OPERA / History lessons: David Patrick Stearns reports on a pair of recent East Coast premieres

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Ever since a flash fire of publicity gave John Adams's Nixon in China a popular notoriety that few operas have enjoyed, a gallery of recent historical figures, from Betty Ford to Patty Hearst, has replaced the usual mythological beings as the fashionable heroines of opera. Earlier this season, however, this trend had an overdue reversal: during the New York City Opera's 50th anniversary world premiere festival, the bomb was Ezra Laderman's Marilyn (as in Monroe) and the hit was Hugo Weisgal's Esther (as in the Old Testament), which had originally been commissioned, and rejected, by the San Francisco Opera.

So it was with two new works that were recently unveiled on the East Coast of the United States - Conrad Cummings's Tonkin, an opera about Vietnam, which opened on Saturday at Opera Delaware in Wilmington, and the Robert Wilson / Tom Waits / William Burroughs collaboration The Black Rider, which is based on the same German legend that spawned Weber's Der Freischutz and ended a two-week run yesterday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Even if one wasn't expecting Tonkin to sound like the Doors (as in the film Apocalypse Now), the score would be musically and dramaturgically disappointing. Its style and manner are similar to Philip Glass's early historical operas: even though the characters (which include Ho Chi Minh and a wounded American flier) are traced from the Second World War to the present, they're mostly philosophical mouthpieces enacting symbolic representations of key moments from their lives. The music is Glass-influenced, too, but aside from occasional flashes of distinctive harmonies, it failed to cast a spell. Some of the more musically spare scenes seemed so shockingly miscalculated, one wondered if the orchestra had gone on strike. Ensemble passages were much like Rossini opera seria without the seductive tunes, with the singers facing the audience, singing empty platitudes. For all of its earnestness, intriguingly abstract sets by John Culbert and excellent singing from its up-and-coming cast, the whole enterprise seemed purposeless. Cummings may yet write a good opera, but given how visible this failure is, how long will it be before he has another chance?

The Black Rider, on the other hand, makes an ancient tale utterly contemporary. In retelling the story of Wilhelm, a nervous clerk who uses magic bullets supplied by the Devil to win a marksmanship contest - and the hand of his beloved - Waits's rough-hewn but eloquent lyrics offer both a study of greed and powerlust, and an allegory of drug addiction.

In form, The Black Rider is similar to the Brecht / Weill Threepenny Opera, with which it shares its subversive attitudes, darkly brittle humour and cabaret-like informality, as well as its use of song interludes that stand outside the plot. In content, it shows Wilson at his peak as a theatre artist, using nightmarish images - including bullets that come from the Devil's teeth and characters that bite off their own index fingers - with a new-found wit, clarity of purpose and emotional impact, realised with authority by this production from Hamburg's Thalia Theater. One doesn't have to know that Burroughs - like the protagonist - also accidentally shot his wife to know that this story touches something deep within its creators.