Good news to opera lovers, opera is very much alive and growing in its John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (KC) home on the Potomac. While many big and small opera companies in New York and elsewhere have found themselves recently out of business or floundering financially, Washington National Opera (WNO) seems to have found a winning team in the partnership of Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and the relatively new General Director Timothy O’Leary. This week the company announces it is expanding to six full, “spectacular” productions.
Washington’s home team ‘big opera’ company has also announced it’s on the move. In addition to the big productions, it’s clear this leadership team is committed, just as many artistic heads are speaking currently, to reaching out and engaging the community – which means at least in part going to them. While no specifics were laid out, there are strategic conversations going on making these goals into realities.
Let’s be honest, historically “reaching out” has been one of the KC’s ongoing challenges on its isolated perch above the river. Deborah Rutter, President of KC has staked her leadership to rectifying this by creating an inviting park, referred to as “The Reach,” as a public space for art that’s not been conceived yet in order to draw new generations of artists and arts enthusiasts to stamp the KC as their own – all to the tune of an estimated $175 million and scheduled to open in September.
Resident companies, including the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), Fortas Chamber Ensemble and WNO have all done their part programming pop up concerts, performing in the schools, and, notably WNO’s annual “Opera in the Outfield,” where people picnic on the lawn and experience a company opera production “broadcast.” The popular annual event has drawn audiences from the city’s wide-spectrum of diversity.
The ongoing discussion about this challenge and which direction is best to maintain and grow new audiences always generates some anxiety. In the session announcing the roll out of NSO, WNO, and Fortas this season, the true theatrics happened at the tail end of the announcements, due in great part to an invited moderator’s curious line of questions that derailed what was billed as a “conversation” with the media, patrons, company members, and other invited guests.
But more on that later. Let’s give Zambello and O’Leary their due and assist in sharing their season. How does what will be rolled out this Fall appear, including the “optics?” And where will WNO stake out its position vis à vis programming – serve the aging, mostly white passionate patrons of classical opera or grab new audiences with contemporary, unconventional works?
When asked, Zambello has made it clear she will not plant WNO on one side or the other of this false dichotomy. She will adamantly say, “I want both!” Indeed, she has shown that this eclectic programming marks her leadership. And it doesn’t come from any politically correct lip service. This is one Washington Director who walks her talk. Zambello may at times work strategically, but her choices are inspired by a clear-eyed vision for opera of the future and a personally driven passion for the stories and conversations of today.
Look no further than what is imbedded smack into the middle of this next season, a commissioned opera, Blue, with Zambello’s two long-time collaborators, Librettist Tazewell Thompson (who will also direct) and Composer Jeanine Tesori. This creative team represents true American theater industry powerhouses. Thompson is a designer, director and now a librettist. He directed an extraordinary production of Lost in the Stars about South African apartheid for Zambello, first at Glimmerglass Festival then bringing it into the KC as part of the WNO season. (The team of O’Leary and Zambello again will share the new work between two houses, opening it at the smaller “summer venue” of Glimmerglass to get any kinks out before producing it for 5 performance in the Eisenhower Theater in March 2020.) Tesori is a knockout crossover artist of Broadway fame who increasingly works in opera. I’m an unmitigated fan of her work, and let’s just call it “singing-theater.”
Nothing made WNO’s commitment to new works clearer than the electrifying performance by Kevin Kellogg, a Domingo-Cafritz Young Performers alum, who has been hired as the lead. When he gave the room a preview of this opera-to-come and as his character, an African-American policeman in Harlem holding his baby son for the first time, sang, “My son, my little baby boy,” he brought the room together conveying the universal heartache of any father bringing a child into this troubled world, but how much more a Black man knowing the fear, prejudice, and violence this innocent Black child will face in America.
The characters in this opera are archetypes, we are told, but their story is all too real and adds to the nation’s current conversation, addressing themes of racism, violence on young Black men, and particularly police violence. I’m excited because Thompson’s story promises that this character, because of his profession, is nuanced and someone caught in the middle. Tesori’s music, judging by this one song, takes us on a journey of the country’s history and American music-theater history, with more than a nod to America’s home-grown opera, the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, in the score then pushing into new tonalities and (I’ll bet) instrumentation.
Let’s not lose sight that Zambello also wants to do the classics, adding, “I want to do them well.” Having seen her work for the past several seasons, what that translates into is she will not favor “park and bark” operas, that is the old classics propped up by oversized stars who clearly have parachuted into the KC for a quickie. (Unless you’re a Valkyrie, these days, it’s unacceptable theater.) This is a director, if you haven’t seen her work, who brings emotional depth and dramatic nuance into her singing-theater productions.
The season opens with Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello the end of October. The opera is a standard, like Mount Everest is a standard mountain. It’s an opera that promises to test the integrity and power of singers and design team alike. And make no mistake, Verdi is no ordinary “dead white male.” He was and still should be considered a radical, not only a radical composer but one who redefined performance in music-theater and oh-by-the-way shook up society, confronting the issues of his day through his prodigious art.
American Tenor Russell Thomas will sing the title role about the rise and fall of Shakespeare’s Moorish general, who seems capable of ruling over everything but his own heart.
This year, the “holiday family opera” has been scotched, replaced nonetheless in November with a great introduction to opera for the whole family, Amadeus Mozart’s final and gorgeously appealing work, The Magic Flute. I am tickled to death that the delightful fantasy will feature designs by favorite children’s author, Maurice Sendak. (Don’t let ticket prices stop you from bringing the family. There is a performance scheduled with the talented Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.)
If you prefer sensual to whimsy, the wonderfully theatrical director Peter Kazaras will return to the WNO to deliver the French opera Samson and Delilah by composer Camille Saint-Saëns with J’nai Bridges making her WNO debut. This internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano promises to make good the true steaminess plus kick-ass treachery as Delilah.
If you are into “bad ass” characters, there is no single character who embodies this more than he-who-must-be-named “the don,” as in Don Giovanni. If you were to cross the best and “baddest” movie-star anti-hero with the slimiest of toads who have been outed in the emboldened #metoo movement, you can imagine what an electrifying opportunity this is for director and lead singer-actor. Ryan McKinney, in the PR poster revealing an open-shirted Poldark-like portrait, being dragged in flames, will convince you this guy is up to the challenge.
Finally, Zambello ends the season directing that “first great American” opera, Porgy and Bess, with a star studded cast, including homegrown DC artists Denyce Graves, Alyson Cambridge and the former Domingo-Cafritz stand-out soprano Jacqueline Echols. I love that it will work as if in conversation with the new opera Blue.
There are other big changes. Nearly buried is the news that WNO has a new principal conductor, Evan Rogister.
So when Nina Totenberg, golden ticket holder (come-anytime-as-our-guest pass) at the KC and a Washington powerhouse in her own right as NPR correspondent assigned to the Supreme Court, stepped onto the dais to lead a “conversation,” we were all enrapt. Perhaps she didn’t know her audience or perhaps her mind was elsewhere.
She proceeded to try to knock the three directors-in-residence of classic music off their game. To Gianandrea Noseda, director of NSO, she pitched the questions, “Why all nine Beethoven symphonies and why dead white (European) males? To Francesca, she dragged up the proverbial elephant in the living room, “Can you really attract diversity in opera’s aging (white) audience?” Joseph Kalichstein, Director of the Fortas Chamber Orchestra, beat her to the punch by regaling us with an early SNL skit depicting a literally “dead” quartet toppling each other over like bowling pins, then going toe-to-toe with her provocation, proving that chamber music and the Fortas repertoire is anything but dead.
Surely you the reader get the understandable sparks flying in the room. So when said moderator threw up her hands and asked the somewhat stunned gathering, “So you want to talk about impeachment?“
“NO, Nina!” We were there to stand arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder in support of the arts and art makers.