Just over a week has passed since ecstatic Republican merrymakers celebrated George W. Bush’s second presidential inauguration here in the nation’s capital. But not to be outdone, the Washington National Opera is mounting a festive inaugural event of its own tonight — the world premiere of Boston-based composer Scott Wheeler’s brand new opera, “Democracy: An American Comedy.”
Directed and designed as a period piece by John Pascoe, with a libretto by Obie Award-winning playwright Romulus Linney, “Democracy” will be performed tonight and Sunday afternoon at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium. Based on two late-19th century novels by Henry Adams — “Democracy” and “Esther” — the opera charts the course of two romances complicated by politics and religion.
A D.C. native, Mr. Wheeler currently teaches at Boston’s Emerson College. His instructors have included Virgil Thomson, Arthur Berger, and Lewis Spratlan, and his works have been performed by the New York City Opera, soprano Renee Fleming, and many others.
“Democracy” is being performed primarily by the young singers of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, a two-year residency for up-and-coming vocal singers and technical apprentices. They will be joined by veteran opera singers William Parcher, Kyle Engler and Robert Baker.
“I’m not only excited that we are contributing to the … treasury of American opera, but also focusing on the importance of our Young Artist Program,” said general director Placido Domingo of the production, which will also feature members of the GWU Chamber Choir and the Youth Orchestra of America under the baton of Ann Manson.
The WNO is taking a calibrated risk on this new production. New world-premiere productions are regarded, with reason, as a financial black hole. They rarely earn back their investment, since other opera companies are inclined to turn down the uncertainty of the unknown.
But following in the footsteps of the Wolf Trap Opera Company and the University of Maryland at College Park — whose “Volpone” and “Clara,” new operas mounted with unknown casts, were reasonably successful in 2004 — the WNO has crafted a production designed to be performed in smaller auditoriums on a modest budget in hope that others will pick it up.
Set in 1875 during the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, “Democracy” intertwines the dueling love stories of a wealthy New York widow and a powerful Midwestern senator, and a young female photographer and a charismatic preacher. But neither man proves to be Prince Charming. Complications ensue amid the backdrop of political scandal and corruption.
“Democracy” deals, albeit lightheartedly, with such time-honored Washington topics as lying under oath, wealthy widows and old-time religion. Mr. Wheeler refuses to characterize the opera as a red state-blue state parable. “I’m really not taking sides. I’m more interested in politics as drama as opposed to politics as action,” he said. “‘Democracy’ is a love story in American society as Henry Adams regarded it about 100 years ago. It’s not just about politics and religion.”
Mr. Wheeler describes his compositional style as “eclectic” and declines to be categorized. “Democracy” is “an American opera,” he says. “It’s influenced by a lot of different kinds of music, just like the country — classical, patriotic, popular.” The opera traverses the landscape from fife and drum riffs to “Yankee Doodle,” from Grant campaign songs to the stirring martial sounds of John Philip Sousa.
Mr. Wheeler has been influenced by such American composers as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, as well as Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, whose “Billy Budd” was performed by the WNO last fall. “And I’ve heard every note that [Stephen] Sondheim has ever written,” he said. “My own music is extremely ‘vocal.’ These are roles that are meant to make singers sound like a million dollars.”
Rather than composing hit tunes, Mr. Wheeler intends for his music to express emotions and personalities, focusing on the complexity that can carry a dramatic structure for two hours or more. His orchestral palette also reflects this view, with his musical motifs directly influencing the lighting schemes in the production.
It’s a heady time for Mr. Wheeler, who is greatly looking forward to the opening of this, his first full-length opera. “The number of people getting onstage is amazing,” he said. “Conductor, director, cast, covers, everyone is just fabulous. It’s like a dream, really.”
He’s hoping Washington’s musically — and politically — savvy audiences will agree.