Metro Weekly

The Kennedy Center’s American Opera Initiative Thinks Outside the Box

Silen Wellington and Walken Schweigert infused their queer-themed opera with melody, attitude, and magic.

American Opera Initiative: Kimberly Reed, Cecelia Raker, Jens Ibsen, Walken Schweigert, Carlos Simon, Silen Wellington, B.E. Boykin, Jarrod Lee, Kelley Rourke -- Photo: Caitlin Oldham-Enhanced
American Opera Initiative: Kimberly Reed, Cecelia Raker, Jens Ibsen, Walken Schweigert, Carlos Simon, Silen Wellington, B.E. Boykin, Jarrod Lee, Kelley Rourke — Photo: Caitlin Oldham

The search for exciting creative voices in contemporary opera commences at the Kennedy Center, with WNO’s presentation of three world-premiere one-act operas conceived as part of its American Opera Initiative (AOI).

Marking its banner tenth year of showcasing fresh talent in the field, AOI assembled a noteworthy class of composer-librettist teams — B.E. Boykin and Jarrod Lee, Jens Ibsen and Cecelia Raker, and Silen Wellington and Walken Schweigert — who spent the past year collaborating with distinguished mentors to create, respectively, Oshun, Bubbie and the Demon, and What the Spirits Show.

The trio of 20-minute operas will debut in a concert staged by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zembello, and performed by world-class singers from the Cafritz Young Artists program and a chamber orchestra of WNO Orchestra members, led by WNO principal conductor Evan Rogister.

Setting to sweeping music the stories of a shape-shifting teenage artist, a Jewish grandma battling actual demons, and an Orisha on an odyssey of redemption, the 20-minute operas push past the bounds of traditional themes and musical styles. And What the Spirits Show collaborators Wellington and Schweigert wouldn’t want it any other way.

“[Opera] is a form that encourages extremes, which I really love,” says Schweigert. “Like extremes of emotion, extremes of plot, extremes of fantasy. So much can happen in the world because the fabric of the world is made with music. I just find that really exciting.”

Composer Wellington is also drawn to opera’s extremes. “It’s an absurd art form,” they say. “And I think there’s a creativity and an opportunity in that to be more experimental than the audience for musical theater might expect musical theater to be, or the audience for a traditional contemporary classical music concert might expect ‘classical music’ to be.”

What the Spirits Show opts for extreme fantasy in its magical realist tale of teenage artist Calamus, who expresses “their true spirit by bending into different forms,” in defiance of a tyrant who outlaws such magic. A bold tale of transformation, the work speaks profoundly to the goals of queer artists Wellington and Schweigert, who were responding to real-life elements of LGBTQ hate and discrimination.

“Around this time last year,…Governor Greg Abbott of Texas wrote a letter asking the Department of Family and Protective Services to [investigate] parents who are providing or assisting gender-affirming care for their kids, [and that] be considered child abuse and that kids be taken away,” Schweigert recalls.

“We wanted to tell a story of, ‘Okay, what would this actually look like if this were happening?’ I know for me, having not had supportive parents when I came out as trans, the idea that one could come out, have supportive parents, and then have the state tear those people away from each other was just totally heartbreaking.”

In the midst of a seeming storm of anti-trans legislation proposed or enacted in other states, the team felt inspired.

“Even as I was writing the libretto,” says Schweigert, “I was getting emails from friends, and friends of friends in Texas, who were like, ‘We’re thinking of moving to Minnesota.’ People were feeling that they needed to leave their homes, because of this. So it was something that hit very close to home.”

Both Schweigert and Wellington agreed that not only was this a story they wanted to tell, it also felt like a story they wanted to tell at the Kennedy Center. “Another thing that I was thinking about, and that Silen and I talked about was, ‘With this platform of the Kennedy Center, what is the story that we want to tell?’ This seemed like a powerful one.”

Calamus’ shape-shifting journey provided a rich context for exploring queer spirituality, says Wellington. “At the core, my experience of being trans does feel really spiritual, and finding ways to express that in art has been a big interest of mine,” they say.

“A major theme in the opera is exploring this divinity of trans people,” they continue. “And personally, I feel like I’ve found a place of self-love and self-acceptance in my trans identity. Now I’m seeking to translate that part of it that feels really beyond words.”

American Opera Initiative: Three 20-Minute Operas will be performed one-night only, Saturday, Jan. 21, with performances at 7 and 9 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Tickets are $19 to $45. Call 202-467-4600, or visit

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