Walking into the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Tuesday morning, I was greeted by the hell-bent-for leather sounds of the famous “Ride of the Valkyries” from Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Nothing could have been better chosen to underscore KC’s new President Deborah F. Rutter stepping up to the podium to announce her commitment to make the entire KC 2015-2016 Season as one reaching out to new and intrepid audience members. And no art form was as boldly represented or more exciting to me as that of Washington National Opera’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello when she read off the slate of firsts the WNO was committed to producing.
When it was announced that Washington National Opera was going to bring Kurt Weill’s and Maxwell Anderson’s’ collaboration, Lost in the Stars, to Washington, I wanted to jump up on my seat and holler. (Not very KC, I know.) But I’d seen the stunning co-production with Cape Town Opera and directed by Tazewell Thompson when it was performed at Glimmerglass Festival in 2012.
I had spread the word to everyone I knew: this was a genre-defying work that was a “must see” production for anyone who loves opera or theatre. Adapted from Alan Paton’s famous novel, “Cry the Beloved Country,” which helped expose the regime of apartheid in South Africa to the world, it is a work that is meant to be seen in this capital city and by Washington audiences. Its themes are race, an unequal justice system, and about fathers and sons. In the central role, the company premiere will feature Eric Owens, who is currently singing the title role in The Flying Dutchman at WNO. I promise you, Owens and the rest of the cast make the operatic production as powerfully acted as any top drama and as emotionally impactful and politically important a work as anything seen here in many years.
WNO will also take on the world premiere of a newly revised version of Appomattox by Philip Glass. This is the first time that the opera company has tackled a work of the great and greatly controversial twentieth-century composer – it could be a shattering experience! (ouch) It is a work that makes the audience stretch mentally from the Civil War and the battles to end slavery then, in the second act, to the struggle for civil rights in the twentieth century led by Martin Luther King Jr.
On the 150th anniversary of the resolution of the Civil War and fifty years since King’s great march on Washington, The Kennedy Center is just the place to stage this opera. I imagine after its performance, walking out to stand on the Center’s balcony and, looking down to glimpse the monuments and out across the river over to Virginia, to reflect on the brave people who laid themselves on the line then and now as the struggle for equal justice continues. Tazewell Thompson will also direct this opera, and it will feature two of my favorite singer-actors – the marvelously intelligent singer-actor David Pittsinger as Robert E. Lee and Washington’s own, former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist and rising star, bass Soloman Howard. I can’t wait to see this work and hear all the wonderful singers involved.
Just those two shows would be worth laying down money for the season, but Zambello is going for the gold in what seems to be a season equivalent to an Olympic triathlon event. At the conclusion of the 2015-2016, she has announced that she and WNO’s Music Director Philippe Auguin will tackle what most agree is the pinnacle of opera, Richard Wagner’s complete work, The Ring of the Nibelung, or as it is known “The Ring Cycle.” You can bet she will slash her Zambello “Z” on the individual works that make up the Ring Cycle, connecting the German epic opera to themes of America today, including our own country’s mythology, the fight to stave off the corruption of nature, personal freedom, and the spiritual redemption of mankind.
So, after all this fanfare, the inclusion of another Carmen might not get your heart fluttering. Maybe Zambello is using this opera to open next season in September as a kind of running long jump to what lies ahead. Maybe Zambello and company see it as a “throwing a bone” to the stalwart opera subscribers who like to see their standard repertoire. Let’s face it, the tunes are singable, and Carmen, by French composer Georges Bizet, remains one of the most popular of operatic “shows.” I’ll bet money Zambello will plumb the work for social commentary and plenty of emotional sizzle. I also think she’s smart in making this the opera in support of WNO’s educational outreach efforts to introduce classic opera to young audiences.
In this spirit, Zambello will continue WNO’s recent tradition of offering family opera during the holiday season. December will showcase performances in a revival of Engelbert Humperdinck’s chamber opera Hansel and Gretel. This year Zambello is bringing back one of her most beloved (and strategic) initiatives, WNO’s Children’s Chorus. As any ballet studio or community musical production leader will tell you, getting kids on stage is a great way to ensure many extended family butts in seats. I saw the production of Hansel and Gretel two years ago and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Washington National Opera: 2015-2016 season
Carmen: September 19 – Oct 3, 2015 (Opera House)
Appomattox: November 14 – 22, 2015 (Opera House)
Hansel and Gretel: December 12 – 20, 2015 (Terrace Theatre)
Lost in the Stars: February 12 – 20, 2016 (Eisenhower Theatre)
The Ring Cycle: April 30 – May 22, 2016 (Opera House)
Twilight of the Gods
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New faces, new positions, and works across genres — that’s what I got from my morning at the Kennedy Center. Sure there’s a glittering “star” highlight here and there ahead as one would expect at the KC – my money is going out to grab a seat to see Juliette Binoche starring in Antigone. And there’s plenty to feed my passion for international collaboration, including an almost month-long Irish theatre festival. There are also quirky one-off events such as the much-buzzed-about series “Jason +” including “Jason + Skateboarding” which will bring conversation into the center of artist-curated arts programming across genres.
Let’s face it folks, these big traditional arts complexes are having to rethink how to connect with their community in new ways – some orchestral halls are adding yoga classes as part of an artistic program experience – to keep their doors open. New programming like this can scattershot, and sometimes a buzz is just a “zzzzzz.”
But I do believe WNO is pushing ever forward and is at the vanguard of defining new American opera experiences. Hang on to your hats, and opera aside, a few of their productions could just become the theatrical events of the coming year in Washington’s very crowded and competitive field.
And if you thought opera wasn’t for you, now’s the time to “get over it.” I’ll see you there.
More from the 2012 Glimmerglass Festival/Cape Town Opera co-production of Lost in the Stars