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WNO’s three new and intriguing 20-minute operas for 2017

Written By | Jan 21, 2017

WASHINGTON, January 19, 2017 – For the first time ever after several seasons, the Washington National Opera’s annual offerings of brief, world premiere American operas were brought together last weekend into a new “American Opera Initiative Festival.”

It’s a good idea for increasing the traction and ticket sales for these fledgling works by putting them together as a single, well-publicized and predictably annual event.

However, the company had to deal with a slight handicap this year, having been forced to perform this year’s new operas in the Kennedy Center’s intimate Family Theater. That’s because their traditional venue, the Terrace Theater, has been (and still is) closed for the season while that space undergoes renovations for ACA compliance and other issues—the last of the Kennedy Center’s major performance spaces to be updated.

As a result, tickets were a bit hard to get, a problem that should resolve itself when the Terrace reopens again for the 2017-2018 season.

As always, the one-act portion of this year’s new Festival featured a trio of brand-new 20-minute operas on disparate subjects, all of which traditionally focus on American subject and all of which are sung by WNO’s up-and-coming Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.

However, this year’s offerings were also required, in some way, to tie in with the Kennedy Center’s year-long tribute to President John F. Kennedy. JFK’s brief but performing arts-centric presidency inspired the Federal government to build this, America’s first-ever National Center for the Performing Arts.

“Lifeboat.” Music by Matthew Peterson. Libretto by Emily Roller.

The first of the three short operas to be staged last Saturday, “Lifeboat,” alas, was probably the least successful in this reviewer’s opinion. Possibly modeled in part on the general plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 film “Lifeboat,” starring Tallulah Bankhead and William Bendix, this effort by the Peterson-Roller team puts the audience right in the middle of a harrowing shipwreck scene.

Conductor Steven Osgood, Raquel González as The Soldier, Daryl Freedman as The Doctor, and Andrew McLaughlin as The Professor. (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The opera’s three characters, the Professor (baritone Andrew McLaughlin), the Soldier (soprano Raquel González) and the Doctor (mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman) struggle to cut their lifeboat free from the sinking ship. That proves to be the least of their worries as the ill-matched trio is soon forced to confront a series of horrific moral choices as well.

Like Hitchcock’s closet-drama on the high seas, this brief, operatic “Lifeboat” is tense, brittle and claustrophobic, ironic as the action occurs in the vastness of an ocean. Such a situation is frightening in and of itself. But matters are made worse by the wildly differing lifestyles and personalities of our three protagonists.

The Soldier appears to be the most logical and efficient of the three, but also seems to be suffering from some flavor of PTSD.

Her two fellow passengers are, to a great extent, a pair of know-it-alls. The Doctor is medically well-versed as we might expect. But in terms of humanity she’s cold and bitter to the point of psycopathy, reflecting in anger and rage upon a recently concluded Civil War in some American Futureworld.

The Professor, is, predictably a professor, used to lording it over successive classfulls of students hanging on his every word lest they flunk the next exam. He expects his judgments to be honored and his orders to be obeyed, which doesn’t go down well with the adult professionals unwillingly sharing the lifeboat with him. He’s also recognizable as a contemporary academic “theorist,” whose all-wise pronouncements betray his utter unfamiliarity with reality, particularly with regard to simple tools and equipment.

It’s all a good set up for a short opera, but this efforts falls a bit short of the mark for two primary reasons. First and foremost, the generally frantic melodrama here, compacted as it must be in a 20-minute opera, is, well, just too frantic as the singers shriek and curse and as the small chamber orchestra shrieks along with them as Peterson’s music tracks the plot. It’s all grating on the ears, perhaps dramatically appropriate, but still a bit much.

Second, the libretto, while it tells the story efficiently, falls short in terms of sing-able moments and poetry. In an afterwards discussion, we learned that Ms. Roller indicated that her initial attempts at creating a more poetic libretto were stymied by the high tension of the opera’s situation, leading her to solve the problem by turning to prose.

There’s nothing wrong with this approach—if it works. But the final libretto, a little heavy on vulgarity, doesn’t give the singers a lot to work with and provides few insights on the protagonists’ characters aside from those that are obvious.

“What Gets Kept.” Music by Frances Pollock. Libretto by Vanessa Moody.

Amy (mezzo Daryl Freedman), a terminally ill cancer patient, has decided to end her life somewhat earlier than scheduled rather than burden her teenaged daughter Emma (soprano Jennifer Cherest) and her anguished husband Lawrence (tenor Frederick Ballentine) with her final, inevitably agonizing days on this planet.

Daryl Freedman as Amy and Frederick Ballentine as Lawrence. (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

The dual theme in this opera is a focus on the moral dilemma of assisted suicide as complicated by the need to reassure loved ones that will be left behind while simultaneously absolving them of guilt. It’s a dilemma faced by so many families today as one generation is slowly replaced by another. Even more poignantly, it’s also the kind of life-and-death dilemma that was faced by this opera’s librettist, Vanessa Moody who happens a brain tumor survivor.

Though Moody was one of the lucky ones who was able to make it through this extraordinarily difficult-to-survive cancer, her ordeal, without a doubt, helped provide her with serious insight into the emotional core of her fictional characters’ equally challenging experiences.

Moody’s libretto is a marvel of paradox. On the surface, it’s just so much domestic trivia and politeness. But within its simplicity and simple words are concealed the deepest of human emotions and fears, the fear of death and, perhaps, eternal oblivion. Or, as Wordsworth once put it, “When I have fears that I may cease to be…”

As with Redler’s and Carlson’s “Adam” (discussed below), this is a deceptively simple musical drama that, in fact, requires both the composer and its trio of singers to underscore the emotional depth that polite, understated words often cannot express.

Composer Frances Pollock, for her part, steps up to the plate and provides exactly the music that’s required to expose the hidden anguish of this family. She has created a score that’s melodic, restrained while not constrained, and remains deeply empathetic throughout with the plight of a small, nuclear American family that is, unwillingly, about to get considerably smaller.

The young artists carrying these three roles reach down deeply to discover and express the minds, hearts and souls of their characters.

Daryl Freedman as Amy and Jennifer Cherest as Emma. (Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO)

Daryl Freedman is a resolute but deeply involved Amy. Jennifer Cherest does well as the young teenage daughter who initially tries to skirt the problem by being a teenager, but suddenly becomes a young adult in the end. And Frederick Ballentine grasps the empty hopelessness of a husband and father who somehow feels that Amy’s impending death reflects his own failure to protect his family. All three singers articulate these feelings best in the opera’s more lyrical moments.

“What Gets Kept” is a sad, yet truthful little excursion into the life and death struggles of a typical American family. While some may dispute the morality of Amy’s course of action, most will ultimately realize that in confronting a situation like this one themselves, it suddenly becomes far more difficult to moralize.

This short opera is an excellent effort by a writer and a composer who make a fine, working team. Perhaps we’ll be hearing and seeing more of them in the future should they choose to expand this effort or explore additional operatic possibilities.

“Adam.” Music by Zach Redler. Libretto by J. Douglas Carlson.

Intellectually, this short opera was perhaps the most interesting of this year’s selections, focusing as it does on the current public fixation on the science and the metaphysics of AI (artificial intelligence) and increasingly sophisticated robotics and what that could mean for us tomorrow.

In terms of potential influences on this nifty little opera, films like “Blade Runner” (1982) or “Soldier” (1998), both of which involve cyborgs or reprogrammed humans, come to mind. But “Adam” seems to more closely match the issues raised in a brilliant little play—Thomas Gibbons’ “Uncanny Valley”— which initially premiered during the 2014 season of the Contemporary American Theater Festival in nearby Shepherdstown, W. Va.

Difficult to succinctly define, the “uncanny valley” describes the arc of human interaction with increasingly human-like androids during which initial empathy with the mechanical object deteriorates into terror before gradually drifting back in a positive direction. (For more on this, see our review of “Uncanny Valley.”)

Read also: CATF: Thomas Gibbons’ ‘Uncanny Valley’ is uncannily good

This, to some extent, is where we find ourselves in Redler’s and Carlson’s fascinating little operatic excursion into AI, very unusual but very valid territory that remains largely unexplored by classical music.

As with “Lifeboat,” “Adam” is a three character opera consisting of a robotics engineer named Athena (soprano Raquel González), Adam, the advanced android she has created (tenor Frederick Ballentine) and the crusty Colonel Grey, Athena’s military supervisor who has contracted with her to create a perfect robotic soldier—which happens to be Adam.

“Athena” is an interesting name for our robotic engineer, in that the character is clearly meant to represent the eponymous Greek goddess of wisdom, craft and war. Athena has created Adam to Colonel Grey’s spec, programming him as a superior android warrior fully capable of defeating human enemies.

Yet, in a way, this operatic Athena has also subverted Grey and herself. Adam is named after her gentle little brother of the same name, for whose tragic and early death she blames herself. Perhaps as a way of atoning, she has also programmed elements of her brother’s personality into the android Adam, potentially undermining his military intent.

Not much happens here. But everything happens. This is an opera that dwells on what English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins described as “inscape,” the landscape of thought and emotion that constantly unfolds inside each human—or android—head.

Athena is a bundle of conflicting emotions and feelings that may ultimately serve to undermine the binary imperative to construct a perfect artificial warrior. Colonel Grey is, by contrast, a two-dimensional soldier who simply wants to flip a switch on Adam, putting him in “kill” mode without any guiding emotions. But Adam—programmed to kill and, secretly, to love—embodies the conflict between the Athenas and the Colonel Greys of the world.

Carlson’s short libretto is a tight little work of art that adds a powerful human dimension to the eternal conflict of society and the mind. His broadly poetic language provides Zach Redler with a rich array of words and emotions around which the composer can weave musical magic—which Redler often does.

This is a challenging yet appealing little slice of what this team could potentially accomplish should they decide to transform this still-evolving AI idea into a full-blown opera that could have surprising appeal for contemporary audiences. All three singers were fully into it. Raquel González gets some of the best music to sing here, and she sang it superbly.

But, as the enigmatic, willing to please, but still-learning Adam, Frederick Ballentine excelled the mark in his deeply complex role, as he interpreted a still evolving character attempting to sort out the conflict between his full-blown military prowess and his still child-like human antecedent as his developing personality tries to sort out what it all means.

Great script, realistic and challenging moral complexity, fine evocative music, fine singing, excellent teamwork and synergy.

Best in show.

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 Senior 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