You are here
Home > Arts > DC REVIEW: Anything but Business as Normal in the American Opera Initiative (Washington National Opera)

DC REVIEW: Anything but Business as Normal in the American Opera Initiative (Washington National Opera)

Jonathan Pierce Rhodes (Ari) and Justin Burgess (Gale) in the world premiere of the short opera Hairpiece at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on Friday, January 19. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

One of the great criticisms of the American opera industry is its obsession with things now more than a century old. Another is that much of the new repertoire feels like the old. So it was anything but business as normal at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on Friday night.

On Friday, temperatures were plunging on the coasts, and snow sent schools and the federal government in DC to an early closure. You wouldn’t have known that indoors at the Kennedy Center, where the first offering of the double showcase of new operas sold out in advance, and the second saw just a handful of seats open.

The occasion for this sell-out? The world premieres of three short operas created through Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative:

  • A Way Forward
    Music by Laura Jobin-Acosta
    Libretto by José G. Alba Rodríguez
  • Forever
    Music by Elizabeth Gartman
    Libretto by Melisa Tien
  • Hairpiece
    Music by Joy Redmond
    Libretto by Sam Norman

Each piece was distinctive, certifiably unlike anything in the repertoire, and a joy to experience for different reasons, with a musical vocabulary and subject material grounded firmly in the present. Aside from a general predilection for randomly inserted spoken remarks, which did nothing to enhance the presentation, the works showed great potential for the writing teams.

A Way Forward, with a libretto by José G. Alba Rodríguez and a score by Laura Jobin-Acosta, explored a Mexcian family bakery at a key transition. At its essence, it is a very humanistic family drama, with Alba Rodríguez’s characters standing out with their vivid characterizations – they leap off the stage as immediately familiar, while at the same time feeling more than archetypes. Jobin-Acosta’s score distinctively shades each character, with Gabriel (Sergio Martínez)’s dulcet bass vocal lines being notably melodious.

Kresley Figueroa (Julia)_Winona Martin (Helena) in A Way Forward. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.

The post-environmental apocalypse comedy Forever, with a libretto by Melisa Tien and a score by Elizabeth Gartman, is hard to describe but easy to enjoy. Tien’s witty writing and topical jokes had the audience chortling throughout the performance, while Gartman’s score gets high marks for innovative and well-integrated sound generation into its musical vocabulary. Contralto Cecelia McKinley’s scene-stealing tardigrade turn anchored a set of thoroughly enjoyable performances by Teresa Perrotta (as PFAS 1 – it would take too long to explain how/why this was hilarious) and Sahel Salam as PFAS 2 (same).

Sahel Salam (PFAS 2), Teresa Perrotta (PFAS 2), and Cecelia McKinley (Tardigrade) in Forever. Photo by Bronwen-Sharp.

Identity politics are part-and-parcel of today’s political discourse, often alienating and fostering discord. Hairpiece, with a libretto by Sam Norman and a score by Joy Redmond, is an edge-of-seat human drama exploring themes of love, identity, industrialization, and more. As the final piece in the program, Hairpiece stands out as the nucleus of what could be a full-length opera, leaving a sense of wanting to see the next chapter of adventures for the trio of wigmaker Esther (Tiffany Choe), self-seeking Ari (Joanathan Pierce Rhodes, in a commanding performance), and widower Gale (Justin Burgess). Musically and dramatically excellent, in a way that is very much a product of today, but explores the timeless questions of identity and self-realization. It would be hard to not be moved by the story alone, and with the heart-tugging score, it feels a perfect opener for a story that could go down so many interesting paths.

All-told, Friday’s showcase was a strong set of opera beginnings, each a foray into something wonderfully new and different from business as normal.

Soprano Tiffany Choe as Esther in Hairpiece. Photo by Bronwen Sharp.
Basil Considine