“Written in Stone”, four monumental mini-operas, debuts at the Kennedy Center

For 20 years or more, the challenge facing opera companies has been to put bodies in the seats. With aging audiences and a dwindling interest in opera among younger generations, opera has had to reinvent itself and present stories that speak to contemporary times or dust off the cobwebs of recent history. The Washington National Opera accomplishes this in its world premiere of four works presented as written in stonewhich partially moves away from tropes of unrequited love and nation-state conflict and focuses on American landmarks.

In honor of the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary, Washington National Opera has commissioned works from four different composers and librettists showcasing an iconic Washington, DC landmark that resonates with them. The results are Chantale by Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, To get up by Kamala Sankaram and AM Homes, everything falls by Carlos Simon and March Bamuthi Joseph, and The flaw by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang.

Alicia Hall Moran (mezzo-soprano) in ‘Chantal.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

The program opens with a prologue, Chantale. Word sings refers to both stone and song, and Jason and Alicia Moran’s piece questions the effectiveness of monuments as an answer or question to the existence of humanity. Alicia’s mezzo-soprano voice, making her Washington National Opera debut, is embossed on the work clothes she dons as a surveyor assessing the condition of a monument. Jason’s controlled composition pushes Alicia forward as a concert instrument with music. Their unfailing collaboration is evident.

The importance of the surveyor in the construction of a monument highlights not only their important role, but also the contributions of other literal and figurative historical surveyors of African descent such as Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Esteban de Dorantes and Harriet Tubman . This short but punchy piece sets the tone and alludes to the lost history that often darkens American monument building and provides a compelling transition to To get up.

Daryl Freedman (mezzo-soprano), Vanessa Becerra (soprano), Danielle Talamantes (soprano), Suzzane Waddington (soprano) and J’nai Bridges (mezzo-soprano) in “Rise”. Photo by Scott Suchman.

To get up pays tribute to Adelaide Johnson, the sculptor of the Portrait Monument representing Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This play by Sankaram and Homes features Daryl Freedman as Adelaide Johnson, Vanessa Becerra as Alicia Hernández, J’Nai Bridges as Officer Victoria Wilson, Danielle Talamantes making her WNO debut as Maria Hernández and Suzanna Waddington as the Monument to unveil the history of the Portrait Monument. Initially installed in the crypt of the American Capitol in 1921, the monument will not take its place in the rotunda until May 1997.

Becerra’s portrayal of Alicia, a Girl Scout who visits the United States Capitol and becomes separated from her group, evokes the sheer elegance of portraying childhood naivety with the voice of an angel.

Together molded in ‘everything falls apart’. Photo by Scott Suchman.

History becomes as important to written in stone than the quality of the singers. In everything collapses, the story and voice merge into a radical musical composition set in a black church and provide Bridges with the space to rise as Laurel, the mother of a son, Bklyn, who is played by Christian Mark Gibbs. Bridges and Alfred Walker, playing pastor and father, Mtchll, also make their WNO debuts. Joseph’s libretto addresses homophobia in the black church and black family, evoking two animated landmarks, on the eve of the landmark Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality. The play ends on an ambiguous note because the father does not meet the outstretched hand of his homosexual son. The musical score sounds full and grand; it hints at the plausibility of a full-fledged opera.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen (mezzo-soprano), Rod Gilfry (baritone), Karen Vuong (soprano) and Christian Mark Gibbs (tenor) in “The Rift”. Photo by Scott Suchman

The last and most poignant piece, The flaw, questions the controversy behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Hwang’s libretto does not disappoint as it reminds audiences of the racism, sexism and nationalism that are inextricably linked to this monument. Karen Vuong makes her WNO debut as the monument’s designer, Maya Lin. Vuong’s impassioned singing conveys Lin’s angst and draws applause from the audience.

This world premiere is provocative, radical, intriguing and packed with some of the best voices and creations of the 21st century. Also, written in stone conjures up images of stone tablets used to record the stories and histories of a people. Perhaps humans have always longed to leave evidence of their lives. Unlike stone tablets, monuments serve the living as memories of the past and pay homage to the individual or collective dead, leaving one to wonder: what would our society be without our monuments? Are they the answer or the question?

Duration: approximately 2h30 with a 20 minute intermission.

written in stone plays through March 25, 2022 at the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($39 to $199), call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase in line.

the written in stone the program is online here.

COVID safety: Proof of full COVID-19 vaccination and valid photo ID are required to attend all performances and indoor events at the Kennedy Center. Spectators are asked to wear masks throughout the performance. More information is online here.

A Q&A with Francesca Zambello on WNO’s new opera, “Written in Stone” (Interview with Kennedy Center Artistic Director by Susan Galbraith)

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