Monday, January 13, 2020

20-Minute Operas at the Kennedy Center

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I haven't seen many operas, but the idea of seeing a mini-opera at the Kennedy Center intrigued me (as did the $15 ticket). This was the eighth season of the American Opera Initiative 20-minute commissioning program. Different pairs of composers and librettists (i.e. the people who write the words to go with the music) apply to the program, and the finalists are matched up with mentors as they go through the writing process. There's "something academic about the exercise" of staying within the 20-minute limit; that timing doesn't allow for a long, unfolding story, but you still want your audience to connect and feel something.

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While this is the eighth year of this, I only just learned about it! Clearly I have been out of the loop. The set-up is very simple: the orchestra played on stage while the actors (in casual clothes) sang, and two screens on the sides of the stage had subtitles so you could read what they were singing. This seemed a little strange because the songs were in English, but just the style of opera singing is difficult to understand at times. My first thought was, "What good is an art form that needs to be translated in its own language to be understood?" But then I thought about the notes you read about piece of art when you visit a museum. They ARE helpful and bring more meaning and understanding to the artwork.

I saw three of these mini-operas, all of which were somewhat biographical (one of the participants said, "We have to write what we know."). They also took place in the last century-ish, so it was like watching a new genre of contemporary opera. The creators did have the opportunity to meet during a workshop this past fall, which gave them the opportunity to talk, brainstorm, and give and get feedback from their mentors (and I assume each other). The creators were given notes about the singers and their voices, too. Some of them already knew a few of the actors, so that helped in inspiring the music. I also liked that there was a Q&A with the creators after the show so you could look behind-the-scenes and learn more about the creative process.

Woman of Letters (Composer: Liliya Ugay; Librettist: Sokunthary Svay

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  • Summary: A first generation immigrant is a janitor trying to give his daughter a better life, and he brings her books to read and help educate her. In doing so, she has applied and been accepted to a program overseas. There is a struggle between wanting to support her dreams but also wanting to keep her close. 
  • Creators: Ugay and Svay actually knew each other years ago when they met through a mutual friend from Yale. They studied opera separately, bur reconnected afterward. This piece was several years in the making for the two of them. The lyrics are mostly based on Svay's childhood. Her father is an immigrant from Cambodia, and some of the lines in the songs are things he used to say; she had wanted to leave home and become a singer, so the daughter and Dara sort of play this role (The daughter wants to leave home, and Dara is already chasing her dreams of becoming an opera singer. How meta.). Even though the piece is very personal, Svay said she "wanted it to be universal" where all people could connect to the story. 
  • Cast: Samuel J. Weiser played the father, Marlen Nahhas played the daughter, and Alexandra Nowakowski plays Dara (a friend? a cousin? I was confused about her role other than her part as comedic relief.). I was impressed by both of the women singers especially. 
  • My thoughts:
    • The music felt very Disney to me, like a musical conversation. The music around the daughter made me think of the Disney princess movies, while the music for the father felt a lot like The Hunchback of Notre Dame
    • The lyrics for me were disappointing. The father is speaking (ahem, singing) in broken English, and yet he uses contractions like "I'm," which would not be common for someone who doesn't speak English well. The lyrics also include things that simply aren't poetic: there is no art-worthy way of including the word "toilets" in a song. And the words didn't fit the actor: he was singing about his janitor uniform's shirt being too big, but Weiser is a large man who in fact was wearing a shirt that was a little too tight for him that night. 
    • The most moving part of the piece was when the father tells the daughter, "I see you." It felt very much like The Joy Luck Club, when the mothers and daughters are really understanding each other for the first time. I definitely got teary-eyed!

Admissions (Composer: Michael Lanci; Librettist: Kim Davies)

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  • Summary: Two rich parents get caught in a scandal of bribing colleges to accept their children into the schools. The piece was definitely inspired by the recent events of Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman, and other celebrities doing just that. The writing team's first ideas had been rejected, and then they wrote this piece just after the scandal broke, and it was accepted!
  • Creators: Lanci had never written music for a comedy before. Once he received the lyrics from Davies, he was inspired by Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. He purposefully made the music overly-dramatic to emphasize how trivial the complaints and comments were of the characters (for example, the daughter is talking about social media, etc.). Davies had historically written for theater and TV, which was a less collaborative process. They described this piece as an "onion unfolding," with details of the scandal coming out one by one as time passed. 
  • Cast: We see Marlen Nahhas again playing another daughter character. She is joined by Matthew Pearce as her brother, and Amanda Lynn Bottoms and William Meinert as her parents. Again, I was more impressed by the women than the men. 
  • My thoughts:
    • I like that the title has a double meaning: the admission of their children into school, but also the admission of their crimes.
    • Again, lyrics for me should be poetry. Mentioning In-N-Out Burger in a song is not poetic.
    • Meinert's character at one point is supposed to be driving a car, but his arms were stick straight right out in front of him. Is that how he drives a car in real life?
    • During the discussion, someone said that you have to find a story that needs to be told in this opera art form or genre. This story for me doesn't fall into that category.

Night Trip (Composer: Carlos Simon; Librettist: Sandra Seaton)

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  • Summary: In 1958, two uncles pick up their 16-year-old niece to take her from Chicago to Tennessee; her mother has given them money for the trip. When they stop for gas, a crooked cop engages with them and takes their money, rattling the family and the girl's dreams.
  • Creators: Seaton had written plays before, but she always loved opera music and would listen to the radio on Saturdays to hear the operas performed at The Met. She feels that, "opera gives you the freedom to just let go." She wrote the lyrics to relay the true story of an incident that happened to her Aunt Mary. Simon said, "Her words were packed with emotion...I used her words for guidance," when composing the music for this piece. He was also inspired by Gospel music, since the family was headed to Tennessee. When describing the piece, Simon said, "Each moment is revelatory," and it combines several musical styles and is quite intricate.
  • Cast: Rehanna Thelwell played the niece, opposite Joshua Conyers and Joshua Blue as her uncles. Matthew Pearce was the bigoted gas station attendant, and Samson McCrady played the police officer. 
  • My thoughts:
    • This piece had less dialogue, which I thought was better. In my opinion, opera lends itself more to soliloquy rather than conversation.
    • The actors were able to include a southern accent in their singing to reflect the origins of their characters, which I thought was very fitting to the piece. 
    • Conyers' driving was a lot more realistic looking!
    • While the creators at first had doubts about the line, "Leave that girl alone!" when one of the uncles is protecting his niece, it is by far the most powerful line of the entire show. 
    • What hit me hardest about this piece is that, while we specifically are told that the story takes place in 1958, this easily could be 2020. It is frightening that this sort of hatred and racism still exists, and this period piece is actually a story of the present. 

I'm not sure if opera is really for me, but I can appreciate the hard work that all parties put into these pieces to bring them to life!

*You can read more about this show in The Washington Post here.

*DC Theatre Scene's review is here. I actually met the writer at the event! It sounds like she and I had similar views (but her writing is much better than mine!).

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