Trio Of 20-minute Operas Premiered In WNO Showcase

Shipwrecked: A soldier (Raquel Gonzalez), from left, a doctor (Daryl Freedman) and a professor (Andrew McLaughlin)
in ‘Lifeboat’ at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater. (Production photos by Scott Suchman for WNO)
By Charles T. Downey

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Washington National Opera, celebrates its 50th anniversary this season; its American Opera Initiative was inaugurated in 2012. In that short span of time the program has premiered fifteen 20-minute operas and five hour-length works. It is an extraordinary achievement to have presented that many pieces, composers, and librettists that otherwise would have remained silent. The latest set of three short operas, heard  Jan. 14 in the Kennedy Center Family Theater, showed that the company is carrying on the fight to make American opera relevant again.

Steven Osgood, with an orchestra of 13, conducted all three operas.

The first work, Lifeboat, was the best of the evening. A compactly constructed libretto by Emily Roller explored the conflicts among three victims of a shipwreck, marooned together in an inflatable lifeboat. Good libretto construction is quite different from simply writing a play that will be set to music, since the lines to be sung should optimally fit into the composer’s musical plan. Roller’s libretto meshed beautifully with the score by Matthew Peterson. Seeming to have resulted from input from both composer and librettist, the opera moved from a tumultuous opening ensemble, as three refugees on the Mediterranean Sea cut the lifeboat free from their sinking ship, through compelling aria moments, and into a moving final ensemble.

Mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman has been one of the most potent voices to come out of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program in recent years. Leading a cast made up mostly of her colleagues in that program, she was at the top of her vocal game as the Doctor, who mediates the growing antagonism between the Soldier and the Professor on either side of her. In the opera’s central aria, “Another body,” the Doctor gives a sort of autopsy report on the young refugee girl’s body brought to the surface by the Professor’s fishing line. As Peterson’s score marshaled the growing power of the small orchestra, Freedman was able to soar above it in a thrilling way.

Soprano Raquel González also brought a powerful edge to the agitated role of the Soldier, especially in the exasperated aria “Remain calm,” in reaction to the title phrase written in the lifeboat’s safety manual. The more plaintive side of her voice came out as with equal success well in the later aria “Have you ever seen,” wherein the Soldier reveals her own loss of an infant son. Baritone Andrew McLaughlin was effective in the supporting role of the Professor. As the strings mimicked the cries of seagulls, the three voices blended together in the striking final ensemble, “If only we were birds,” during which the characters realize with some finality that they may not survive. Peterson showed admirable mastery of both vocal writing and colorful orchestration, with some interesting touches of percussion (ratchet, glockenspiel) in particular.

‘Adam’: Raquel Gonzalez as Athena, Frederick Ballentine as Adam.

Both subjects chosen for the other two libretti were also inspired by current events. In Adam, a robotic engineer tests out the functionality of her new android, named Adam after her dead brother. The score began in a promising way, with González entering as Athena, the engineer, while singing a melismatic vocalise as she is busying herself around the lab. As the opera progressed, however, composer Zach Redler’s handling of the orchestra and the vocal writing became less and less assured, although there was much promise in both.

By contrast to the first opera, the libretto by J. Douglas Carlson seemed to be at odds with the score, with, for example, musical and dramatic climaxes not always lining up together. The short form of these works requires a level of tautness in the dramatic action that the libretto did not quite achieve either, with some uninspired dialogue and some repetitions of words and ideas that could have been excised. Tenor Frederick Ballentine had a solid sound on his top notes as the android, and bass-baritone Andrew Bogard was full-bodied as Colonel Grey, the military official who comes to test the new invention.

‘What Gets Kept’: Daryl Freedman and Frederick Ballentine.

Least effective was What Gets Kept, a cloying examination of a family struggling to accept the decision of a wife and mother to take her own life through medically assisted suicide. Here Freedman’s vocal gifts were squandered in the role of Amy, suffering from a terminal illness that seems like multiple sclerosis. Both the libretto by Vanessa Moody and the score by Frances Pollock traded too much in clichés, as father and daughter argue about whether to accept Amy’s decision. Pollock’s saccharine melodic and harmonic vocabulary was no help, at its most sugary in Amy’s sappy aria “I could spend my next tomorrows.”

Ballentine’s Lawrence, the husband, was upstaged by the fine soprano Jennifer Cherest, not a Domingo-Cafritz singer, as Amy’s wise-cracking daughter, Emma. A final scene, “Side by Side,” seemed dramatically unnecessary, since the story could end more dramatically with Amy’s death. It was largely an excuse to have a trio uniting father and daughter, on the night of the young woman’s high school prom, with the voice of Amy.

Conductor Steven Osgood led convincing renditions of all three scores by the orchestra of thirteen musicians, crammed into the back of the Kennedy Center’s small Family Theater venue, which is seeing much use this year because the larger Terrace Theater is undergoing renovation. As a result, the production, directed by Andrea Dorf McGray, was bare-bones, suggesting the action with strategically placed chairs, music stands, and a few key props.

Charles T. Downey is Music Critic and Associate Editor of Washington Classical Review ( He also writes freelance articles for The Washington Post and other publications.