In New Opera, Music Pries Open A Sealed Mind

Deborah Nansteel as Penny (Scott Suchman)
In ‘Penny,’ Deborah Nansteel performed the title role of an autistic woman who finds her voice . (Scott Suchman)
By Charles T. Downey

WASHINGTON, D.C. — What goes on in the minds of people who have been diagnosed with autism? How do they perceive the world and those around them? Penny, a one-hour opera premiered by Washington National Opera on Jan. 23 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, attempts to delve into this mystery through the medium of music. This surprising new work, reuniting composer Douglas Pew and librettist Dara Weinberg, is the most recent presentation from the company’s American Opera Initiative, a project to nurture new works by rising American composers.

Nansteel 'Penny' Washington National Opera workshop (Scott Suchman)
Wei Wu played a social worker who helps Penny. (Scott Suchman)

Weinberg based her libretto on her own original story about an autistic adult who has come to live with her sister in Phoenix. When she arrives, aided by a social worker, Penny Rutherford has regressed and lost the ability to speak, managing to produce only a few moaned syllables. Her new living situation is necessary following the death of her beloved uncle, who watched over Penny after her mother’s death, but it is not clear if Penny wants to stay with her sister. Penny’s brother-in-law, a pianist distraught over the loss of control in one of his hands, introduces Penny to his friend, another musician, who uses music to try to draw Penny out of herself.

The most important part of presenting new works is to perform them in the best possible light so that their failures can be blamed only on their own faults. Since Washington National Opera’s merger with the Kennedy Center, in 2011, it has been able to use all of the venue’s theaters, and the 500-seat Terrace Theater has proven an ideal place for the performance of new operas on a small scale.  For Penny, Alan Paul, associate artistic director of Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, created a handsome staging in which the acting direction was detailed and believable. Daniel Conway’s set was clean and sandy in tone, flooded with the merciless sunlight of Arizona (lighting by A. J. Guban) and with a panoramic view of the desert scrub on the back wall. Contemporary costumes by Lynly A. Saunders were not always flattering to the singers but helped create a sense of their characters.

Composer Douglas Pew
Pew incorporated a beloved Chopin prelude into the score.

Now that the American Opera Initiative is in its third year, the benefits of this unusual project are becoming more apparent. The composers and librettists who take part in the program collaborate with mentors in the field, improving their work through a workshop process. Most important, some get a chance to learn from their mistakes and improve. Pew and Weinberg were one of three composer-librettist teams chosen to produce a 20-minute opera for the first AOI performance in 2012. Their contribution then, A Game of Hearts, was about a meeting of minds in a retirement community, and it fell short because of a libretto that needed streamlining and an unimaginative, slightly saccharine musical style.

Weinberg’s libretto for Penny showed evidence of having absorbed lessons from that earlier experience.  Here the story traced a believable arc over several scenes, allowing the listener to follow Penny’s development from nervous agitation to expression through her music. True, the telescoping of the story made the ending feel a little absurd, as if a couple of music rehearsals could give an autistic person the courage to bolt out of her home and strike out on her own.

Dara Weinberg (Kailai Chen)
The libretto is based on a story by Weinberg. (Kailai Chen)

Only the subplot about the brother-in-law’s loss of hand function felt like it could have been reduced in importance without harming the opera. Pew’s choice to weave a Chopin prelude (op. 28, no. 20, beloved of amateur pianists everywhere) into the texture also felt like an unneeded gesture, although it was a clever way to show Gary’s frustrated ambitions. Pew showed improvement in his use of the reduced orchestration imposed by the project — five strings, four woodwind players, French horn, percussion, harp, piano and celesta — especially in the Brittenesque writing for harp, often accompanied by stark percussion, signifying Penny’s inner tensions. Conductor Anne Manson, music director of the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra, led the ensemble with a sure hand.

Still, it was hard not to feel that Penny missed a significant opportunity because of the cloying tonal style of Pew’s music. When Penny first appears, she repeats a sighing half-step motif, a musical kernel that is gradually extended by the addition of other intervals. For a time, one glimpsed the possibility of an unexpected musical soundscape that could show the audience what it was like to be inside Penny’s mind. Alas, when Pew took us inside her world, it sounded exactly like the world on the outside.

Kerriann Otaño, Patrick O'Halloran, Deborah Nansteel in 'Penny' at the WNO (Scott Suchman)
Kate (Kerriann Otaño) and Martin (Patrick O’Halloran) support Penny. (Scott Suchman)

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel, a North Carolina native, gave a powerful performance in the title role, noteworthy for its vocal power when Penny finally found her voice. She was also poignantly believable in the way that she portrayed the self-stimulation, or stimming, of an autistic person, rocking back and forth and vocalizing repetitively, in a way that seemed realistic without going over the top. Other current members of the opera company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program were also effective, especially soprano Kerriann Otaño, rich-voiced as Penny’s sister, Kate, and bass Wei Wu, who was a paternal presence as the social worker. Tenor Patrick O’Halloran was charmingly boisterous as Martin, the friend who helps Penny discover her love of music.

Veteran artists rounded out the cast, including baritone Trevor Scheunemann, a Domingo-Cafritz alumnus whose string of successes with the company continued as the neurotic, selfish husband of Penny’s sister. Baritone James Shaffran, a regular Washington National Opera house artist, was a stitch as the plain-spoken ghost of Uncle Raymond, who appears as a guiding presence inside the world of Penny’s thoughts, summoned as she reads a scrapbook of memories about him. In a self-effacing way, Shaffran brought to life this bumbling character, who convinces Penny to take control of her own life, partly by laughing at his inadequacies as a caregiver.

While the opera took a bold step in attempting to characterize the inner drama of an autistic character, it fell short in distinguishing her from her surroundings in a musically distinctive way.

Charles T. Downey is a freelance reviewer, for the Washington Post and other publications. He is the moderator of, a Web site on classical music and the arts in Washington, D.C.