The fearless Francesca Zambello takes over Washington National Opera

Francesca  Zambello, the newly appointed Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, sits in an emerald raw silk jacket, checking on emails. She is surrounded but yet oblivious to the opulence and eye candy in the Willard Hotel Lobby, totally absorbed in her quotidian task. As I approach, she looks up and assesses me in one sweeping glance.

I had been both curious and a little intimidated by her tall and imposing figure and wanted to learn more about this commander-in-chief of the new crown jewel at the Kennedy Center, the capital’s own opera company. Despite being in the process of running two opera companies (summer landmark Glimmerglass Festival and WNO) and currently forging seasons for both, she has taken the time for this interview and greets me warmly and introduces herself.  She then demonstrates she has done her homework and mentions that we both knew Founder and Director of Minnesota Opera Wesley Balk.

As we talk, she becomes more and more animated and very unlike the intimidating “Madame Z” I’d feared, who nails people who drivel on at post-show discussions or cuts through auditorium throngs in line to greet the people who can best financially support her goals.

Most particularly, she resembles her predecessor not at all, the charismatic, thickly-accented Placido Domingo, the kind of European face mostly associated with the opera world, and one who seemed mostly to lurk in the ether mysteriously like the phantom of the opera.

Francesca Zambello at the Kennedy Center (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Francesca Zambello at the Kennedy Center (Photo: Scott Suchman)

Ms. Zambello seems – well, American – frank, forwardly looking, and fearlessly risk-taking. She’s a hands-on director, ever present on the ground, and meets people where they are. Today, for instance, she apologizes for the surroundings, explains that she has just had a meeting here and says she hopes it hasn’t inconvenienced me.

In a few minutes, she was making the case for opera in words that stirred and inspired, speaking to the heart of what we, who love music-theatre in its myriad richness, long for in our imaginings what opera can be and – in her vision – what it can especially be here in our nation’s capital.

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When did you “catch the bug” of opera?

I was very involved in opera from a very early age. My mother was a stage actress. My grandmother was a concert pianist. So I was always around theatre. My mother was on Broadway when I was a small kid. So I would spend evenings in dressing rooms and summers in summer stock. I loved backstage from an early age. I definitely like watching rehearsals and seeing shows from the wings. Then my father got a job with TWA, and we moved to Europe. We lived in Paris, Germany, Austria, and England. So all during junior high and high school I got to see art, theatre, and culture in all these centers.

I knew by high school I wanted to be in directing. I was building puppet stages under the piano in the living room. I was writing scripts in the basement, and we were getting everyone to put them on. But I always liked the production side of things. I never had the performing bug.

Did your mother perform in musical theatre or was she a straight actress?

Well, both. But remember, my parents lived in Europe, for it must have been thirty years. Then, when my father retired, they both went to L.A., and there she continued doing character work really as recently as a few months ago. She was in iCarly in the Fall and played the Librarian in Glee for a number of episodes. And she is now ninety-three.

Brava for your mother!

And, in your own case, did you immediately see yourself as an opera director?

No, I was interested in directing all kinds of theatre in high school and in college. I went to Colgate because I wanted something more adventuresome than a strict conservatory approach. I started an alternative theatre there because I wanted to do more unconventional work. I went to England for my junior year and was around the theatre all the time.

Then, after college, when my family had moved to Germany, I went there and worked as an intern at various opera houses, and it was much more Regietheater, [the director-as-god theatre,] in places like Frankfurt and in Berlin.  I saw a lot of great stuff while I was carrying cups of coffee to people. After that, I came back to New York and worked as a stage manager.

I think I was always much more interested in not just opera but all theatre that was not tied to naturalism and realism the way a lot of American theatre was in the eighties. Everything here felt just like an extension of T.V.  And I thought a lot of the European directors had a stronger visual take and where music was much more of a conduit to bigger story telling and more interesting characters.  So that influenced me.

Then, in my twenties, I was very fortunate to become the artistic director of a theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the [then] Skylight [Opera Theatre,] with Stephen Wadsworth. And I had the opportunity to direct a lot there as well as doing all the planning. In a way, it was a great dichotomy, because I was there about six months a year and then the other six months I was working as Assistant Director to various directors, most notably Jean Pierre Pennell, a very famous opera director and designer in Europe. I worked for him in a lot of big European theatres.

I had this weird life. Mind you, this was the eighties, and Milwaukee still had a strong immigrant bent, a lot of Germans, and all those people loved music. Theatre did very well there, and we were able to do interesting, rather avant garde work. You might say it was a mini Minneapolis, and you know how exciting things were going on there, with people like your friend and director Wesley Balk. I went up to see a lot of original opera being produced at his company.

The important thing is that, at an early age, I had a chance to direct a lot. Gaining actual directing experience is, as you know, a problem for a lot of people.  But it was also about doing the planning, the overview, and the ability to develop my own vision.

So, let’s hear about your vision for your work in Washington. You are starting off directing not a classic opera, but Show Boat. What do you want to announce about yourself and your vision for WNO with this work? 

Well, I already have had a lot of input into this season, including bringing down theatre director Ann Bogart to direct Norma.  And as Artistic Advisor I was already working on bringing in new pieces like the project about Mohammed Ali in June [Approaching Ali].

Angela Renee Simpson and Morris Robinson (photo: Dan Rest)

Angela Renee Simpson and Morris Robinson (photo: Dan Rest)

Show Boat is really the first American opera and the first American musical. It does come from a European tradition of operetta and Singspiel and, then with America, it collided with jazz and gospel. Also, I love the fact that it is about a big story. It’s about America. It is about race.

Opera often tends to be about big issues. Wagner, Verdi, they all write stories that are very complex. In that sense, Show Boat is an opera. Musically, it’s an opera because it has a big orchestra. A lot of it is through composed [carried uninterrupted musically.] It uses opera singers in about half the roles and in the other half casts musical singers. At least, that’s the way we’re doing it. I know they did a reduced “no boat”version at Signature theatre (!!!) Like anything that’s great material, you can do it a million ways.

And why is it a musical? Because it’s a tradition – it sets the American tradition for what is our foremost form of music-theatre and comes from that synergy of European roots mixed with American original music which is jazz.

With our recent recession, has the musical taken on a new place in the American consciousness?

I think it’s actually bifurcated more. I think you find your mega blockbusters that are those pieces which, for some people, are the one or two things they go to for the year, and for them that’s great. Clearly,we keep figuring out how to engage people musically and make musicals have more of a social message relevant to each generation. If we think of our music-theatre history, there’s an arc from Show Boat to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Porgy and Bess going through Kern and then Rodgers and Hammerstein.  Then we get to an era of people like Sondheim where the word is as important as the music [and fewer hummable tunes.] Now, there are the current young [composer-writer teams,] who create musicals primarily to get across a message about our current society.

I guess I was thinking more that I found straight theatre and musical theatre for several decades had gone their separate ways, and taken their audiences with them.  During that period, most “straight” drama theatre seekers and devotees to musical theatre did not cross the lines – or sometimes even speak to each other.  Is that changing now?

Absolutely. And we are the only country which offers “triple threats” [where performers really can “do it all” in terms of singing, dancing, and acting.]  We are definitely the best at that.

You have already shown at Glimmerglass with your programming that you are a great believer and supporter of what some call cross-over music-theatre. Can you speak to what this means for you? 

At Glimmerglass, what I found when I first went there was that it was not in a healthy situation. So I rebranded it and changed the name, changed the content, and changed a lot about it.  We still do operas and we do a musical, but I enlarged it so it is a festival.

We have lectures and concerts, and we have developed relationships with Fennimore Art Museum. For instance, this year we are doing a celebration of the romantics.  So, they’re doing something about the Hudson Valley painters, and we’re doing music-theatre of the romantics, Verdi and Wagner. We are also working with an estate there, a beautiful old nineteenth century estate called Hyde Hall, and we’ll be doing poetry and readings of the romantics, including Thoreau, Emerson, and Emily Dickinson. So I have made the festival a destination. And that’s difficult because it’s in the middle of the countryside.

But I’ve also worked to get two different kinds of audiences, audiences who are local, so we have a lot more farmers, people who are in the region who come and yes, they want to come and see The Music Man, but a lot of them also came to see Aida last year. And then, of course, we have a lot of urban people who come and want to experience culture in nature.

Now here, clearly, we need to find how the Washington National Opera sits in the firmament of the Kennedy Center and the city. And I think we must pay thorough attention to where we are. Our work should be American, in many ways.  And it should often have more of a political content. It should respond to where we are.

Opera was always a vehicle for discussion and one that presented ideas about social change. That’s why I want to expose people to new American operas, whether they are twenty minutes or an hour or full-length pieces like Moby Dick next season.

We also want great American singers debuting their roles here. We need to establish a connection to them, more of an ownership. We want more American conductors, directors, and designers. We want to enlarge the young artists program. We want every year to produce more music that is American.

A lot of people say (sighing), “Oh I don’t like modern opera.” Well, you know, we don’t have that many. So why don’t we make works that people will want to see?  Accessibility has now become this awful word, but I strongly believe that my mission at the Kennedy Center is to make opera available to as many people as possible.

That means using the Millennium Stage, the Terrace, the Eisenhower Theatre, and the Opera House, as well as through our content, and through how we present it. That’s our responsibility.  And we’re so lucky being part of the Kennedy Center. No other opera company in the country has so many different spaces to showcase [a range of] operas.

Often opera is presented in these behemoth halls with behemoth people. Suddenly, we have the means to create an intimate relationship between singers and audience. Even the Opera House is small comparatively, only 2,000 seats, which is not much by opera auditorium standards, and is much smaller than any major opera house in the country.

And through programming in these different spaces you want to reach out to new audiences?

The holiday season is definitely a place where you are going to see more new American works from WNO. And family works. For me it’s about “get families there, get kids there, and get kids in shows.” My brief to composer Jeanine Tesori is “There must be a children’s chorus.”  It’s not simply about selling more tickets, It’s about how good your product is and producing good things that generations build on experiences that make them want to come back.  I want people to come because they believe in us as an organization.  I want people to say, “Oh I don’t know that piece, but because they’re always good, I want to go see it anyway.

And of course we are going to produce the “Carmens” and the “La Bohemes” and the “Butterflies.” But we’re also going to do things that you can only see here in Washington.  Part of that is we want to have an American caché and works that have a political underbelly to them.

Will that include going forward and expanding your HD performances like the Met?

No, I think that’s totally the purview of the Met. We will continue to have our Opera in the Outfield.  We will have one a season, sometimes two, in June and September, because of how our season is laid out.  We want to make it an annual event

We want to produce more short operas. Come see something for an hour and then go have a cocktail. Washington is a party town, and we want to attract young people who want to have an evening out.

Julia Mintzer as Hansel and Shantelle Przybylo as Gretel. 2012's production of Hansel and Gretel. (Photo:Scott Suchman)

Julia Mintzer as Hansel and Shantelle Przybylo as Gretel. 2012′s production of Hansel and Gretel. (Photo:Scott Suchman)

What about the Young Artists Program, do you also see changes in how you will run the opera training program?

Well, training of singers now is so different, so different even from the time that Wesley Balk was doing his work in Minnesota and elsewhere. They still have to be great singers. I am not going to take someone in the program if he or she is not a great singer or the potential to be a great singer. Because sometimes singers, they’re twenty-six and they’ve got it all but it’s not all lined up yet.

I still look for that one thing, which is how is this person unique.  That is the most important thing before you take them in a training program. What makes this voice different, special. The program then offers them classes in not only voice, diction and languages, but movement, yoga, acting, everything.

My goal is to make the group like “the home team.” Ours will be like the Washington Nationals. Audiences will see them and will invest in them because they are going to see them in more roles and in more operas. The key is to give them more performing experience. You get better by actually doing it. That’s what I think about all of the arts. Doing it informs the artist.  And then understanding what you just went through.

Have you already chosen the people for next year?

Yes.  We have twelve singers and two [pianist] coaches. And the focus this year is definitely on people who were born in North America.  Also, this year, we engaged in a national audition process to make the whole thing more democratic.

And most of all, as I said, these singers will get a lot of performing experience. They will be doing their own production of The Magic Flute alongside the main season production. They will work with a living composer in Jeanine Tesori and perform in the holiday piece. They’ll be doing a lot of the smaller roles throughout the season plus recitals and concerts. I want ours to be one of the best programs in America.  And I want the focus to be on the complete artist.

More presence, you’re suggesting. This makes me come round to asking about your own management style, which I’ve noticed is very present and unapologetically “out there.”  Is this just who you are? Is this the role you feel you have to play? 

Well, Glimmerglass is so small.  Here, I’m still finding my way, and I haven’t figured it out yet.  But yes, yesterday I did the Q&A after Norma. And I want to be doing those as often as possible when I’m here.  Next year we’re adding pre-performance lectures before every show.  All of this and my being “out there” is a way to put a face on an organization.  I think that it’s important for people to know who’s running their company, who they’re spending one hundred dollars for a ticket for.  If they’ve got a complaint, they can tell me.

A company does reflect one person’s vision. A company can’t be beige. It’s got to have a color. It has to have a personality.  And people are – hopefully – going to jump on that bandwagon.

I think it’s important for a director to know your audience. And at Glimmerglass, I have learned a lot about my audience. I think my programming has skewed to that more. But is that such a bad thing? Our ticket sales are up. We’ve been in the black two years.  We beat our ticket sales last year by fifteen percent. These are good things.

Well, traditionally Washington has been considered a conservative town and our arts, including architecture, for a long time reflected this. Opera as an art form has arguably drawn Washington’s most conservative end of the audience spectrum. 

Are you seen as coming in and rocking the boat a little?  Is there some pushback to your proposed direction for programming?

People who go to opera are predominantly of a certain age and of a certain income bracket.  That’s not a bad thing. We need all those people. Those are the people who keep us alive.  Yes, let’s get young audiences, but twenty-two year olds don’t have a lot of disposable income. Let’s not piss off our base.  So it’s not a question of push back, it’s a question of making sure I let everyone know what I am doing. That connects with being “out there.” I find when I am talking to people and explaining what I am trying to do – when you take the time – people are okay with that. No one wants to be considered an old fud. People want to feel “with it” and part of it and connected to the whole vision.

I want to change a lot, that’s true. I want more diversity on and off the stage. And we’re investigating holding more matinees to draw more people on weekends.

I am investigating ways of interconnecting between theatre-going audiences and music and opera lovers, looking at creative ways of packaging subscriptions.

We’re looking at everything, even things like giving the opera titles in English. I want people to be able to go to the box office and ask for tickets in a language they can speak.  I don’t want people intimidated by opera.

“Intimidated by opera” let’s put a red line through it. 

Let’s make buttons!

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Washington National Opera’s production of Show Boat, directed by Francesca Zambello, will be on the Kennedy Center Opera House stage from May 4 – 26, 2013. Details and tickets.

Comments

  1. Sheila Murawski says:

    What a treat to read this in-depth and thoroughly interesting interview. Having just read Ms. Galbraith’s perceptive review of WNO’s Norma, it was especially enjoyable. Her writing is top-notch.

    • Catherine Lincoln says:

      Timely and insightful interview for anyone interested in Washington National Opera’s future. We wish Francesca Zambello great success!

  2. John Boulanger says:

    Thank you for this opportunity to get to know the new head of Washington National Opera! It’s exciting to read about her plans and dreams for this company, and her vision for keeping this art form vital.

    Good probing questions, and straightforward answers. “Brava” to both interviewer and interviewee!

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