Review: AMERICAN OPERA INITIATIVE: Three 20-Minute Operas at Kennedy Center

Splendid showcase of young composers and librettists

By: Jan. 23, 2024
Review: AMERICAN OPERA INITIATIVE: Three 20-Minute Operas at Kennedy Center
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If opera sometimes seems hopelessly stuck in the dusty past, with the same titles and the same long dead composers being performed every year before aging audiences, the American Opera Initiative is here to do something about it. 

In the short 10 year history of the ambitious program from the Washington National Opera, it’s identified, encouraged and helped mount dozens of works to help hone the skills of young composers and librettists. 

Their annual showcase on Friday, of “Three 20-Minute Operas” at the Kennedy Center was fairly bursting with timely topics, innovative approaches and daring music — enough to instill a certain measure of hope for the 21st century future of the musical form, even as it helps shape new creators.

Chosen from over 130 applicants from 21 states and Puerto Rico, the three sets of composers and librettists  worked for a full year to test ideas with accomplished mentors and the professional polish of the Washington National Opera Orchestra and the remarkable voices that have emerged from another program designed to incubate and nourish talent, this time as vocalists, the WNO Cafritz Young Artists. 

More than a shaky opening night recital of their year’s work, the evening took on a brisk, entertaining tone, with the three pieces deftly introduced by short video pieces in which the creators got to talk about their intents and approaches. (Would that all concerts be so well paced and organized; Chloe Treat was director here)

The first of the three pieces, “A Way Forward,” from composer Laura Jobin-Acosta and librettist José G. Alba Rodríguez, sought to showcase the scene of a Mexican family bakery, a culture rarely featured in mainstream opera. In it, a grandmother (mezzo-soprano Winona Martin) hopes to instill in her granddaughter the same kind of loving, inherited skills in baking, though the young one (soprano Kresley Figueroa) is not so interested in this as a career move. But when her father (bass Sergio Martínez) comes with news that the shop is threatened because of low sales, it’s the young girl who uses her own skills to help right things — through her own specialty: social media and online clips. A modern solution worth singing about, even as it reflects its culture.

The second work, “Forever” by composer Elizabeth Gartman and librettist Melisa Tien, reflects a whole different kind of culture, possibly one nobody’s ever thought of — in a future post-apocalyptic society, where humans have become extinct and bits of lonely microplastics roam the ruined Earth. 

Two of them are happy to meet (tenor Sahel Salam and soprano Teresa Perrotta), but when an eight-armed tardigrade (contralto Cecelia McKinley) enters the scene and seduces her, the solution is also something Bizet wouldn’t have thought of — a threesome.

With Tien’s humorous touch and Hartman’s experimental approaches — using crinkled plastics as a kind of scene-setting percussion — they succeed in making the modest piece sing.

The final work, “Hairpiece” by composer Joy Redmond and librettist Sam Norman, cleverly uses the strands of a wigmaker’s craft as a metaphor for the different musical threads of the piece. But the story is very strong, involving a hardworking quality wigmaker (soprano Tiffany Choe), who meets a gender 

non-conforming walk-in (tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes) seeking a more authentic wig than the pink one that attracted a guy at a bar (baritone Justin Burgess), who had his own hairpiece, it turns out. The need for connection and sense of community shines through the work that also uses the occasional dissonance of modernism in the score. 

The overall quality of the singers, and the professionalism of the 14-piece orchestra, conducted by David Bloom, helped to elevate each of the works, that had been mentored over the last year by librettist Deborah Brevoort and composer Kamala Sankaram, herself an alumnus of the American Opera Initiative who has like many of the others gone on to wider success. 

While the music itself didn’t go out too far on a limb, each work had a kind of confidence in subject matter and approach that seem well honed by the program and bodes well overall for anyone looking to the future of opera. 

Running time: Just over an hour, with no intermission.

Photo credit: Jonathan Pierce Rhodes in “Hairpiece” by Joy Redmond and Sam Norman. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

“American Opera Initiative: Three 20-Minute Operas” was performed Jan. 19, 2024 at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts. Information online