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Subject: Wash Natl Opera's American Opera Initiative proves perfect with world premiere of PROVING UP (1-19-17)
From: Alan Savada <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Alan Savada <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sat, 20 Jan 2018 16:58:05 -0500

text/plain (99 lines)

Last night as the US government was coming to a total shutdown on the other side of town, a sold out house filled the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre for the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli & Royce Vavrek's newest hit, "Proving Up," which commenced a three-day weekend featuring four world premiere works under the auspices of the American Opera Initiative, now in what I think is its 10th year here at Washington National Opera. The other three twenty minute operas will be performed twice each this evening. I mention the US government as this opera is largely about the American Dream, or the failure thereof, so it is quite relative!

Proving Up is a co-commission with opera Omaha and the Miller Theater at Columbia University.


Mrs. Johannes “Ma” Zegner
Leah Hawkins

Little Sister 
Madison Leonard

Taller Sister 
Allegra De Vita

Miles Zegner
Arnold Livingston Geis

Mr. Johannes “Pa” Zegner
Christopher Kenney

The Sodbuster
Timothy J. Bruno

Peter Zegner

Alan Naylor


Missy Mazzoli

Royce Vavrek

Chris Rountree 

Alison Moritz

Costumes-Lynly Saunders

Lights-AJ Guban

We were treated to a lush orchestra of 13 featuring banjos and eight acoustic guitars which are struck with a mallet. I thought I even heard the twang of an harpsichord, but it was a neat trick with an electronic keyboard!

Ms. Mazzoli explained afterwards during the Q&A that this is to truly give a feel of dryness as the opera takes place in the dust belt of Nebraska in the 1870's where homesteaders are attempting to "prove up" or become landowners. The story comes from a short story by Karen Russell, who was also in attendance. Ominous strings set us going with a bare stage lit on a white square at the center of the floor. At the rear is a wall of string or fringe that had various shades of gray with a swath of what appears to be crepe paper through the middle which later does some amazing tricks on our eyes! The set is simple with two tall ladders, one about 8 feet the other 10, a large trunk, table and chairs and some crates. The clothing is pretty drab with simple frocks, overalls and such.

The Zegner family sings of "The Homestead Act" which becomes a repeated theme throughout the 70 minute or so work: "a house of sod..." which at first is repeated over and over by the family quintet (Peter is a mute role played by the superb local actor Mr. Naylor). We soon discover the two sisters are actually dead and live only in the family's memory, but are quite real, if a bit ghostly and ghastly, to us.

The gutsy solos get going with Ms. Hawkins' "Where is God's rain?" as her drunken husband, Mr. Kenney, intones in gorgeous deep warm baritone notes, which at times was funny, despite the intense seriousness of the work overall.

They hold up the 6 paned medium size window, "Our window of glass..." as this is the last requirement for obtaining the land from the US government: a house of sod, 5 years of harvest and a glass window.

Peter has disappeared and reenters all bloodied, but we know not from what or why. As the older brother, he was to have taken the window to the neighbors (many miles away of course) so they could have it when the government inspector arrived. Hence, in order to "prove up," the window was moved from homestead to homestead whenever the inspector came.

A haunting, yet somehow gay, fiddle party starts with the two dead sisters portraying the Yothers family in a "skit" if you will. As they tell the story of how their father went to visit the Yothers, we discover they had all disappeared from their home after proving up for their homestead. Mr. Kenney's "Pa" sings of how the only thing left is a line of "queer little trees" that intimates they are crosses on the Yothers' graves. With the home empty, he takes the window home to use for his homestead.

Ms. Hawkins' theme of dryness continue with "Somehow the weeds find means to grow..." and mid-aria there is an almost (Philip) Glassian trumpet call and the "house of sod" theme returns sung by the family. We understand that "Ma" will nover move from the graves of her daughters, which is delivered with gorgeous high piercing floating soprano notes. Pa ties two belts to a wooden chair which becomes their horse, Nore and Mr. Geis' Miles sits in the chair and stands on it as he takes the window, now wrapped in a blanket, which must get to the next family before the inspector arrives. Despite his youth, he is the only one left to do this and Mr. Geis is simply brilliant as the young teen and delivers a magnificent aria/scena: "Miles and Nore proving up." 

The scene changes and most of the set is removed as Miles makes his way on his horse. The string or fringe fabric at the back slowly seems to almost dissolve as Miles enters a huge rainstorm: "I've dreamt for two whole years of water flowing down glass.."  His two dead sisters are at the right pouring cups of water into a large vat. Miles removes the window from its wrapping as we see a hillbilly-like character with large floppy hat pacing across the rear of the stage behind the string curtain. the rain turns to a blizzard and the girls wrestle Miles down as they sing "the inspector is a rumor" in the most slurred and edgy style. Miles is thrown from his horse and hurt; he lays bleeding and scarred and seems to pass out. It is here that I actually thought he might be dead and that the ensuing scene was indeed a dream, or post-death vision of some sort; I guess I was wrong. 

Mr. Bruno's Sodbuster intones "inspector" in his deepest of basses as he comes forward and beats the filthy dust off his hat. His overalls are covered with dirt and muck as is his hair and large beard. His shirt (also filthy) is in shreds and hangs way low beyond his hands as he taunts Miles, who has risen from his fall.  He tells Miles he needs the window to prove up as he takes the window. Miles says no, but the Sodbuster accuses him of stealing it. miles asks if the Sodbuster knows the Yotherses and his response is "only at the end." For me, this really gave me an eerie feeling that this guy was somehow the grim reaper, especially when he subsequently strangles Miles to death after Miles tries to stab the Sodbuster with a pen knife. the size difference of these two singers is so huge you really can feel the Sodbuster's immense presence over the little boy; but with our excellent Young Artists, we get this feeling with superb voices to boot! As he is killing Miles, the Sodbuster declaims "that's the thing about windows; sometimes we see things we don't want to see.....have YOU proven up, Miles?" We realize Miles is dead when he joins his two sisters and now seems to interact with them even more than he did before. 

The scene changes back to the Zegner homestead with "Ma" singing that "every stipulation has been met and they are ready for the inspector. The sisters interact and almost pet Peter who still remains home bloodied. I must add that the eerie and superb singing of the sisters is often accompanied with them playing harmonicas as well, adding a very folksy, but also eerie feel. The Sodbuster enters carrying Miles over his shoulder as if he is a sack of potatoes and points a finger to "Pa" almost implying he best keep quiet and not try anything. "Ma" changes her song from that of her dream coming true and sings, "God, You are a rumor!" as she has lost he faith. The Sodbuster pulls her to the ground where she falls lifeless. The sisters place Miles in the trunk as the ominous guitars strike to "all that's required."

There is a repeat performance of Proving Up tomorrow at 3pm and I am so sorry I cannot attend as I really want to see and hear this work again to absorb everything I missed; yes, you can miss a lot in even an hour! I had heard the work in workshop last spring and knew the basic plot, but it is very melodramatic and can be confusing; plus there's all that amazing music that really needs more time to absorb....maybe in Omaha or NYC!

Tonight the world premieres of A BRidge for Three(Nathan Fletcher/Megan Cohen), Fault Lines(Gity Raza/Sara Cooper) and Precita Park (John Glover/Erin Bregman).

ALAN SAVADA of Washington, DC

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