Democracy: An American Comedy – Scott Wheeler/Romulus Linney

Written by:
John Sullivan
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Scott Wheeler with Placido Domingo in rehearsal for Democracy: An American Comedy

The question that immediately rises when the curtain descends on Democracy: An American Comedy by composer Scott Wheeler and librettist Romulus Linney is: Could this opera be too serious for its title? In the larger lens of today’s world, the very word democracy abounds with contrary and emotional connotations. On Broadway, Michael Frayn’s play Democracy tells the story of German politician and womanizer Willy Brandt, a man whose history is all too familiar in that of our own 41st President, Bill Clinton. In world news, the battle for democracy is currently playing out in Iraq where the terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi has declared democracy an “evil principle” because it promotes freedom of religion and belief, and thereby replaces the rule of God (Allah). Zarqawi says democracy is “heresy itself.”

Washington National Opera presented a lavishly produced and thought-provoking world premiere of Democracy: An American Comedy at The George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium, a venue known for cutting-edge programs. For this commissioned new work, WNO, whose home is the Kennedy Center Opera House and whose performers are usually world-renowned stars such as Placido Domingo and Denyce Graves, employed mostly young artists as singers and musicians.

The opera, set in Washington, DC during the spring of 1875 and the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, presents parallel love stories. The stories are drawn from two 19th century novels by Henry Adams. The first story, which draws from Adams’ novel Democracy, concerns a United States senator named Silas Raitcliffe and a wealthy widow named Madeleine Lee. The second story drawn from Adams’ novel Esther, involves the Reverend Stephen Hazard and the young woman Esther Dudley, who is a photographer and the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice.

Although the characters know each other, the glue between these stories is an exotic character named Baron Jacobi who is a corrupt Bulgarian ambassador and who moves the action of the story along as narrator talking directly to the audience. By the end of the second act, goaded by Jacobi, both women have rejected their suitors. Mrs. Lee, who receives damning information from Jacobi, rejects Senator Raitcliffe based on his shady political dealings. She tells him, “You may bestride the country, [but] you will never bestride me!” Esther, who abjectly loves Stephen, rejects the reverend because “the church is a maze of deceit, from the door to the cross.” What’s worse is that Esther, a woman who wears pants, seeks intelligent conversation and pursues a career that in her day was usually a man’s, accuses the reverend of wanting to use her as a sexual object, “I ask you for spiritual life, and you send me back into myself…my womb, like a bitch to her puppies.”

Another critical character is Esther’s Aunt Lydia who serves as Jacobi’s foil. When Jacobi rants about how corrupt American democracy is, Lydia puts things back in perspective. She says, “If democracy prevails, let us rejoice. If it fails, let us die in the ranks.” During an outing at Mount Vernon, Jacobi counters a toast to George Washington by saying Washington was a clumsy politician. Raitcliffe declares that President Washington was “above politics.” Reverend Hazard offers that Washington could have made himself king but didn’t. The assembled party turns to Lydia who says that one cannot idolize our leaders. As a girl she observed the flesh and bones first president and he was merely a “raw-boned country farmer” who was bad-tempered, pinched his wife till she cried, and blew his nose into his hand. Yet, Lydia acknowledges George Washington is everything to us now: righteous, grand, and a god.

The range of subject matter in the opera includes governmental politics, the politics of sexual relationships, and the role of religion in an enlightened culture. From these broad categories, other hot-button subjects radiate with their own emotional storms, including royalty versus the common man, feminism, homosexuality, faith versus belief.

When the opera reaches its last scene, Madeleine Lee, Esther Dudley, and the Baron Jacobi have boarded a steamship headed to the “corrupt” destinations of London, Paris, and Vienna. Jacobi pronounces, “This concludes tonight’s American Comedy.” Esther questions, “Is it a comedy?” and then adds, “I thought comedies had happy endings.” Jacobi assures her this one does, followed by Mrs. Lee blithely commenting, “Yes, suppose we had married them.” The ending smacks of farce: three characters fleeing democracy in America come out on top because they have not been mastered by politics, sex, or religion. However, given the serious discussions of politics, sex, and religion that have preceded, the playwright and composer have delivered a head-scratching drama with comic twists in the tradition of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson’s The Mother of Us All.

Both Wheeler and Linney knew Virgil Thomson. Wheeler calls Thomson his mentor and knew him first as a visitor to his boyhood home. There are numerous echoes of Thomson and Stein in Democracy. For example, the libretto states that Jacobi “sings to the audience as compere throughout the opera.” Thomson introduced two characters called commere and compere (based on a French theater tradition) into his first opera with Stein Four Saints In Three Acts. When Esther asks at the end, "Is it a comedy?" she has stepped outside of her role to participate with Jacobi as interlocutor, a device which echoes Stein in Four Saints with such questions as “How many acts are there in it?” “How many saints in all?” and “Who makes who makes it do?”

To compound an extremely complex text, Wheeler’s music, like Virgil Thomson’s, is, to the untrained ear, easy to hear but hard to appreciate in its subtle richness. Underneath the listenable lyricism lies dissonance and diatonic harmonies. In the first act of this production, something goes awry such that the text and music deliver divergent emotional meanings. In fact, the music seems far more serious minded than the text. Conductor Anne Manson is ably qualified to interpret this new classical music but do the young musicians of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas have enough experience to deliver this kind of music?

Of the nine characters roles, three – Baron Jacobi (tenor Robert Baker), Lydia Dudley (mezzo-soprano Kyle Engler), and President Grant (baritone William Parcher) –are played by seasoned veterans. The other six are graduates or current participants in WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Baker excels as the roguish and corrupt baron who enjoys causing trouble and telling why he loses his job as ambassador. In one of the most beautiful arias, Engler, as Esther’s old Aunt Lydia confined to a wheelchair, sings enchantingly about her hobby of looking at the stars through her telescope. Young Artist graduate Jessica Swink as the outrageous lobbyist Essy Baker provides a memorable performance both as singer and actor. Her nervous energy provides perfect contrast against the matronly figure of Mrs. Lee played by Keri Alkema, another Young Artist graduate.

John Pascoe, as director and set and costume designer, has shaped the players as Americans still influenced by Europe’s royalty and their habits. The costumes look right for a palace ball. The women curtsey to President Grant as if they were meeting a king. Lincoln is seen as a portrait, but there’s none of the dust or mud of American streets. Lydia and Essy Baker’s lines reveal the crudeness of America but visually little is seen of the rough, plainness of America.

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