At WNO’s American Opera Initiative, three glimpses into the future

But the highlight of the evening was its centerpiece, “Forever” — quite easily the strangest opera I’ve ever seen. Rather than dig into humanity for material, composer Elizabeth Gartman and librettist Melisa Tien dispose of it altogether, opting instead for a world populated by humanistic petrochemicals and tenacious microorganisms.

Thus, “Forever” stages a meet-cute of sorts at an abandoned superfund site between two star-crossed polyfluoroalkyl substances — one derived from an Applebee’s Quesadilla Burger Wrapper (soprano Teresa Perrotta), the other left over from an Apple Watch Ultra Wristband (tenor Sahel Salam). Into this solution enters a temptress, Tardigrade (contralto Cecelia McKinley), the last of her kind, who threatens their budding love by luring one of the polyfluoroalkyl substances into a crater of liquid mercury. We’ve all been there.

The prestigious incubator program for young composers and librettists presented three short works in progress at the Kennedy Center

Review by Michael Andor Brodeur for the Washington Post

Jonathan Pierce Rhodes in the Washington National Opera’s “Hairpiece” at the Kennedy Center. (Bronwen Sharp)

On Friday night at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater, three new operas took their first steps as part of the American Opera Initiative (AOI), the Washington National Opera’s enduring incubator program for young teams of composers and librettists.

Under the guidance of three mentors — conductor David Bloom, playwright and librettist Deborah Brevoort, and composer (and AOI alumnus) Kamala Sankaram — the creative duos are tasked with turning one year of work into 20 minutes of opera. This is no small challenge on two fronts. For one, fully staged operas can require several years of development before they even graze a stage. For another, 20 minutes of time has all the flexibility of an iron bar. Bending it into a narrative arc is nothing short of a feat of strength.

As test kitchens go, the AOI has a strong track record. Now in its 11th season, the initiative has commissioned more than 40 operas and mentored dozens of creative teams, more than half of whom continue to work together. Damien Geter and Lila Palmer’s “American Apollo,” for instance, first emerged as a short for AOI in 2021 and will receive its fully staged world premiere by Des Moines Metro Opera in July.

And although the lightning-round approach to opera taken by AOI produces mixed results each year, that’s sort of the point: Ideas set loose in these operas often seem like the products of either deep personal memories or flashes of sudden inspiration. They have a snapshot energy in an art form that must often endure the slow dry of an oil painting.

But, like a snapshot, short operas produced in a rush can also conspicuously lack the very elements that make opera work: artful framing, comprehensive orchestration and the time it takes to replace one reality with another.

With a strong ensemble of singers from the Cafritz Young Artists program singing the roles, and 13 players from the Washington National Opera Orchestra supplying the music from onstage, each of these short operas admirably managed to surmount the roughness and draftiness of a rough draft.

Sergio Martínez, Winona Martin and Kresley Figueroa in the Washington National Opera’s “A Way Forward” at the Kennedy Center. (Bronwen Sharp)

With “A Way Forward,” composer Laura Jobin-Acosta and librettist José Alba Rodríguez capture the crisis point of the family behind Panaderia Gabriel, a Mexican bakery in Queens specializing in conchas and facing imminent foreclosure. Appropriately, it’s a tale told with warmth and sweetness, even if its attempt to weave a multigenerational tapestry comes off a bit like hurried knitting.

Mezzo-soprano Winona Martin and soprano Kresley Figueroa whipped up instantly convincing chemistry as abuelita Helena and distractible granddaughter Julia — Rodríguez’s lithe lines effectively threading long traditions through simple details. (“Flour! Water! Butter! Cinnamon!”) The sturdy bass of Sergio Martínez served the financially stressed patriarch Gabriel well, despite the character’s sole emotional note as he strives to update the bakery with organic fruit juice, imported coffee and touch-screen menus.

Rodríguez suffuses his libretto with lovely detail and realism. And although some of the poetry was perplexing (“Your hand moves are in my blood”) and some of the expression wooden (“If we use social media, the word will spread!”), and although the characters sometimes felt more like avatars of motive than examples of people, Jobin-Acosta’s music bestowed an ease and vivacity that made the inner lives of the family easily accessible. “A Way Forward” could be a revelatory treat, given a bit more time to proof.

I was especially moved by “Hairpiece,” a smartly situated study of otherness from composer Joy Redmond and librettist Sam Norman. Centered on the Midtown Manhattan shop of veteran wig maker Esther, the story follows her encounter with 21-year-old Ari, an “aspiring artist questioning their gender and much else,” and the latter’s encounter with the widower Gale, “a young man wrecked by grief and early hair loss.”

Hair becomes the connective thread that intertwines the characters: Ari, splendidly and sensitively voiced by tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes, sports a cheap mop of bubble-gum pink. Gale, compassionately embodied by baritone Justin Burgess, dons a tragic rug. And Esther, sung by the standout soprano Tiffany Choe, tends to an exquisite $5,000 masterpiece on her workbench. In the hands of this trio, hair becomes a material of access, identity, desire and dignity.

Somehow, Redmond and Norman keep a multitude of emotional and melodic themes from tangling up in knots. Choe’s opening aria, “To Make a Wig,” was a bracing introduction to Redmond’s music and Norman’s poetry — each well-paced and keenly sharpened. Redmond is especially good at capturing the uncertain energy between strangers, a tension suspended in long lines of woodwind, blinks of piano, nervous pulses of percussion. And she’s a stunning singer, nimble and controlled.

And despite the heavy emotional stakes at play, the opera — brief as it was — was buoyed by a welcome lightness and a hopeful note. “Hairpiece” has great potential to tell a grander story about the many ways we become ourselves. Color me teased.

But the highlight of the evening was its centerpiece, “Forever” — quite easily the strangest opera I’ve ever seen. Rather than dig into humanity for material, composer Elizabeth Gartman and librettist Melisa Tien dispose of it altogether, opting instead for a world populated by humanistic petrochemicals and tenacious microorganisms.

Thus, “Forever” stages a meet-cute of sorts at an abandoned superfund site between two star-crossed polyfluoroalkyl substances — one derived from an Applebee’s Quesadilla Burger Wrapper (soprano Teresa Perrotta), the other left over from an Apple Watch Ultra Wristband (tenor Sahel Salam). Into this solution enters a temptress, Tardigrade (contralto Cecelia McKinley), the last of her kind, who threatens their budding love by luring one of the polyfluoroalkyl substances into a crater of liquid mercury. We’ve all been there.

Provided the apocalypse doesn’t arrive first, a wave of post-apocalyptic opera is approaching. In a production at 2023’s experimental Prototype Festival, Gelsey Bell’s “m??n?? [morning//mourning]” recently explored “a world in which all humans have disappeared from Earth.” And this month’s installment of Prototype featured the premiere of Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko’s “Chornobyldorf,” an opera in which “the remaining descendants of humanity find themselves in a post-societal world following the death of capitalism, opera, and philosophy.”

But Gartman and Tien’s approach to the end of days is refreshingly absurd and giddy with whimsy. Musically, “Forever” feels composed from the wreckage of the world it leaves behind — especially a portentous jingle that feels like a curse on the human folly of microplastics: “Plastic makes the world go round/ everywhere it can be found/ Fertilizer, hats, shampoo/ Even deep inside of you.”

As the three elements work to bond and discover a new mode of … polymer-amory (?), a new idea of what opera can do is quietly affirmed in “Forever.” Even when all might be lost in a hopeless desert of lifeless toxic sludge, the future feels bright.

Washington National Opera renews commitment to future of American opera

A three-character opera lasting 20 minutes is not a vast canvas, and it turns out that less can be more in a mini-opera. The most successful of the three new works, Forever by Elizabeth Gartman, was also the most frivolous, at least on the surface. Set to a libretto by Melisa Tien, it featured two PFAS chemical molecules (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, colloquially known as “forever chemicals”) in a post-apocalyptic sludge long after humans are extinct and then making an unexpected bond with a frisky tardigrade (the resilient micro-animal sometimes called a “water bear”).

By Charles T. Downey for the Washington Classical Review

Forever

Sahel Salam, Teresa Perrotta, and Cecelia McKinley performed in Elizabeth Gartman’s Forever for Washington National Opera Friday night. (Photo: Bronwen Sharp)

Washington National Opera earns its middle name every time it mounts an American opera. The company’s American Opera Initiative bears fruit each year with the world premiere of three 20-minute operas by rising composers and librettists. Now in its 11th season, the program presented the newest trio of works Friday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

A panel of mentors guides the three librettist-composer pairs through the development and completion of each opera. Christopher Cano, who succeeded Robert Ainsley as director of WNO’s Cafritz Young Artists and AOI at the start of last season, introduced the evening. This year, short videos preceded each work, showing the rehearsal process and featuring the thoughts of the creators and their interpreters, who are all Cafritz Young Artists.

A three-character opera lasting 20 minutes is not a vast canvas, and it turns out that less can be more in a mini-opera. The most successful of the three new works, Forever by Elizabeth Gartman, was also the most frivolous, at least on the surface. Set to a libretto by Melisa Tien, it featured two PFAS chemical molecules (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, colloquially known as “forever chemicals”) in a post-apocalyptic sludge long after humans are extinct and then making an unexpected bond with a frisky tardigrade (the resilient micro-animal sometimes called a “water bear”).

Soprano Teresa Perrotta, who was one of the vocal highlights of last year’s Grounded, displayed remarkable power, agility, and dramatic presence as PFAS 1, outshone only in comic exuberance by tenor Sahel Salam as PFAS 2. Cecelia McKinley plied her robust contralto to make a surprisingly alluring Tardigrade, costumed in a puffy coat with many sleeves and hands (costumes designed by Timm Burrow).

The silliness of the action (with a climax including the loud singing of the word “Polyamory!”) did not diminish the heavy underlying issue, climate change and plastic pollution. Tien’s libretto provoked a lot of laughter in the audience, for example, in the disparate origins of the two PFAS molecules (one from a luxury watch band and the other a lowly fast-food wrapper). Gartman’s inventive score featured the repeated crunching of plastic objects by the percussionist, a gesture echoed at the end when the two PFAS singers endlessly twisted plastic bottles.

Overly earnest seriousness weighed down both of the other works a bit, confronting issues that probably need more than twenty minutes to handle adequately. Sam Norman’s libretto for Hairpiece dealt with a wigmaker named Esther, who agrees to help Ari, a young trans woman, acquire a new wig that will make her feel more feminine. The issue seemed particularly relevant to the composer, Joy Redmond, herself a trans woman.

Tiffany Choe’s pliant soprano suited the feisty Esther, who seemed to be the focus of the opera until Ari arrived. Tenor Jonathan Pierce Rhodes delivered a sympathetic and nuanced interpretation of Ari, extending the dramatic range he has already shown in Blue and The Passion of Mary Cardwell Dawson last year. The crisis of the story is that Ari, dressed in false breasts and a champagne pink fright wig, was mistaken for a drag queen by a man named Gale, played with otherwise affable qualities by baritone Justin Burgess.

Hairpiece

Jonathan Pierce Rhodes (Ari) and Justin Burgess (Gale) in Joy Redmond’s Hairpiece for Washington National Opera (Photo: Bronwen Sharp)

While Redmond’s musical style tended toward the chaotic, in a score overstuffed with a panoply of musical styles, Laura Jobin-Acosta hewed to the plain and staid in her contribution, called A Way Forward. The libretto by José Alba Rodríguez centered on three generations of an immigrant Mexican family and its bakery: a conservative grandmother who wants to preserve traditions, a son who wants to modernize the business, and a Gen Z granddaughter who finds a way to satisfy both sides, somewhat predictably, by manipulating social media.

The refulgent mezzo-soprano Winona Martin, who made an impression during an earlier apprenticeship at Wolf Trap Opera, anchored the piece as the stiff-necked abuela, Helena. Bass Sergio Martínez gave a potent rendition of Gabriel’s sober aria (“I’m the son”), but soprano Kresley Figueroa, while dramatically convincing, sounded pinched and thin in the upper reaches as the young Julia.

Conductor David Bloom made an auspicious WNO debut at the podium, ably managing both the thirteen-person chamber orchestra, spread out unevenly at the back of the stage, and the singers. Director Chloe Treat, also in her company debut, suggested the three settings with a smattering of objects and set pieces. The most inventive semi-staging came in Forever, centered on three poles and some plastic cartons for the PFAS chemicals to dart around in. A large mirror propped up to one side of the stage evoked the pool of mercury where the Tardigrade swam, grinning like a dystopian Cheshire Cat.

WNO will not return to the Kennedy Center Opera House until its production of Puccini’s Turandot, May 11 to 25. kennedy-center.org

Psalmayene 24 Set to Direct Arena Stage’s World Premiere of Tempestuous Elements

Kia Corthron’s new play explores the trailblazing career of Black feminist Anna Julia Cooper.

By Molly Higgins for Playbill.com

January 17, 2024

Playwright Kia Corthron

Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage has announced the cast and creative team for the world premiere of Kia Corthron’s Tempestuous Elements. The production will run at the Mead Center for American Theater’s Fichandler Stage February 16-March 17, 2024. 

Tempestuous Elements explores the trailblazing career of Black feminist Anna Julia Cooper, who served as principal of D.C.’s historic M Street School at the turn of the 20th century. While facing sabotage attempts from colleagues and neighbors, Cooper fights for her students’ right to an advanced curriculum and greater education equity. Psalmayene 24 will direct.

Psalmayene 24, set to Direct

The cast features Kelly Renee Armstrong (Our War), Peter Boyer (Holiday), Renea S. Brown (Change Agent) Gina Daniels (Roe), Jasmine Joy (POTUS), Paul Morella (All My Sons), Kevin E. Thorne II (Seven Guitars), Renee Elizabeth Wilson (Seven Guitars), Joel Ashur (Confederates), Ro Boddie (The Mountaintop), Jonathan Del Palmer (The Winter’s Tale), Brittney Dubose (The Window King), Yetunde Felix-Ukwu (Nollywood Dreams), Lolita Marie (The Brothers Paranormal), and Monique Paige (Breath, Boom).

“I was researching my play Fish, about the contemporary public school system, when I came across legendary writer/activist/speaker and primarily educator Anna Julia Cooper,” Corthron says. “She was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and lived to be 105, so had a long career. I was especially interested in her tenure as principal/teacher at D.C.’s renowned M Street School in the years around the turn of the twentieth century. So, when Arena Stage offered me a commission for a new play (the subject matter was up to me), I was eager to explore this Washington treasure.”

The creative team includes set designer Tony Cisek, costume designer LeVonne Lindsay, lighting designer William K. D’Eugenio, hair and wig designer LaShawn Melton, choreographer and associate director Tony Thomas, dialect and vocal coach Lisa Nathans, text director Anita Maynard-Losh, dramaturg Otis Ramsey-Zöe, casting director Joseph Pinzon, stage manager Christi B. Spann, and assistant stage manager Jalon Payton. The production also features original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones.

Tempestuous Elements is presented as part of Arena Stage’s Power Play Initiative, which commissions original works on politics and power in American history. The initiative focuses particularly on works which emphasize presidential, African American, and/or female voices; musicals that celebrate political ideas and events; or plays that present an exclusive perspective on the complex workings of American institutions or cultures. 

Visit ArenaStage.org.

Best Of: Ask A Playwright with Panelist Psalmayene 24

Playwrights Karen Zacarías, James Ijames, and Psalmayene 24 join our panel.

Before Hamlet could pose the iconic question of “To be or not to be,” the line began as merely a thought in the mind of a playwright.

While Shakespeare is long gone, theater – and thus playwriting – is very much alive.

Theater, in contrast to television or film, offers a unique chance for audiences to come together and experience a one-of-a-kind production. Playwrights, in collaboration with actors, directors, and stage crew work, are chiefly responsible for bringing that magic to life.

For this installment of our “Ask A” series, where we talk to interesting people about what they do and why it matters, we speak to a group of playwrights about the power of storytelling on stage.