Planet Opera: An Opera-Lover's Guide to Washington, DC

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When Marian Anderson sang at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday 1939, the concert took place thanks to the efforts of a broad coalition of civil rights advocates, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes after Anderson was prevented by the Daughters of the American Revolution from singing at Constitution Hall because of her race. More than 75,000 people attended and millions more listened on a live national radio broadcast. Anderson opened by singing a slightly revised lyric, “My country, tis of thee, first land of liberty,” a pointed rejoinder to those who sought to still her voice.

For many people, their strongest association with opera in the nation’s capital is, even now, Anderson’s historic performance. But Washington, D.C. has gradually evolved into one of the more important opera centers in the United States, not only for mainstream opera but unusual works covering the entire history of the art form. 

At the top of the heap is the Washington National Opera, which was founded in 1956 by Day Thorpe, the music critic of the now-defunct Washington Star. The company was originally called the Opera Society of Washington. The first production was Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, which was performed in the Lisner Auditorium of George Washington University. Props were gathered from many sources, including the Turkish embassy, which was a logical idea.

The company has had an eventful history that took a large leap forward in 1971 with the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The idea for a place where the arts would have a showcase in the nation’s capital was initially broached by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and gained momentum following the death of President Kennedy in 1963 when his widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, and President Lyndon B. Johnson made it a priority.

Under the huge bust of Kennedy in the main lobby of the center is a quotation from a speech the president gave in December 1962: "The arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is very close to the center of a nation’s purpose—and it is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization."

The WNO opened its 2013-2014 season on September 15 with Tristan and Isolde, starring Iréne Theorin and Ian Storey, conducted by its music director Philippe Auguin. Performances continue through September 27. The WNO tends to list opera titles in English. Upcoming is Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, which the company is referring to as The Force of Destiny (October 12-26) in a production by the WNO’s new artistic director Francesca Zambello. Later in the season are Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick (February 22-March 8), The Elixir of Love (March 20-29) and The Magic Flute (May 3-18). The company offers free pre-performance lectures before every opera.

I contacted Francesca Zambello recently to ask her to explain what she wants to do with the company (Note: italics are hers):

“I look forward to continuing to explore how Washington National Opera can broaden its reach. Next season we will present our first all-American winter season, and we will continue to present more American writers, composers and performers in works that speak to our sensibilities. We are revitalizing and growing our Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program; Deborah Voigt joins us next season as the program’s first Artist in Residence. We will have more events in a variety of Kennedy Center venues, a unique opportunity we have to choose the best performance space to match each work. I hope these and other initiatives will continue to entice both new and returning audiences to come experience live opera.”

Zambello is expanding on the company’s sense of itself as America’s opera company (compared, let’s say, to the Met, which is America’s international opera company). The WNO has an institute at American University whose scope is to identify and offer early training to talented singers and accompanists who range in age from 15-18. In addition, it runs the American Opera Institute to develop new works, often based on American themes. In June 2013, there was a new opera about Muhammad Ali. On November 13, there will be a presentation of three new 20-minute operas.

No Bravos

When one attends the Kennedy Center, it is notable that audiences there are different from most other places in America. Their responses tend to be more reserved, although I did hear lusty cheers last March for the opening night of a new production of Norma with Angela Meade and Dolora Zajick. I recall that Mirella Freni’s last opera appearance was with WNO in Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orleans. I traveled to Washington to be present at this historic event, but the audience seemed unaware of how important it was. 

I think the often-tepid response to great performances is due to a couple of factors. First, Washington sees huge changes in population as new members of government and their staffs arrive with every election while the old ones leave town. These transient audiences don’t form the same attachment to the local company that they might back in their home towns. It is hard to build a steady audience when people come and go so much. The same applies to all of the workers in foreign embassies. 

Second, there is a considerable amount of image-consciousness in this city that effusive cheering does not jibe with. Some presidential administrations set the tone for strong support of the arts while others do not. I have seen many political figures at WNO performances (Newt Gingrich is a regular, even if he was not especially supportive of arts funding while in Congress), but they tend to politely applaud rather than cry “Bravo!” They are aware that everything they do and say will be noted by those who recognize them.

The Kennedy Center, through the efforts of its president, Michael M. Kaiser, has achieved greater prominence not only as a presenter of all of the arts but as a venue for education of arts administrators and audiences. On August 31, Kaiser married his partner, John Roberts, in a ceremony at the Kennedy Center officiated by opera-loving Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Kaiser observed to me in a recent conversation that it is possible for opera and operatic music to be performed by other constituent organizations as well as guest companies. The Kennedy Center is also home of the National Symphony Orchestra, which will pay more attention to the 150th birthday of Richard Strauss (June 11, 2014) than is the WNO. On March 8, the NSO presents a concert version of Der Rosenkavalier with Sarah Connolly and Renée Fleming. Then, from March 20 to 22, there will be selections from Salome and Elektra with Iréne Theorin and John Relyea.

Of course, the center is where artists receive the Kennedy Center Honors for distinguished lifetime achievement in the arts. The 2013 recipients were just announced and include soprano Martina Arroyo.

Beyond the Big Houses

Washington has a lot more opera than what I have discussed thus far.

  • There is Opera Lafayette founded by conductor and artistic director Ryan Brown in 1995. It specializes in 17th and 18th century French opera and performs at the Kennedy Center. This season they will also perform in New York on Jan. 23 and May 2, 2014 and in Versailles on Feb. 1 and 2, 2014.
  • Opera Camerata is an unusual group in that it performs opera in different settings, such as private homes or embassies. The performance is preceded by a cocktail reception. The next one will be La Traviata on September 28 in the Hall of the Americas of the Organization of American States, sponsored by the mission of Mexico to the OAS.
  • Washington Concert Opera which, as the name suggests, presents opera in concert form. This season they will honor Verdi by presenting two of his lesser-known operas: I Masnadieri on September 22 and Il Corsaro on Mar. 9, 2014. Both have strong casts. The company’s first opera was 25 years ago: Massenet’s Werther, starring Jerry Hadley and Diana Montague. Since then, many distinguished singers have performed with WCO, including Lawrence Brownlee, Renée Fleming, Ben Heppner, James Morris, Patricia Racette and Carol Vaness.
  • Since 1972, Washington-area opera lovers have had summer performances at the nearby Wolf Trap Opera in Virginia. Early repertory combined European operas with American works such as Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha and Menotti’s The Saint of Bleecker Street. Ever since there has been a healthy mix of the popular and the unusual, with Mozart being the composer most-represented.

I wonder if the WNO or any of the other opera organizations have any plans to present Queenie Pie, the only opera by D.C. native Duke Ellington, one of the greatest musical geniuses our nation has produced?

There is more that makes Washington special and interesting for opera lovers. Until January 25, 2014 there will be an exhibition in the Performing Arts Reading Room of the Library of Congress called “A Night at the Opera” that includes holdings from the library’s collection. The Smithsonian Institution offers lectures and seminars on a vast range of topics throughout the year, including opera. The National Endowment for the Arts has played a crucial role in our nation’s artistic flowering. I will do an article about the NEA and opera in the near future.  

Photos: 1) Washington National Opera at Nationals Park, Washington, DC (Scott Suchman); Kaiser: Margot Schulman/Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts