- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

The anticipation is palpable in Northern Virginia this week as the Wolf Trap Opera Company readies its first-ever commissioned opera. Award-winning American composer John Musto’s “Volpone,” with a libretto by lyricist Mark Campbell, will have its world-premiere run at the Barns starting Wednesday.

Based on a madcap play by popular Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson, this operatic realization of “Volpone,” or “The Fox,” whittles the playwright’s lengthy comedy down to a workable length, eliminating a secondary subplot and refreshing its language with updated puns and jokes that the librettist hopes will resonate with contemporary audiences. Mr. Campbell also tinkered a bit with the original casting to add more female voices to the composer’s palette and to increase the work’s comic possibilities.

“It’s exciting to write a comic opera,” Mr. Campbell says. “It’s not often done these days. This project has been a lot of fun. But it’s satirical, too. In a way, the heart of a comedy can be deadly serious.” Mr. Musto is equally enthusiastic about the project, which presented him with a challenge to write a large work for a smaller, more intimate ensemble. “We began with the idea of writing a chamber piece for the Wolf Trap Opera, but the idea quickly matured into an entire comic opera,” he says.

Comic American opera is a novel idea these days, when most such efforts focus on tragedy and grand statements. “There simply isn’t much comedy being done in opera today,” Mr. Musto says.

The opera — whose nutty, commedia dell’arte characters’ personalities correspond to those of different animals — unfolds from a lively if predictable plot that still resonates today. In the original, Volpone is a crafty old codger who suspects his insincere friends are toadying up to him for a chance at his fortune when he departs this world. With the help of his devious servant Mosca (“The Fly”), he feigns a terminal illness and entertains visits from these human birds of prey, who, of course, employ all manner of flattery and deceit to win the lion’s share of the old man’s estate.

Directed by Boston Lyric Opera Artistic Director Leon Major, this new “Volpone” is set somewhere between Jonson’s time and our own, according to Mr. Campbell. The whimsical costumes, part Elizabethan, part modern and some with a sly animal motif, are intended to enhance the opera’s timelessness.

Mr. Campbell has taken the meaning and structure of Jonson’s dramatic prose and recast it in rhyming verse in various meters. Why? “Because rhyme is funnier,” he says with a laugh. Merely conversational speech, like free verse, “doesn’t energize the music,” according to Mr. Campbell. “A libretto, like a poem, must have an inner rhythm or line so that the music has someplace to go.” This, along with a solid plot, enables the composer to do his job more easily .

Mr. Musto, in turn, has built a modern score that doesn’t shy away from a good tune — unlike many contemporary operas. He cautions, though, that he’s not writing pop music.

Mindful of his audience in a way two generations of academic atonalists were not, he describes a work filled with “songs, arias, yes, but also musical ‘hooks,’ or motifs that recur throughout the work,” reminding the audience of a certain character, incident or action. “I employ varied classical music styles and even some modern ones,” he says, and his music runs the gamut from fugue to tarantella to “a sort of soft-shoe.”

“It’s tough to find anyone who can actually write opera today,” says Wolf Trap Opera General Director Kim Witman. “An opera composer needs to know all about the human voice and must be able to orchestrate. And most of all, the composer must have graduated from smaller forms. Composing an opera requires someone who’s comfortable sustaining a long form and classic structures organically.

“John’s music is rather fast and dense,” she continues. “The rhyming shape of Mark’s libretto holds it together and enables the audience to more easily hear the words and get the punch lines.” Mr. Musto is clearly aiming at a work that will please sometimes fickle opera fans as well as newcomers who are open to new work if it’s accessible.

“It’s an opera,” Mr. Musto says emphatically. “It’s not Broadway. The leads have a lot of singing to do which requires a polished and mature technique. Broadway’s style today is to sing flat out at the same volume, just belt it out.”

Wolf Trap’s cast for this world-premiere event is composed of the kind of young singers the company is renowned for introducing to the world of opera. The opera’s more intimate scale means the soloists often end up in various ensembles, eliminating the need for an actual chorus and all the related logistics.

The composer, librettist and some of the cast were in New York this past weekend to present a discussion and master class on “Volpone” sponsored by the Guggenheim — unusual for a work debuting out of town. A similar program will be presented today at the new Wolf Trap Center for Education.

Both Mr. Musto and Mr. Campbell praise the support Wolf Trap has provided for their new work. “The workshop format was invaluable,” Mr. Musto says. “It gave us time to work out hitches in the piece rather than do all this at the last minute on deadline.”

After next week’s premiere, Mr. Campbell plans to get back to work on the text for a new song cycle as well as two short operas. Mr. Musto will be returning to Washington May 11 as a pianist when he performs with the Hawthorne Quartet at the Kennedy Center.

Meanwhile, the Wolf Trap Opera company is already looking forward to its regular summer season, which will be highlighted by its first-ever performance of Salieri’s “Falstaff” at the Barns and a concert version of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in the Filene Center.

WHAT: “Volpone,” by John Musto and Mark Campbell

WHO: The Wolf Trap Opera.

WHEN: Wednesday and Friday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 p.m.

WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: For information, call 703/938-2404. For tickets, visit the box office at the Barns from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday or call 703/218-6500.

WHAT: “Volpone: The Making of an Opera.” Discussion with the opera’s creators hosted by Wolf Trap Opera Company General Director Kim Witman. Includes excerpts from the score and video footage of rehearsals.

WHEN: Today, 2 to 3 p.m.

WHERE: Wolf Trap Center for Education, 1645 Trap Road (behind the Barns), Vienna

TICKETS: $7

PHONE: For reservations call 703/255-4015.

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