately for these world premiere performances of “Penny,” WNO supplied all the above.

Cast of WNO's world premiere opera "Penny."
Cast of WNO’s world premiere opera “Penny” at the Terrace Theater. L-R: Wei Wu, Deborah Nansteel, Trevor Scheunemann, and kerriann Otaño. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

The entire cast of singers—primarily Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and alumni—inhabited “Penny’s” characters sympathetically and well. Deborah Nansteel, in particular, was phenomenally effective in expressing one of the most difficult singing roles we’ve yet seen—an emotionally dysfunctional character who, at least initially, cannot even articulate herself in words.

But from those early inarticulate moments, Ms. Nansteel, her presentation and her voice blossom into an inner lyricism that begins to unveil a real person buried under layers of mental and emotional confusion. From both an acting and a vocal standpoint, the results were remarkable, effective and highly moving.

Other roles worthy of note were James Shaffran’s turn as Penny’s ghostly yet still-genial Uncle Raymond and Patrick O’Halloran’s exuberant turn as Martin Halstrom, the man who happily uncovers Penny’s secret, hidden talent, helps develop it, but then cluelessly attempts to exploit it.

Mr. O’Halloran also gets some of the nicest musical moments in this nice little opera, ranging from his rendition of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”—an easy, familiar song that unlocks a key portion of Penny’s intellect and personality—to some of the most beautiful words and music in the opera itself.

In smaller but still key roles, Kerriann Otaño was appropriately bossy and brittle as Penny’s duty-bound sister Katherine; Trevor Scheunemann was nasty and self-centered as Katherine’s bitter, disabled concert pianist husband, a man who serves, in a way, as a foil for his mentally disabled sister-in-law; and Wei Wu who’s robust bass gives heft to his role as an overly eager healthcare bureaucrat.

Director Alan Paul provided a light but deft touch as director, helping his singers navigate both their often-complex characters as well as Daniel Conway’s minimal yet nearly perfect domestic set.

Bringing the singers and musicians into nearly perfect harmony was conductor Anne Manson.

While it’s still in its early years, WNO’s American Opera Initiative continues to show surprising yet gratifying progress in creating a program that may very well result in a world-class incubator for a generation of new American operas that could begin to attract long-coveted new audience members to the genre.

Because of this, we’d urge both regular opera patrons and the musically curious alike to give works presented by AOI a chance. Not everything that’s new these days will withstand the proverbial test of time. But we all have to remember that composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi and beyond all had to fumble about a bit in their younger days before they hit their stride and found their audience.

Don’t our newer composers and librettists also deserve a chance to give American opera a go as well?

Rating: ** ½ (2 and one-half stars out of 4)

Upcoming for the Washington National Opera: The company debuts what we believe to be its first ever production of French composer Francis Poulenc’s 1957 masterpiece, “Dialogues of the Carmelites” (“Dialogues des Carmélites), February 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Performances run through March 8. For tickets and information, call the Kennedy Center box office at 202-467-4600, or order tickets online via kennedy-center.org/wno.

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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