Merger benefits Washington National Opera

Players perform in the Washington  National Opera production of "Cinderella." Photo by Brett Coomer
Players perform in the Washington National Opera production of “Cinderella.” Photo by Brett Coomer

When Mark Weinstein arrived at the Washington National Opera it was in dire straits. “It was a combination of exhilarating and frustrating. You’ll have to find the German word for that,” laughed Weinstein. “The company, like other companies, had been overspending and for many years had accumulated large deficits, and was using endowment – unrestricted endowment, so it was legal – to fund deficits which was not sustainable, and also they were using emergency fundraising.” They had brought him in to turn the finances around and he helped propose an unusual plan: merge with the Kennedy Center. “It turned out to be the absolute best thing in the world for the company,” said Weinstein.

The financial woes of the Washington National Opera were not unique, but its solution was. In the 21st century, America lost multiple opera companies in the wake of the recession, including Baltimore and Orlando and a near-miss for San Diego. But Washington was not among them thanks to business savvy and big gambles, such as merging with another venue, which helped steady fundraising and ease the yearly budget. This turnaround has led to a new era of operatic innovation – an opera company that is not only reimagining what it means to be the National Opera, but also helping expand the rosters of American talent more than it ever has before.

In 1956, music critic Day Thorpe decided Washington, as the nation’s capital, deserved its own operatic company: and thus the Opera Society of Washington was born. Put on in a venue ill-suited for opera at George Washington University and having to rehearse in New York because all the singers were there, the first show was Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, a lesser-known piece by the classical composer and the start of a company trend of mixing things up. The company had a long-standing relationship with composer Gian Carlo Mennotti and frequently commissioned works from him, including the opera Goya that starred Placido Domingo, the future artistic director.

Since then the company has regularly commissioned, premiered or leapt on new works, according to Michael Mael, Washington National Opera’s executive director. He pointed out that during Domingo’s time at the opera they staged big new American works like A View From The Bridge and Sophie’s Choice. The Washington National Opera has also become known as a breeding ground of new operatic performers and early signings for later stars. “We booked Angela Meade before she was even contracted by the Met,” said Mael, and she’s just one of the many names WNO take pride in helping nurture.

WNO has never shied away from creating and cultivating new American works, and in 2012, the first class of new writers was brought in to create three 20-minute pieces and one hour-long work under the mentorship of experts like composer Jake Heggie, librettist Mark Campbell, conductor Anne Manson and Urban Arias founder Robert Wood. The young artists trained in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program are then brought in to perform these new works, which have become a much loved part of the WNO’s season. “Because opera is so expensive and you really can’t afford to do a lot of new work, we wanted to create opportunities for younger librettists to experience hearing their pieces performed in a major venue by a major company,” said Mael. Since then, the company’s newly written works sit alongside more established contemporary works, forgotten classics and a blockbuster hit every year.

The American Opera Initiative is not the only program for new operatic talent. New York City Opera used to run the lauded Vox program, which similarly helped stage productions of new operas in small chunks with their company singers. The Los Angeles Opera is working closely with acclaimed opera producer Beth Morrison to help bring smaller works to its new black box venue partner, Redcat. American Lyric Theater and Fort Worth Opera have also commissioned new work including the opera JFK by David T Little and Royce Vavrek as part of the InsightALT program. But many of these projects or company focuses on newer works are still fledgling: even the Metropolitan Opera’s New Works Program has only just produced its first new work in the form of Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’ Two Boys last year. Notably, there may have been a predecessor, but Rufus Wainwright took his project, Prima Donna, to City Opera when he felt it was taking too long to develop. Washington National Opera is already seeing returns on its first class in 2012: the writers of the 20-minute piece, A Game of Hearts in 2012, are now back to write an hour-long piece called Penny, about a disabled woman who discovers her vocal talents.

Their success has also helped convince other companies to keep pushing for their own new work. Pittsburgh Opera, impressed by the success of the American Opera Initiative, is also expanding into new works. Its 75th anniversary featured contemporary works like Dark Sisters, Paul’s Case and Phillip Glass’ Orpheh, but now, Christopher Hahn, general director of Pittsburgh Opera, says, there is a “conscious move to encounter new work which is not only in the second production of a world premiere but to develop new work which would have its beginnings in Pittsburgh.” These new works, he says, will be a mix of subjects and some will “pique the interest of the community to delve into the subject matter that the Pittsburgh community would find absolutely riveting.”

In 2004, following a congressional designation as the nation’s opera, the company was officially named Washington National Opera, a decision not without detractors. “There’s that age-old debate,” recounted Hahn, “of ‘is the Met not the national opera because it’s the biggest and has a wider, more international scope?’ ” But under current artistic director Francesca Zambello, says WNO’s Mael, the focus on establishing what it means to be national is a major focus for the opera house, which has continued to produce contemporary American work and cultivate new works itself. “On one hand, you want to feature American artists, American themes, American issues. But you don’t want to be so chauvinistic that you say that’s all we are and what we do, because being the national company means you have a responsibility internationally,” said Mael, and the number of singers now in its young artists program from other
countries is a sign of this merging of identities.

Critics and audiences have responded well to the new works: the showcases are sold-out events, and reviews have been favorable for the short works. “These young teams should feel proud and opera fans would be smart to keep an eye out for their work in the future,” said the blogger Sybaritic Singer on the 2013 showcase. The Washington Post said of the 2012 output that “even the best of works could be improved … and the least was entertaining.” There was also a great deal of buzz around this year’s hour-long new work, An American Soldier, focusing on the suicide of Asian-American soldier Danny Chen. But companies are still having to strike a balance of old and new to get the audiences in: after all, it was an attempt to program a season of all-American works at New York City Opera that led to the 2008-09 season being canceled and huge financial losses for the now bankrupt organization. Mael still believes in the importance of having one “blockbuster” opera – Showboat, The Magic Flute, or this year’s La Boheme – to lure audiences in. “We take one blockbuster opera and do a lot of performances because it’s a way in for new audiences. It’s a way to introduce people to opera and you can only do that with the popular titles.”

Christopher Hahn, however, was amazed at WNO’s success at attracting families with its Christmas show last year The Lion, The Unicorn and Me. “ This is exactly what should be going on in the Kennedy Center,” said Hahn, “and it was all to do with local schools and local kids.” Indeed, Mael is amazed at how many young audience members will go to opera if the situation is right, like the summertime simulcasts in Nationals Park, where audiences gather for outdoor screenings and hotdogs. “It’s an extraordinary thing to see,” said Mael, “and a lot of the audience there are younger, a lot of kids running on the outfield grass.”

The WNO is also sending out members of its young artist program into local schools and colleges, Mael said. “We send them out to put an approachable face to the art form.”

Washington National Opera may not be making headlines, but considering the reasons opera is doing so at the moment – New York City Opera’s recent bankruptcy, the Met’s ongoing labor dispute and its controversial production of “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which some Jewish groups say glorifies terrorism – this may not be a bad thing. Instead, the company’s hard work and increasing success is helping to produce an incredible amount of new operatic work with a focus on national issues. Zambello’s success is something Hahn and the Pittsburgh Opera would love to do more of, even discussing co-productions between the companies. “She’s got fantastic connections, fantastic vision and great taste. So that’s something I would consciously emulate if I could shove another show into our season,” said Hahn.

Mark Weinstein, although no longer with the company, put it best: “Taking the courageous step of merging with the Kennedy Center is not an easy thing. But it’s the reason today you aren’t hearing about the Washington National Opera closing, or having strikes, and you are hearing it about other places.”

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