Before discussing the new opera, The Dictator’s Wife, I’d like to provide some background that should be helpful to better understand its significance. I find my personal interest in opera evolving over time, as one might expect. I am moving more towards new opera as opera I most want to attend. I still love the traditional operas in the standard repertoire, but I find new opera to generate an excitement not matched, or at least different from, experiencing Rigoletto, The Barber of Seville, or The Marriage of Figaro, again and again. For those of us who enjoy new opera, the problem is of course that there are relatively few opportunities to hear new opera. The reasons for this are many, but principally opera companies must make money to help offset the cost of presenting operas. Operas are expensive to produce, and the traditional operas are the ones most favored by the opera-going public and most likely to fill up the seats.
And why not? These operas are the very best of four hundred years of opera production. The music has been composed by grand masters and the themes of the stories are still relevant today, even if the settings are dated. This is a two-edged sword, however, I believe. Our focus on the classics set in time periods hundreds of years in the past are not attracting the younger audience of today that looks to connect more rapidly with the stories they are willing to sit through. I suspect that, if Romeo and Juliet were espousing their vows of love in text messages while planning their rendezvous where they sing their arias of devotion, more teenagers might take note. Instead of recitative, we could have textitative; ok, that's bad. Director’s often attempt to address this issue by moving the stories forward in time and setting, a strategy I usually find more confusing than effective. Importantly, however, the libretto and the language cannot be much changed and still fit the music.
During opera’s early and middle life, new operas rolled out akin the way that new movies roll out today. They were not expected to become part of a repeating repertoire of greats, but to be enjoyed and abandoned for newer ones. Audiences also did not take them so seriously, often eating, talking, and playing cards with friends while the opera was proceeding. Even the composers did not take them as seriously as today, often changing arias to fit singers being utilized or to silence criticisms. Today the most favored operas have been canonized and are attended in reverent silence. Somehow the classics and fun have become segregated, even as their temporal relevance shrinks to the most general and familiar themes – love, hate, jealousy, ambition, seduction, revenge, etc., perhaps another reason for failure to attract the younger audience. My contention is that the librettos in the standard repertoire, while still relevant stories, do not connect immediately with audiences experiencing modern day issues, such as drug use, gangs, unwanted pregnancies, LGBT issues, modern political intrigue, etc.
Think of the feedback effects of this situation on the production of new opera. We mentioned the decreased interest of younger audiences, but what about the effect on musicians, especially composers and librettists? How can any work a young composer produces compete to be heard in this environment. I feel certain that this is another reason for the low production of new operas. One must also consider the time it takes to write the libretto and compose the score for an opera; how will composers and librettists survive during this creative period? Sadly, court appointments from kings, dukes, and members of nobility are no longer available. Composing new opera must be especially daunting undertakings for young artists in the face of today’s preference for old opera.
Into this void steps the American Opera Initiative of the Washington National Opera. Most major opera companies have substantial programs to promote the development of opera singers, but major opera companies generally only have small programs that commission new works, funds that support composers and librettists in their development or production of new works. In January 2012, WNO founded the AOI “to stimulate, enrich, and ensure the future of contemporary American opera.” The use of the descriptor “American” is important to note; the works must be based on “American themes or stories.” “Composers and librettists are chosen from conservatories that are participants in the Kennedy Center Conservatory Project.” Young composers and librettists are given the opportunity to work with opera professionals to hone their work, and improve their knowledge and skills. Each year, WNO produces three twenty-minute operas by these composers and a one-hour opera composed by emerging artists. The operas are performed by members of the WNO Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
AOI three twenty-minute operas: Lifeboat with Raquel Gonzalez, Daryl Freedman, and Andrew McLaughlin; Adam with Raquel Gonzalez and Frederick Ballentine; and What Gets Kept with Daryl Freedman and Jennifer Cherest. Photos by Scott Suchman for WNO and courtesy of WNO.
The three twenty-minute operas and the one hour opera for this year were presented at the Kennedy Center in early January this year. It is worth noting that all performances were sold out weeks ahead of time. However, they are held in the smaller, 350-seat KC Family Theater instead of the opera house. So, there is an audience for new opera, but how large is not clear. I attended the one hour opera, The Dictator’s Wife. Seated behind me were a young woman and a young man from New York City. She was a singer and he was a young composer. I am suspicious a significant proportion of the audience was opera professionals. Nevertheless, the sellouts are evidence of the excitement generated by new opera.
I did not attend the three twenty-minute operas (for a review of these see Anne Midgette's review), but I very much enjoyed the premiere of The Dictator’s Wife, composed by Mohammed Fairouz with libretto written by Mohammed Hanif. I liked the music and the singing, and the production's freshness. The story revolves around a dictator in an unnamed country, and his wife who has grown frustrated with his irresponsible behavior and its effects on her. The Playbill synopsis is as follows: “In this bitingly satirical work, the glamorous but tormented wife of a once-powerful dictator bemoans that she now has to answer for all the terrible atrocities committed by her husband, who has taken to cowering in the bathroom as the country falls apart.”
We never meet the dictator. The principal actor and singer is his wife. The wife was played admirably by mezzo-soprano Allegra de Vita, who sang very well. A protester Dad played by Timothy Bruno had a moving aria. The supporting cast was able, but no one else had much of a chance to stand out. The music supported the drama, but has already faded from my memory. The discontent of the citizens is represented by a handful of protesters circling around the dictator’s quarters. The staging was minimal and the orchestra was small, as is typical for chamber productions, but effective enough. The humor didn’t really fully materialize though protesters shouting “Stop the War” followed by “Start the War” were amusing. In fact, the entire opera was somewhat confusing. I’d like to see The Dictator’s Wife performed again, for this reason and to focus more attention on the music.
I think here we have the horns of a dilemma. The Dictator’s Wife is not going to join the standard repertoire. In my opinion, as a fan-only, it’s not that good. But it was worth seeing. It will be the rare new opera that is going to be among the best of all time. But if we don’t go to see and hear the new works, how will opera composition thrive to produce the very good ones and the rare masterpieces? For me, the issue is resolved. I like hearing new works, hearing new music and encountering stories that relate more directly to my time. All the things I like about opera are there in new opera, the story-telling, the singing, the music, the acting, the costumes, the dancing, and the staging. I like opera as an art form and as entertainment. Perhaps it would help if I draw on another interest of mine for comparison. I like baseball, but I don’t restrict myself to watching only when the division leaders play or to replaying the greatest games ever. I also like watching baseball at every level, not just the major leagues. Every game is new and unfolds differently. Each player is challenged to make the most of their opportunities, and so it is with opera. The excitement is built into the art form, not just imbued by its finest examples.