Washington National Opera announced its programming for the 2017/2018 season on Monday, almost three months earlier than usual. The upcoming season is all part of Kennedy Center’s continued re-envisioning of its mission, that in addition to bearing the standard for “big” classical music in all its forms, will create a blended family of its member organizations and promote collaboration, cross-fertilization, and cutting-edge risk-taking.
After years of various leadership styles and experiments in programming by the Kennedy Center, which was nevertheless viewed locally as your mother’s (or your grandmother’s) isolated museum “box” on the river, President Deborah F. Rutter, in her two-plus years, has successfully made the place jump.
Washington National Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra and the Fortas Chamber Music Concerts have collectively cultivated new audiences that on Monday included press members, young musicians from the orchestra, representatives from local presenting organizations, and other “friends” from the city. The group who gathered to hear the programming announcements was surprisingly diverse in age as well as color. The only blue-haired lady I saw was a twenty-something who had an electric blue dye job.
The event was marked by seemingly honest congeniality and mutual respect. Thanks to the commitment of the three artistic directors to develop new talent, there were various announcements that indicated outreach and programming collaboration with other presenting organizations from the area. (The NSO, for instance, will be involved not only in inter-collaboration with the WNO but across town with the Washington Performing Arts and Wolf Trap.)
The three classical music organizations that share the building also demonstrated today that their artistic leaders will be very much the faces and the voices to brand their individual companies’ identities. The biggest announcement of the day came with Music Director Gianandrea Noseda stepping into his inaugural season as leader of the National Symphony Orchestra. He spoke with such passion and inspiration, that I’m moved to take out a season subscription. Artists are so often most richly fed by work in another discipline.
A few years ago when I covered this event, Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, was the new kid on the block. She had been appointed with some good directing creds in her resume, but many wondered how she could follow the likes of the star-studded, commanding presence of Plácido Domingo?
There’s no question now about Zambello’s artistic leadership. Last season, she pulled off a spectacular “Ring” that cemented her “world class” status. She brought a major crossover piece in Kurt Weil’s international casting of Lost in the Stars. She even attracted the living legend rock star of twentieth century opera, Phillip Glass, and brought his Appomattox to Washington.
But the question before us was what was going to be her follow-up? So here’s her strategy:
The season will open with a classic “biggy” with Verdi’s Aida. WNO is collaborating with three other opera companies in a brand new production. But the work known famously as the “opera with elephants,” will give the production a contemporary flare with a look taken from artist RETNA, full of hieroglyphics, calligraphy, and bold colors. It’s a star-studded international cast. Opera devotees will flock to it.
This will be followed by Handel’s Alcina, a work of heightened theatricality, pageantry, and magical spectacle. Musically the baroque score and singers will impress opera lovers, and especially the sheer beauty of Angela Meade in the title role. For theatre-goers, the draw will be director Anne Bogart. If you can’t afford seats for the opening and the announced professional cast, try to catch the special Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program on November 18 at the Eisenhower Theatre. It’s a great way to immerse oneself in the grandest of performance art forms.
I caught the family opera The Little Prince when Zambello started her holiday tradition a few years ago, directing this gem. Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s story on which it is based has always enchanted me. The cast will come from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and will also feature the Washington Children’s Chorus, another feature of Zambello’s commitment to the future of American opera. Opera and musical theater director James Lowe will make his WNO debut leading the orchestra.
In the winter, WNO will host for the sixth season its American Opera Initiative, presenting back-to-back four world premieres. Proving Up by composer Missy Mazzoli and librettist Royce Vavrek will lead the series as the one-hour opera promises to be a harrowing American story of homesteading in Nebraska. My grandmother filled me with tales of her own journey, driving herself alone in a wagon west to the Dakota territories of 19th century and homesteading. I’m of that stock and can’t wait for my story to be told in opera. Zambello’s heart is in telling American stories led by American singers.
Three other twenty-minute operas will also be given an orchestra, full staging and mentoring. How else can creators really hear and see their works?
In the spring season, Zambello immerses us back in classic repertoire. Leading the charge, Don Carlo is Verdi’s political opera set during the Spanish Inquisition. It’s a great choice for this city at the heart of political intrigue and conflict. The production demonstrates that producing collaboration is an essential ingredient for mounting these big expensive works. Jamie Barton, who was stunning in The Ring of the Niebelung last season, will sing the role Princess Eboli, while my favorite Eric Owens, who has pretty much become a Zambello company member, proving himself star status at both Glimmerglass and WNO in Lost in the Stars and singing at KC in the title role of The Flying Dutchman. For these two singing-actors alone I urge you to make the pilgrimage.
If you adamantly prefer theatre fare, you will be lured nonetheless by Zambello’s spring production and personal directorial stamp of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. This will mark WNO’s contribution to Kennedy Center’s Leonard Bernstein at 100 festival. Another exemplary cast, it includes Washington’s own Denyce Graves as The Old Lady.
There are plenty of other vocal events coming up in the season. The one that has my heart racing is a concert by John Holiday, who won in previous years not only the Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions but Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. The counter tenor is a phenomenon.
Check out the full season on WNO’s website. www.kennedy-center.org. To subscribe, call 202 416-8500.