Robert Paterson and ‘The Whole Truth’: a Comic Opera Affair

Robert Paterson, composer of "The Whole Truth." | Courtesy of Robert Paterson

In the world of opera, there’s an ongoing debate about “new” and “contemporary” works—what are they, who’s doing them, what should they look like, be and sound like. The debate goes on all over the world and across the country, among composers, opera companies and directors.

You can find out a little bit about what direction contemporary opera is going or coming from if you take in “The Whole Truth,” a comic chamber opera by much buzzed-about composer Robert Paterson, commissioned by Urban Arias. It is getting its premiere at the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Intersection Festival — 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 21; 9:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 27; 7 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 28.

Paterson is a young composer,  bringing with him much critical acclaim for his operas, compositions and songs, often pushing the envelope and at the same time defining  the contours of modern, or contemporary opera.

“The Whole Truth” is described as a comic chamber opera in seven scenes, which doesn’t quite tell, well, the whole truth.  It features a libretto by Mark Campbell and is based on a short story by noted novelist Stephen McCauley.  It was commissioned by Urban Arias and its executive director Robert Wood. Urban Arias, which operates out of Northern Virginia,  has staged works at Artisphere and is considered a cutting-edge opera company, groundbreaking and presenting “exciting, compelling operas by living creative teams.”

“The Whole Truth” is short, under a half an hour,  but doesn’t lack for ambition, nor does its composer.  “I know there’s this debate going on, about the direction of opera and music,” Paterson said.  “I think that opera, especially contemporary opera, should reflect the times we live in.  The canon is all very well and good, and we should have it, but there needs to be new works for new audiences. 

“The trouble is that a lot of the new operas, long or short, tend to be in a very heavy serious vain, or people think the music, in order to be new, needs to be somehow atonal and difficult, or dissonant,” Paterson said.  “I think we need works that are about something and someone, people that today’s audiences will recognize.”

“And, so, when you say comic opera, well, that just isn’t done,” he said.  “It’s rare in opera to begin with except for some of the classics by Mozart. I think you can make statements with comic opera, with a lighter touch.”

“The Whole Truth”  has only  three singers, and is about  a young married woman named Megan, a role shared by a soprano and a mezzo-soprano, who has an affair with a fellow dentist and a dalliance with a young carpenter, all of which leads her to confront  the lies she’s told to others and to herself.  The characters are simple: the man, the woman, with the man also playing two psychiatrists, the lover, the husband and the carpenter.

The libretto is by Mark Campbell, who has written two comic operas with composers Bill Bolcom and John Musto.

“It almost works like a sitcom,” Paterson said. “It has those kinds of people and situation, but you can address everything that’s going on different kinds of music—sometimes jazzy, fragmented, bouncy, sexy.”

“It’s not necessarily laugh out loud funny, but it is humorous,” he said. “People do want to laugh. And in this work, the libretto is especially important. It has to be understood and mean something, not just move the narrative, but reveal what the music is suggesting.  The libretto hasn’t always been given its due in opera. It’s always about the music and the singers. And English is sometimes difficult to shape into singing operatic music.

Look up Paterson on YouTube, and you find his works in profusion, including  his chamber opera “The Companion,” which gives you a good sense of his musical and opera ideas.

His works have been praised for being “vibrantly scored and well-crafted” for their elegance, wit, structural integrity and wonderful sense of color. The Classical Recording Foundation named him “The Composer of the Year” at Carnegie Hall.

The Atlas Performing Arts Center’s Intersection Festival runs through March 7 and features more than 100 performances and events in all sorts of genres, including  sound, music, comedy, movement land dance, story telling, family material and café concerts. Among the performers are the Vision Contemporary Dance Ensemble,  Saudade puppets, Split This Rock, the Tehreema Mitha lDance Company, the Taffety Punk Theatre Company, Rajab, Rachel Ann Cross, Speakeasy D.C., Jane Franklin Dance and Happenstance Theatre, among others. Go the Atlas Performing Arts Center web site for more information.

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