Power to the people

Democracy was in action last weekend when 16 members of GW’s Chamber Choir performed in the world premiere of Democracy: An American Comedy, The Washington National Opera’s first commissioned work in more than a decade. GW’s company debut also marked the WNO’s temporary return to its original home at Lisner Auditorium.

“It’s been a great boon for the reputation of arts at GW,” said Dr. Robert Baker, a Vocal Studies coordinator who has sung in more than 200 WNO performances. “It’s a risk to use any student group in the chorus and to use GW students because we never had that sort of reputation in the larger community.”

In Democracy, Baker played the principle role of Baron Jacobi, who narrates the opera by telling how he lost his job in Washington for being gay.”He’s a sodomite. He’s a sexual pervert,” Baker said, recounting the words that other characters use to describe him. His aria about corruption is central to the opera’s message, depicting dirty politics during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.

“It’s a social commentary about politics, power and religion,” said senior Chamber Choir member Ryan Geist, who stressed WNO’s degree of professionalism in discussing his involvement with the company.

Supported by the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, Democracy was Pl?cido Domingo’s first commissioned work as WNO’s director, and several students’ first performance in a contemporary opera.

“This is a pretty rich period for contemporary operas,” Baker said. “People are composing them and the big opera companies are putting them on. But it’s hard to get them on a second time. Opera is an expensive business. When you’re depicting certain time periods, you need to be authentic to the styles. Otherwise it looks like a rented high school show. Experimental and avant-garde works often don’t have as much assurance of an audience as classical compositions like Carmen or La Boheme.”

Democracy’s two weekend productions received outstanding reviews in several major newspapers, particularly Baker and the students’ performance. Despite the fact that it was not included WNO’s main subscription series at the Kennedy Center, Baker says he’s optimistic about “the million dollar question with new works” indicating that Democracy has potential to be performed in other cities.

“I think this opera has a really good chance because we are proving that it can be done with the 16-voice student chorus,” he said. “It’s not a huge production. But (set/costume director) John Pascoe has done a masterful job of putting something attractive on stage that isn’t a budget breaker. It looks like opera.”

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