Young Composers Shine at Washington National Opera

From left: Timothy J. Bruno, Raquel González, Rexford Tester, Daryl Freedman, and Many Brown in Sarah Hutchings' Twenty Minutes or Less (Scott Suchman, Washington National Opera)

It has been some time since American audiences have witnessed the development of such profound young composers as what was displayed last night in the nation's capital. All three 20-minute operas were well-orchestrated by the composers, the music was accurately executed by Maestro John DeMain, and sung beautifully by the members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. 

The three operas presented were the charming Service Provider by composer Christopher Weiss and librettist John de los Santos, the thought-provoking Alexandra by composer David Clay Mettens and librettist Joshua McGuire, and Twenty Minutes or Less by composer Sarah Hutchings and librettist Mark Sonnenblick. 

Each work presented had obvious strengths and weaknesses. However, at the end of the evening, only one composer was greeted by a supreme court justice. It was conceivable to surmise that Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg enjoyed Twenty Minutes or Less by Sarah Hutchings, as she remained in the the audience for the post-performance question and answer session to meet the composer immediately after the concert.

Melodically driven in a way that optimized the vocal strengths of the singers, Twenty Minutes or Less was the only true opera of the evening. Much like the other two works, the story left a lot to be desired; however, it was apparent that Sarah Hutchings had a musical aesthetic in mind that complimented what audiences are accustomed to hearing at the Kennedy Center. A truly synesthetic blend of harmonies and orchestral timbres, her sonorous color palette seamlessly transitioned between hints of Britten, Puccini, and Bernstein. In a text-laden evening, the synergy of words and music from Hutchings' Twenty Minutes or Less heavily favored the bel canto singing style rather than the strenuous and angular vocal lines we so commonly hear in the German repertoire, or even the contemporary American composers.

The star of the evening was certainly the clever libretto from John de los Santos in Service Provider. De los Santos was one of the more experienced creators in the evening's concert, and it was apparent that his knack for turning a phrase is unparalleled. The story was far more approachable than Twenty Minutes or Less. A husband and wife go to dinner; the wife constantly texts while the husband battles with a mistress. Though somewhat dark at times, it drew many laughs from the audience.

Alexandra was composed by the lesser experienced Mettens with a libretto from experienced writer Joshua McGuire (Roscoe, by Evan Mack). Although the vocal ability from Wei Wu was exceptional in this work, the piece fell flat in its story and became somewhat confusing. It did not seem that the audience had enough material, musical or otherwise, to remain engaged throughout the opera. However, there is a lot of promise for this composer when considering he is in his early 20s and this is one of his first attempts at opera. 

Opera is alive in well in Washington. Enough tickets were sold for this event that an additional performance was scheduled for the evening. This gives promise to the performing arts in a city that is often engulfed not in musical drama, but in the latest political drama unfolding on the capital. 

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