The Kennedy Center creates Written in Stone, four operas about monuments and memorials
This first feeling is rooted in a demonstrable fact. Last year, a national “monument audit” commissioned by the Mellon Foundation and conducted by the Philadelphia-based Monument Lab studied the memorial landscape of the United States and quantified what was already obvious: that markers of white men make up the overwhelming majority of monuments and memorials, which primarily celebrate “war and conquest”. The evening’s second short opera, “Rise,” with music by Kamala Sankaram and libretto by AM Homes, explores this idea, with a drama centered around a young Latino asking pointed questions about where, in the US Capitol, she can find images that represent her sense of being American.
The second sentiment, that monuments are fundamentally inadequate for memorialization, is more complicated and has a long history in American discourse. The ambivalence of monuments goes back to the early days of the republic, when many reasonable voices questioned whether memorials to men like George Washington were fundamentally undemocratic remnants of monarchical thinking. A century ago, the debate was about the cost and value of commemoration, and whether we could better spend our money on things like libraries and schools.
Today, there is a growing realization that our traditional ways of commemoration simply don’t work – if by that we mean gathering collective agreement on basic ideas of who we are and what we stand for . This idea is dramatized in the program’s prologue, “Chantal”, with music and libretto by the married team of Alicia Hall Moran and Kennedy Center for Jazz Artistic Director Jason Moran. In this solo monodrama, a surveyor sings for the Washington Monument, which seems to be leaning, perhaps because too much is being asked of him.
Monument skeptics have long been confronted with a vigorous monument industry, sometimes a literal industry of artists, craftsmen and companies peddling stone and bronze, and more recently a symbolic industry based on the reflexive idea that monuments are necessary for civic life and must therefore always be developed. In one of the most moving passages of “Written in Stone,” from “The Rift” by composer Huang Ruo and librettist David Henry Hwang, an American Vietnam War veteran and refugee from South Vietnam bitterly wonders if the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which opened in 1982, has anything to say about their still raw grief and confusion.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the opera that strays furthest from the class assignment given to composers and librettists—Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the WNO, asked “each team to choose an American landmark that speaks to him” — be the most successful. Carlos Simon and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph dramatize the conflict between the traditional values of a black Pentecostal Church and a young “preacher in waiting”, who announces that he is gay to a congregation he is about to inherit of its more conservative and patriarchal tradition. dad.
You could say that “It All Falls Down” approaches the evening’s theme through the broad definition of memorials used by Monuments Lab in its audit, “a statement of power and presence in public.” But we’re grateful that the creative team mostly eschews the idea of landmarks, instead telling a story its members care about. The result is an opera that ends with a moment of genuine, searing emotion, a handshake extended by a homosexual son to his critical father. The lights go out before we know if he’s been accepted.
Despite such moments and despite the extraordinary vocal resources of singers such as J’Nai Bridges, Alfred Walker and Karen Vuong, “Written in Stone” is too long and often fails to rise above the level of a high school civic competition. He is didactic and comes across as judgmental, even when you completely agree with his feelings and values. There are too many goofy moments where good intentions and clumsy writing give you the same sense of entrapment as when you’re stuck with an overly emotional guide in a history museum.
“Written in Stone” fails because it was created much the same way we make our monuments. New memorials and monuments emerge because someone has a basic proposition – this person was good, this event was important, this suffering is significant – and an artist or architect is then tasked with embodying that thought visually and symbolically by public. “Written in Stone” exists because someone sent a phalanx of talented composers, writers, directors, and designers to make drama about “an American landmark that spoke to them.”
But the best operas naturally emerge from the creative obsession of composers, with the inspiration and collaboration of like-minded librettists. Maximum freedom produces superior work. As with overseeing the design of public monuments, a professional workshop can polish and improve a new opera house. But the most engaging things in both forms — whimsical moments like the Fala dog sculpture at the Roosevelt Memorial, or the comedic encounter with a pompous, self-important “Powerful Woman” in one-act “Rise” — tend to come to you aside.
There isn’t enough aside in American opera or American memorials today. The standard wisdom about both forms, for a long time, has been: monuments affirm our values, while drama should make us think. Curiously, today, monuments are more contested terrain than opera.