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Reinventing Opera

The Kennedy Center’s American Opera Initiative aims to show people how modern and relevant opera can be.

American Opera Initiative director Michael Heaston with Caitlin Vincent and Joshua Bornfield, librettist and composer of “Uncle Alex,” about Ellis Island. Photograph of Heaston, Vincent, and Bornfield by Margot Schulman.

Opera faces a lot of challenges in fostering new work. Struggling companies tend to shy away from the unfamiliar to sell tickets, and audiences often neglect new compositions in favor of classics. A Kennedy Center program is trying to remedy that situation. The American Opera Initiative, now in its second year, debuts three 20-minute operas this month, followed next June by the hourlong premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s An American Soldier.

“It’s easy for opera to be treated like a museum art form, where we’re only doing works by people who are dead,” program director Michael Heaston says. “We want people to know there are living librettists and composers creating new work and that there’s much more to opera below the surface.”

The trio of short operas taking a bow November 13 are Duffy’s Cut, a tale of three ghosts of Irish railroad workers seeking vengeance (by composer Jennifer Bellor and librettist Elizabeth Reeves); Uncle Alex, which explores an immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island (by Joshua Bornfield and Caitlin Vincent); and Breaking, about a TV reporter eager to win the news cycle (by Michael Gilbertson and Caroline McGraw). “Each says something about the American experience,” Heaston says. “And each deals with social change in an interesting way.”

The initiative benefits from its ties to the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, which gives emerging artists access to composer Jake Heggie, librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson. Heggie’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick has its local premiere with the WNO in February, and the composer will take part in a discussion.

Says Heaston: “We are making a case for continuing the operatic art form, but we’re also hoping to get people interested in being included in the process. The more people feel opera is accessible, the more successful it can be.”

American Opera Initiative. November 13 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets ($15) to the evening of 20-minutes operas are available online

This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.