Even by the dramatic standards of the opera world, Washington National Opera has seen a tumultuous couple of years. The recession led to a cancellation of its planned Ring cycle and the shortening of its season in 2009-10; there has been ongoing speculation that WNO might somehow merge with the Kennedy Center; and last week came the announcement that general director Plácido Domingo will end his 15-year tenure with the company at the conclusion of the 2010-11 season.
Even before these developments, Heinz Fricke, the company’s music director since 1993, became ill. This week, the company announced it is appointing a successor, Philippe Auguin, a 49-year-old Frenchman who made a splash when he stepped in for Fricke to lead a concert-version performance of Wagner's Gotterdammerung last season.
The appointment begins with his appearance Thursday in the new production of Richard Strauss's Salome. He'll also conduct most performances of the company's Madama Butterfly production later in the season.
In a statement released Tuesday, chairman of the orchestra Greg Drone said: “From the very first downbeat of our first rehearsals with him last year, the orchestra felt an instant connection.”
Auguin expressed the same feeling. "From the moment I stepped onto the podium, I felt a special rapport with the talented musicians of the orchestra," he said in a statement. Musicians have said they felt an immediate connection.
Auguin, who assisted Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti during his early career, has guest conducted at the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, La Scala and many other notable houses. At the Metropolitan Opera he has stepped in periodically for James Levine, starting in 2001 when he made his debut in Busoni's Doktor Faust, after Levine withdrew for health reasons.
In a 2006 performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin, New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote: "Philippe Auguin proved an exciting substitute who drew a shimmering, surely paced and incisive performance from the orchestra and chorus."
Music critics in Washington have hailed this as largely positive news for WNO and a much-needed boost for an increasingly beleaguered company. The music director post includes a strong relationship with the Kennedy Center (the two organizations share 61 orchestra musicians) and thus if a merger eventually happens, this synergy will be important.