Three new 20-minute operas on American themes

The other day (OK, it was last week -- your humble correspondent has been way behind on everything lately), Washington National Opera presented the premieres of three 20-minute pieces that as part of its  second annual American Opera Initiative. I found the experience rewarding on many levels.

Each of these mini-operas addressed an American theme (immigration provided a subject for two of the three). Each revealed a certain confidence, a sense of purpose, a determination to make a meaningful statement. The time constraint did not seem to hinder the creative teams.


I was especially interested in hearing "Uncle Alex," by the Baltimore team of composer Joshua Bornfield, a doctoral candidate at Peabody Conservatory; and librettist Caitlin Vincent, a Peabody alum. Their "Camelot Requiem," a reflection on the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, was a memorable event last season in Baltimore.

The collaborators clearly click, as they did in this new work, which depicts a scene on Ellis Island in 1907.


"Uncle Alex" happened to be the final opera performed (all three were slightly staged) at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater. At the risk of sounding like some pathetic hometown cheerleader, I have to say it seemed to me a case of saving the best for last.

Even allowing for some cliched and manipulative elements in Vincent's text, there is an effective structure and tension to the story of Eastern Europeans facing an interview with a gruff immigration inspector and, against the odds, making it through to the promised land. A dose of self-sacrifice gives the tale a nice little uplift.

Bornfield's musical language fits the libretto neatly, combining spicy harmony and lyrical flights with a strong sense of rhythmic motion. The composer writes well for the voice (a few wild high notes have a certain organic power), and he orchestrates with a keen ear for atmospheric coloring.

Yuri Gorodetski, Deborah Nansteel and Christian Bowers offered dynamic singing as the immigrants; Tim Augustin did a strong turn as the inspector.

The fine conductor Anne Manson drew polished playing by a nine-piece ensemble of the WNO Orchestra in "Uncle Alex," as well as in the other two operas.

"Breaking" tells a story by Caroline V. McGraw about a typical contemporary American incident -- a human tragedy that lures a TV reporter to the spot to ask a victim "How does it feel?"

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Michael Gilbertson's vivid, tightly woven music gives nods to Weill and Copland and contains some delectably subtle orchestration.

Nansteel, Wei Wu, Jacqueline Echols, and Patrick O'Halloran were the well-matched, expressive singers.


In "Duffy's Cut"  -- music by Jennifer Bellor, libretto (with some lines in Irish) by Peabody Conservatory student Elizabeth Reeves -- ghosts of Irish immigrant laborers who died in Pennsylvania in 1832 haunt Malachi Harris, the man ordered to bury them and the cover up the circumstances of their deaths.

I found the text a little thick, the music a little generic, but there were strong and promising aspects to both.

Norman Garrett had considerable impact as Malachi, using his solid, warm baritone to telling effect. Augustin, O'Halloran, Solomon Howard and Shantelle Przybylo completed the cast sturdily.

WNO provided expert mentoring for this year's participants in the American Opera Initiative -- composer Jake Heggie of "Dead Man Walking" and "Moby Dick" fame; and librettist Mark Campbell, who supplied the text for "Silent Night," "Volpone" and other exceptional operas.

An hour-long opera will be unveiled in June: "An American Soldier," with music by Huang Ruo, libretto by Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang, is based on the true story of a Chinese-American soldier who died in Afghanistan.