With “Written in Stone”, the Washington National Opera finds music in the silence of monuments

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the silence inspired by monuments extends far beyond their sites.

Monuments, as we know them in America, are a way to obliterate a narrative, to reinforce a story, to carve a sense of history into granite, and to let the remnants scatter like dust. A recent Post report found that the country’s nearly 50,000 public monuments “are predominantly white and male, including people who enslaved others, fought for the Confederacy, or never even set foot on American soil.

But as silent stone slabs disappear, monuments can also make a lot of noise. The last decade has shown us that monuments – and the ideals they commemorate – are not as stable as their materials suggest. Over the past decade, hundreds of monuments that contradict mainstream American values ​​have been dismantled by crews, toppled by mobs or fondues to make new memorials to clarified American ideals.

And as the Washington National Opera seeks to demonstrate, our monuments can also be the source of music. From March 5 to 25, WNO will present “written in stone», a collection of four short lyrical works that take monuments as starting points to explore the legacies we preserve and the stories they obscure.

“It’s not so much about the monuments, but about what they inspire, the stories that surround them,” explains Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the WNO, who designed the “Written in Stone” project as part of the Kennedy Center 50th Anniversary Celebration.

The prospect of creating a single opera to commemorate the anniversary – and, therefore, an implicit bookend to Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” which opened the arts center in 1971 – seemed too daunting a task to impose on a single composer/librettist team. But a suite of shorts would allow for a more panoramic view, a more nimble critique, a richer multiplicity of voices, and a more current capture of the Kennedy Center’s cultural place in 2022.

“Written in Stone” opens with a kind of prologue in “Chantal,” composed by Jason Moran, artistic director of the Kennedy Center for Jazz, and his wife, the multifaceted mezzo-soprano and entertainer Alicia Hall Moran.

“Chantal” is an investigation into the motivations of monuments – what they are, what they do, what we expect of them. The play centers on a surveyor (Alicia Hall Moran) on site at an ostensibly leaning monument — “face to face with how much it leans and what we can do to save it,” Jason Moran says in a short trailer.

“Rise” is a collaboration between composer and instrumentalist Kamala Sankaram and the novelist AM Homes which is inspired by the 1921 Adelaide Johnson portrait monument in the Capitol rotunda, depicting Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and a face left unsculpted.

Peruvian and Mexican American soprano Vanessa Becerra portrays a Girl Scout lost in the Capitol Building who encounters a security guard (mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges), a “powerful woman” (mezzo-soprano Daryl Freedman) and the monument itself. same (American and Canadian soprano Suzannah Waddington).

“[Homes’s] libretto isn’t just about the Portrait Monument and what it means in terms of the women’s rights movement,” says Sankaram, who describes their opera as a “magical and realistic” interpretation of the monument. “But it also asks: what does it mean if you are someone who is really not represented in the historical representations that we have of our country and the story that we tell about our country? “

“The Rift,” by Huang Ruo and Tony Award-winning playwright, librettist and screenwriter David Henry Hwang, deals directly with the origin of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, imagining a dialogue between the architect, the artist and designer Maya Lin (soprano Karen Vuong) and Robert McNamara (twice Grammy nominee, singer and actor Rod Gilfry), as well as Vietnam War veteran (tenor Christian Mark Gibbs) and Vietnamese refugee ( mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen).

Finally, “It All Falls Down” features Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence Carlos Simon with the Center’s Vice President and Artistic Director of Social Impact Marc Bamuthi Joseph.

The piece depicts a meeting between a black conservative preacher (bass-baritone Alfred Walker) and his less conservative son (Gibbs) – also a preacher but newly released from the closet – at a rally outside the Supreme Court about to be legalized. of same-sex marriage. Joseph describes it in a statement as “an American story, a Black Love Matters sermon, a coming-out tale in defense of a future norm, a living opera between the Guardian of the Law and the contemplation of Justice where, at the end, love on /of the rules.”

“So many people in the church, in the black church in particular, have non-heteronormative ways of loving,” Joseph says over the phone, “and have had to wrestle with the coincidence of who they choose to love and against. outlines of their church.”

“It puts the issue of love front and center,” Simon says. “What is love? What is justice? What do these laws really mean? What are the laws for?

Each piece questions the making of American memory: how we honor our disparate histories. How we reconcile them in a story that speaks for everyone. And, perhaps most importantly, how we materialize our values ​​from something other than silence.

“Written in Stone” March 5-25 at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater. kennedy-center.org.