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Last spring, I attended a recital at one of our more musically inclined embassies, given by a young Slovakian mezzo-soprano. Blessed with fashion-model looks, she wore a skirt slit right up to the Czech border and lost no opportunity to promenade to and fro onstage, much to the delight of a lone paparazzo. The first part of her program—not that it mattered, given the show she was putting on—consisted of Russian and Eastern European arias and art songs, some appropriate for her age and level of technique, others not.

But if all of this smacked of the talent portion of some greater-Bratislava beauty pageant, the second half of the evening beggared belief. Out she strutted after intermission in a sparkly new ensemble, clutching a cordless mike, and proceeded to massacre a Who’s Who of pop composers, from Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd freakin’ Webber. It wasn’t the indecipherable English that was most disheartening—nor the stylistic cluelessness, nor the unremitting shouting into that microphone, nor the whole carrying-coals-to-Newcastle dimension in her choice of material.

No, saddest of all was the fervor with which this competent and promising classical singer worked to suppress any hint of squareness. Forget all the opera stuff, she seemed to be saying, that’s not really me. I’m fresh. I’m new. I’m hip. I’m American. And the harder she tried to break into pop culture, the further outside it she stood.

That’s pretty much American opera’s dilemma in a nutshell: How do you translate the rigors and inflated aesthetic of a 400-year-old European art form into something palatable for a culture born in Tin Pan Alley, weaned on jazz, and still flourishing on rock ‘n’ roll? Americans are used to hearing our own stories told to our own music—crooned over a strummed guitar, driven by a drum track, belted from a Broadway stage with a catchy tune and a clever lyric. Is it so far-fetched or radical to suggest that our country’s most enduring operatic heritage is likely to be founded on works such as Showboat, Porgy and Bess, Street Scene, West Side Story, and the ever-evolving Sondheim canon?

Then there are those hybrid American operas that import the late-Romantic style of Puccini, Janácùek, Strauss, and Berg to the New World and ask us to view modern America through the lens of older European conventions. Consider Carlisle Floyd’s 1969 opera Of Mice and Men, which Washington Opera is currently presenting in a production on its way from Austria’s Bregenz Festival to the Houston Grand Opera.

Those looking for the tabloid immediacy and grass-roots poetry of John Steinbeck’s novel and play (let alone the later film adaptations) might well be disappointed. Floyd’s passionate, sometimes angular score flirts far less with folk roots than his more homespun Susannah. The ranch hands sing nothing recognizable as spirituals or work songs but rather formal choruses that wouldn’t be out of place in a statelier grand opera. The characters—apart from the restless migrant worker George and his mentally challenged companion Lennie—are not just plain folks but icons of Want and Alienation. Everything is writ large. Of Mice and Men is a grand morality play on class warfare—a European-style opera written in America, that, somehow, looks at its American subjects from the outside.

But for all his big gestures, Floyd knows how to tell a gripping story, and he uses the structures and the lyrical expansiveness of traditional opera to deliver the requisite emotional punch. Though it flirts with dissonance, there’s not an ugly page in this score—a point that Karen Keltner’s soaring, trenchant conducting makes abundantly clear. (The Opera House orchestra’s strings take splendid advantage of Floyd’s sweet, yearning melodies as well as the thrusting power of his symphonic interludes.) Even more distinctive is the work of set designer Richard Hudson, whose painterly drops, rusting metal walls, and mammoth railroad cars and farm machinery (all gorgeously lit by Rick Fisher) please as much with their brilliantly observed details as they do with their WPA-mural-style sweep.

The boldness of the design apparently spurred the ever-intelligent, often provocative stage director Francesca Zambello to some very fine work, resulting in stage compositions that John Ford might appreciate. The principal roles emerge with a wealth of telling behavioral detail and, even more important, the archetypes that populate the supporting cast have been fleshed out into believable characters. Bass baritone Tony Dillon’s eloquently sung performance as the aging ranch-hand Candy suggests a man who’s lived under someone else’s boot heel his whole life, his quiet dignity barely concealing a lived-in desperation. Tenor Joseph Evans cuts a surprisingly commanding figure as Curley, the dictatorial ranch owner, but his squinting glare and tight-lipped delivery speak volumes about his pettiness and fear of emasculation. Grinning leeringly and spilling out of her Daisy Duke halter, Diane Alexander plays Curley’s Wife to the hilt as a Dustbowl Lulu. But though it’s hard to avoid the trouble’s-my-middle-name vampishness built into the role, Alexander does what she can to show us the character’s bitter disappointments, and her edgy soprano suggests a not-inappropriate steeliness. The rest of the ranch hands are virile and well-differentiated, looking uncannily right for their roles. (Now there’s an operatic rarity for you.) They sing well and are defeated only by that nemesis of opera singers the world over: spoken dialogue.

The two leads are similarly flat in their patches of dialogue, but they give George and Lennie eloquent voice. Rod Nelman plays George as wary and pissed off and emotionally remote, softening only when Lennie asks him yet again for the pie-in-the-sky description of the little farm the two men dream of owning. Nelman’s bass is grainy and arresting in timbre—it’s a voice of real heft—but he appears more concerned with putting out a seamless column of sound than shaping it with intelligible diction.

There’s no trouble understanding Michael Hendrick, however. Ambling about like an outsized toddler, he keeps the slow-witted Lennie’s words clear and finds the right mix of affability and creepiness in the character; we believe his confusion when creatures fall lifeless from his crushingly affectionate grip. Hendrick’s soft singing is quite lovely, yet his plaintive tenor expands to fill the big-bang moments. The climactic final scene, in which George shoots Lennie before a mob can lynch him for his accidental murder of Curley’s Wife, is as affecting here as it demands to be.

This is a staging that bridges the Euro-American divide. It does justice to both Of Mice and Men’s European smarts and its italicized form of Americana, without apologizing or attempting to hammer itself back into Steinbeck’s slice-of-life original. It’s the kind of production that we have to wait months—even years—to see at Washington Opera, which makes the half-full seats on the night I attended particularly exasperating.

This production played to sold-out houses in Bregenz. Of course that’s Europe, where opera began and remains a living tradition, where contemporary works are a fixture on company rosters, where expressionist and deconstructionist stagings are business as usual, even for standard rep works. Washington audiences, on the other hand, tend to like their operas safely and unambiguously Old World and staged as literally, as prettily, and as free of Big Ideas as possible—a nightmare scenario for anyone in the unenviable position of writing or producing an American opera.

I’d like to think that the folks at Washington Opera have not wasted effort and expense in bringing a work of this distinction and a production of this intelligence and stark beauty to a town not ready—and perhaps not willing—to receive it. CP