Get our free newsletter

The only real problem with the Washington National Opera’s production of Appomattox is that it doesn’t go on long enough—not the running time of the opera itself (3 hours), but the production’s run at the Kennedy Center. Composer Philip Glass’ revision of his 2007 Civil War opera runs for only six shows, just over a week. This despite being a world premiere of a work (updated to include a completely new second act) by America’s most famous living composer, whose operas the Washington National Opera, nominally an opera company representing the nation, has strangely never staged before.

Under artistic director Francesca Zambello, the WNO has been good about putting on crowd-pleasing contemporary works: Moby-Dick, Florencia in the Amazon, and now Appomattox (clearly the highlight of WNO’s fall season) were all excellent, though all had just six shows. Meanwhile, WNO routinely devotes eight to 12 productions to mediocre chestnuts that they’re phoning in, like Carmen.

In short, go see Appomattox, especially if you’re not an opera fan. You’ll be entertained, and maybe WNO and other opera companies will learn there’s an audience for smart new works that confront relevant social issues, including the issue most relevant to the American experience: our long historical legacy of racial oppression, and its persistence today.

Is it perfect? No, as no work of art that purports to tackle a subject this big could be. Glass’ opera focuses on two distinct eras: the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. In the original version of the opera, it was just the former, and told a straightforward story of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Ulysses S. Grant, with brief flash forwards to the 1965 murder of civil rights worker Jimmy Lee Jackson—a way of saying the story is not over. Glass decided to write a new second act after his librettist Christopher Hampton converted the opera into a play focusing more on the latter era, adding Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson as major characters (along with memorable minor characters including J. Edgar Hoover, John Lewis, Viola Liuzzo, and George Wallace). Glass has said he wished to emphasize that questions of race have not been resolved, citing present-day anti-immigration laws, racial gerrymandering, and initiatives by southern states to hobble the Voting Rights Act.

In the two periods Appomattox focuses on, it’s clear who was on the right side. The good guys won. Any work about those eras can easily devolve into feelgood back-patting—Look how far we’ve come! We beat racism!—but we know that’s not true. Glass and Hampton, with noble motives, want to remind us of that, but they do so not by showing the more pernicious methods of modern-day white supremacy. An epilogue depicting the things Glass cites as inspiration would have been more effective: For example, politicians plotting new forms of voter suppression, or D.A.’s failing to indict police officers for killing unarmed black people. Instead, the opera ends with the cartoonish figure of Edgar Ray Killen, the incarcerated Klansman convicted of murdering three civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964, bragging that he feels no remorse for his crime. Today, for all the ways black and brown people continue to get a raw deal in this country, most of them are more subtle, and thus harder to stamp out, than a literal Klansman.

But opera, as a genre, isn’t famous for subtlety. Give Glass and Hampton credit for tackling the subject of race without falling back on cliché, preachiness, or melodrama, as this easily could have turned into Crash: The Opera. Credit is also due to director Tazewell Thompson, who keeps the story moving with a more theatrical than operatic touch, and to conductor Dante Santiago Anzolini, for being a capable last-minute replacement after the original conductor dropped out due to an injury.

While this is a theatrical opera, the story itself is disjointed, as both eras are depicted in a series of vignettes. It opens with two haunting choral numbers, the first a black Union regiment singing hymn-like camp song, the second of the wives of generals lamenting the human cost of war, before jumping between various personal interactions: Lincoln and Grant preparing the siege of Richmond; Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley interpreting the president’s dreams; Lee and Howell Cobb discussing the possibility of enlisting slaves as soldiers. As the war draws to a close, perspective shifts to wheelchair-bound Mary Custis Lee bitterly witnessing the fall of Richmond, then to black journalist T. Morris Chester reporting on the surrender at Appomattox and, 8 years later, the massacre of freedmen by the Ku Klux Klan in Colfax, La.

The original opera ended there, with its few glimpses at the Civil Rights era now expanded in the second act, with similarly brief interactions and abrupt cutaways. The main additions are King, played by bass Soloman Howard, who doubles as Frederick Douglass, and LBJ, played by baritone Tom Fox, doubling as Lincoln. Both are very good; Howard embodies King’s charisma and mesmerizing speech-making, though he’s unfortunately unable to use any of those actual speeches, since the King estate does not authorize their use in any media. And Fox has by far the most fun role as the gleefully crass LBJ, opining on George Wallace (“like this pimple on my ass”); J. Edgar Hoover (“that queer old cocksucker”); his Medicare bill (“this is gonna be the biggest story since de Gaulle farted”); and “the fucking astronauts.” If you can’t tell, Appomattox is a libretto that doesn’t hold back, taking a warts-and-all approach to a fairly warty history. N-bombs are sprinkled throughout.

The music, which normally would be front-and-center in any opera, largely takes a backseat to the stage action. There are hints of the style with which Glass (to his chagrin) is most associated—minimalism—though they are only hints: repetitive motifs, with the strings and woodwinds trading off on the rhythm and melodies. But Glass is also an accomplished film composer and a master at setting the mood for different scenes, which in this opera can swing wildly from bathroom humor to moral outrage. His Appomattox sounds like a movie score, and his music has a subliminal effect in heightening the suspense or relieving the tension.

There are a few weak spots. The singing isn’t uniformly strong, and some singers struggle to be heard over the orchestra. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger is a standout, both in affecting Lee’s genteel Virginia accent and Killen’s seething hatred; he contrasts, both in character and performance, with baritone Richard Paul Fink as Grant, who forgot his lines.

The single set of plain white pillars and a balcony is simple and unremarkable, at different times depicting Appomattox Courthouse, the White House, a church, a county jail, and a steamship, with little alteration. And the opera itself, with its overstuffed cast and short vignette structure, leaves you wishing for more both from the story and certain characters: Howard’s Frederick Douglass doesn’t do much more than recount a true event in which he was stopped from entering a White House function to which he’d been invited; tenor Robert Brubaker’s Hoover and baritone Aleksey Bogdanov’s Wallace are underutilized as villains. And while this isn’t entirely a Great Man history lesson, with women anchoring key scenes, one also wishes soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird had more lines as Mary Todd Lincoln and Lady Bird Johnson, as well as mezzo Chrystal E. Williams as Elizabeth Keckley and Coretta Scott King.

But an opera this big in terms of cast, scope, and ambition is going to be a little messy. And it’s a messy period and subject to take on. The very idea of an opera about race relations in the U.S. sounds like it should be a disaster. That Glass and the WNO even attempted something this tough to pull off and didn’t embarrass themselves is laudable. That it’s actually enjoyable on its own terms is almost a miracle.

The production runs through Nov, 22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $30–$280.

Handout photo by Scott Suchman