For the past 20 years or more, the challenge that opera companies face is getting bodies in the seats. With an aging audience and waning interest in opera by younger generations, opera has had to reimagine itself and present stories that speak to contemporary times or dust the cobwebs from recent history. The Washington National Opera accomplishes this in its world debut of four works presented as Written in Stone, which moves partially away from the tropes of unrequited love and conflicts among nation-states and focuses on American monuments.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Center, the Washington National Opera commissioned works by four different composers and librettists highlighting an iconic Washington, DC, monument that resonates with them. The results are Chantal by Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran, Rise by Kamala Sankaram and A.M. Homes, it all falls down by Carlos Simon and March Bamuthi Joseph, and The Rift by Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang.
The program opens with a prologue, Chantal. The word chantal denotes both stone and song, and Jason and Alicia Moran’s piece interrogates the efficacy of monuments as the answer or the question to mankind’s existence. The mezzo-soprano voice of Alicia, making her Washington National Opera debut, stands in sharp relief to the work clothes that she dons as a surveyor who is assessing the condition of a monument. Jason’s controlled composition pushes Alicia forward as an instrument in concert with the music. Their seamless collaboration is obvious.
The significance of the surveyor to constructing a monument emphasizes not only its important role but also the contributions of other literal and figurative historical surveyors of African descent like Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, Esteban de Dorantes, and Harriet Tubman. This short but impactful piece sets the tone and hints at the lost history that often shadows the construction of American monuments and provides a cogent segue to Rise.
Rise pays homage to Adelaide Johnson, the sculptor of the Portrait Monument depicting Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. This piece by Sankaram and Homes brings onto the stage 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 story behind the Portrait Monument. Initially installed in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol in 1921, the monument would not take its rightful place in the Rotunda until May 1997.
Becerra’s portrayal of Alicia, a Girl Scout who is touring the U.S. Capitol and gets separated from her group, evokes the sheer elegance of depicting the naiveté of childhood with the voice of an angel.
Story becomes as important to Written in Stone as the quality of the singers. In it all falls down, both story and voice meld in a sweeping musical composition set in a Black church and provide Bridges the space to soar as Laurel, the mother of a son, Bklyn, who is played by Christian Mark Gibbs. Bridges and Alfred Walker, playing the pastor and father, Mtchll, are likewise making their WNO debuts. Joseph’s libretto addresses homophobia in the Black church and Black family, thereby conjuring up two animate monuments, on the eve of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Marriage Equality. The piece ends on an ambiguous note as the father does not meet the outstretched hand of his gay son. The musical score feels full and grand; it hints at the plausibility of a full-blown opera.
The last and most poignant piece, The Rift, interrogates the controversy behind the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The libretto by Hwang does not disappoint as it reminds the audience 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 impassionate singing conveys Lin’s angst and evokes applause from the audience.
This world debut is provocative, sweeping, intriguing, and chock full of some of the best voices and creatives of the 21st century. Likewise, Written in Stone conjures up images of stone tablets used to record the stories and histories of a people. Perhaps humans have always yearned to leave evidence of their lives. Unlike stone tablets, monuments serve the living as a remembrance of the past and pay homage to the individual or collective dead, leaving one to wonder: Where would our society be without our monuments? Are they the answer or the question?
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours with a 20-minute intermission.
In English with projected English titles
Written in Stone plays to March 25, 2022, in the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($39–$199), call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase online.
The Written in Stone program is online here.
COVID Safety: Proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 and a valid photo ID are required to attend all indoor performances and events at the Kennedy Center. Patrons are asked to wear masks throughout the performance. Further information is online here.
A Q&A with Francesca Zambello on WNO’s new opera, ‘Written in Stone’ (interview with the Kennedy Center artistic director by Susan Galbraith)
Washington National Opera’s ‘Written in Stone’: opera as American as apple pie (review by Susan Galbraith)