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REVIEW: The 2023 AOI Operas at the Kennedy Center (Washington National Opera)

The gods of Oshun: Olodumare (Christian Simmons, left), Shango (Daniel Smith, upstage center), Oshun (Katerina Burton, downstage center), and Esu (Athony P. Ballard), which premiered on Saturday at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Photo by Scott Suchman.

On Saturday, a trio of new operas premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. Strikingly different in thrust and execution, these works present competing visions for what American opera could (and should) be.

The American Opera Initiative, launched by Washington National Opera in January 2012, now has more than a decade to its name. The program seeks to identify promising talents, pair them with professional mentors, and showcase the fruits to an interested public. If this sounds familiar, it might be because this was the norm in the late 19th century, with major publishers and presenters holding opera-writing competitions to identify upcoming composers to then give major commissions. Pietro Mascagni’s famous opera Cavalleria rusticana (1890) was written for one such competition, run by the Milanese music publisher Edoardo Sonzogno. (Puccini also wrote his first opera for one of Sonzogno’s competition; it did not win, but a subsequent production catapulted him to early fame)

The Short Operas of Yesteryear

Insert two world wars, a growing interest in “academic” music, and an obsession with ever-more difficult and large-scale works, and opera-writing competitions largely became a thing of the past. One of the reasons that publishers such as Sonzogno were interested in concise, eminently performable works was that they paid for the premieres out of their own pockets – and hoped to sell and rent the music scores not just to large opera houses, but to innumerable music lovers and small town theatres. 

While all parties dreamed big, aiming for that smaller target let composers and their librettists take risks on things that major houses avoided – and so Cavalleria rusticana and its imitators ushered in a new rush of verismo operas that moved away from stylized, overwrought romanticism to a new sense of realism grounded in contemporary settings and the human experience. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, often presented in a double-bill with Cavalleria rusticana to make a “full” evening, is not only also a verismo opera, but was directly inspired by the latter. The results resonated spectacularly with audiences: in Italy alone, there were more than 14,000 performances of Cavalleria rusticana in just 55 years. 

The AOI Works

The evening began with a series of video excerpts from the different creators, mentors, etc. While somewhat strange, given that all six writers were in attendance, the result primed the audience and highlighted some of the evening’s facets that would distinguish it from a “normal” night at the opera. 


The first work to be presented was Oshun, with a libretto by Jarrod Lee and music by B.E. Boykin. The narrative, drawn from the Yoruba folklore and religion of West Africa, deals with gods and natural disasters, journeys, and self-realization. Immediately, audiences were dropped into an immersive world filled with radiant West African textiles, a score that blended Western European and West African sounds, and lots of beautiful singing. The part-writing by Boykin was a particular feature; during the first duet, several audience members clutched their chests as the interweaving harmonies resonated through the theatre.

The majority of the cast members on Saturday night were members of WNO’s Cafritz Young Artist Program. Playing the gods of Oshun were Christian Simmons (as Olodumare), Daniel Smith (as Shango), Anthony P. Ballard (as Esu), and Katerina Burton (in the title role). With just 20 minutes to work with, the hero’s journey had more self-realizing self-actualization than trials, and more self-discovery than sacrifice. This is not to say that the journey was unpleasant – far from it – but that the narrative affect was more akin to oral storytelling than “traditional” opera. 

Sylvan (Cecilia McKinley) and Calamus (Mack Wolz) in What the Spirits Show, by Silen Wellington and Walken Schweigert. Photo by Scott Suchman.

What the Spirits Show

An entirely different approach was presented in What the Spirits Show, with a libretto by Walken Schwiegert and music by Silen Wellington. As the creators explained in their introductory video talks, they aimed to present a positive spin on transgender narratives. The result is something like a late-medieval morality play, set to music, but exploring gender affirmation and hormonal therapy (after a fashion) instead of the Story of Everyman. As with the morality play genre, the focus seemed less on nuance, and more on painting with broad strokes. After The Politician (Justin Burgess) bans the use of a “magic elixir”, Calamus (played by Mack Wolz) and Aurora (Hannah Shea) are imprisoned. Can Sylvan (Cecelia McKinley) save them? 

With four centuries of history, opera has explored many aesthetic directions. Most of these seek an economization of text – of replacing exposition with action, trimming lines for concision, and placing music towards the forefront. Wellington and Schweigert’s opera takes more of an art song cycle-like approach, with rich lines of poetry set to music as characters expound – sometimes pompously, and often sincerely. The fusion – and the caricature of a villain – does not seem designed to convince, so much as to celebrate a group whose stories are still largely unrepresented in opera. Judging by the enthusiastic applause, this mission was successful.

Jonathan Patton as The Demon and Cecilia McKinley as Bubbie in Jens Ibsen and Cecelia Raker’s Bubbie and the Demon. Photo by Sylvan (Cecilia McKinley) and Calamus (Mack Wolz) in What the Spirits Show, by Silen Wellington and Walken Schweigert. Photo by Scott Suchman.

Bubbie and the Demon

A third, competing vision dropped in the last opera of the evening: Bubbie and the Demon, with a libretto by Cecelia Raker and music by Jens Ibsen. Its target might be described thusly: entertain the hell out of the audience. From the first line to the end, this thrilling musical comedy had people chuckling, chortling, and shaking with laughter. The plot is simple in its elegance: Bubbie, a lonely Jewish grandmother played by Cecilia McKinley, accidentally summons The Demon (Jonathan Patton) and mistakes him for a grandchild going through an, ahem, Goth phase. The Demon, naturally, has some other ideas, and neighbor Karen (Teresa Perrotta) is kind of freaked out.

If demonic summoning is easy, the devil is in the details, and this is an area where Bubbie and the Demon shines, with numerous little touches including innumerable throwaway jokes, visual gags in the supertitles, and a spectacular amount of situational comedy as the score alternately revels in the quirky and the bombastic. Interwoven into that are some touching moments about loneliness and family, the banality of parenting, and the standout musical piece “Karen’s Aria” (yes, about that kind of Karen). This musical tale that could easily be the powerhouse opening of a full-length exploration of the concept.

Basil Considine