A single opera is a blockbuster. Staging several different ones by the same composer in quick succession is almost unthinkable, unless the composer is Richard Wagner. Thus, living opera composers rarely get career retrospectives. Indeed, they’re happy just to get performances; the annals of American opera are dominated by big pieces that had much-heralded premieres and have hardly been seen again.
No one is more aware of this than Leon Major, the stage director who since the 1980s has shaped and led the Maryland Opera Studio at the University of Maryland into a venue for contemporary, thoughtful, theatrical opera performance. Major once told me he dreamed of creating a festival of neglected American operas called “Second Comings.” Now, he’s ending his tenure at Maryland — he retires at the end of the semester — with his biggest attempt yet at reviving a major composer: a 10-day festival called “The Art of Argento,” with six decades of music by a once-leading, now-neglected cornerstone of the late-20th-century American opera scene, Domenick Argento. It opened this weekend with two fully staged operas, “Postcard From Morocco” and “Miss Havisham’s Fire” (the latter directed, in his swan song, by Major himself).
Argento can certainly write music, and write well for the voice, and set text so that it comes across intelligibly and truly sings. These should all be basic requirements for an opera composer, but they’re not as common as you might think. Argento has been lionized by a few generations of singers, and some of the old guard are coming out to celebrate him now — notably Frederica von Stade, the star mezzo-soprano who is emerging from semi-retirement to come here and perform in his song cycle “A Few Words About Chekhov” on Sunday.
And it’s hard to pin Argento down, certainly on the basis of the two operas Maryland has chosen to highlight (which are, respectively, his most performed and his own favorite). “Postcard From Morocco” is an absurdist vignette of a group of travelers in a railway station, circa 1920: Imagine the characters from an Agatha Christie novel entangled in an Ionesco play.
Argento himself drew the sense from the 12-page libretto he was given, literally cutting it up and reassembling it line by line, and the result is an often engaging chamber opera, bristling with allusion and musical jokes, about the way that people hide behind the shreds of identity they use to define themselves to others. Its characters are identified by their props rather than their names (Lady With a Hat Box), and their props are a kind of shorthand for their own narratives, or their own self-delusion. At the end, the Man With a Paint Box (here the capable Jason Lee) is challenged to paint everyone’s portrait, but his box is revealed to be empty. The other characters withdraw immediately, taking refuge in their own talismanic objects rather than risking a similar unveiling. The artist, however, sets out for a new, truer adventure — or is he only taking refuge in his daydreams? He sets off on a voyage, sent off by puppets, while the music sings of sea journeys and new horizons in tones that evoke Benjamin Britten.