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Performing Arts 2015-2016: The Washington National Opera

Written By | Sep 18, 2015

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18, 2015 – After a brief summertime hiatus, Washington’s classical music scene swings back into action this month. We’ll be bringing you a series of short previews highlighting this season’s wealth of musical choices, starting today with the Washington National Opera (WNO), which kicks off its 2015-2016 bill of operatic fare Saturday with a new production of Bizet’s ever-popular “Carmen” at the Kennedy Center Opera House.


Even people who say they hate opera probably know most of the songs from “Carmen,” perhaps even without knowing where they heard them. That’s likely one of the reasons why the opera remains popular with opera aficionados as well as opera newbies. In fact, it’s probably one of the best introductions imaginable for someone who wants to try the opera out but isn’t too sure where to begin.

From the “Habañera” to the “Toreador Song,” “Carmen” is shot through with lush and very Spanish music, courtesy of Bizet’s realistic and imaginative 1874 score. Which is interesting, since Bizet was a Frenchman and the opera’s lyrics are actually in French as well.

As for Carmen herself, she’s in many ways opera’s very first modern feminist, not much concerned with what the world thinks of her just as long as she can make a good side income from smuggling and seduce male admirers and lovers whenever she tires of her current hapless victim.

This production, originated and designed by the Canadian Opera Company, will be directed by E. Loren Meeker and conducted by Evan Rogister.

Performance dates: Saturday-Oct. 3 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Special Young Artist performance: Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. This extra performance will be performed by a cast drawn from the young singers participating in this season’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program. Never heard of these singers? Well, if the past is prologue, you’ll be hearing about many of them soon. For those on a budget or trying out opera for the first time, this performance is the way to go.


Under artistic director Francesca Zambello, WNO has gradually been morphing into an edgier, more contemporary company that mixes in increasingly modern, American fare into seasons that also include longtime opera favorites. This season is perhaps the company’s most original yet, as exemplified by its staging of Philip Glass’ 2007 Civil War opera, “Appomattox.”

What makes this production of greater interest is the fact that it’s actually only about half of what opera- goers saw and heard in the 2007 original. Portions have been rewritten and/or re-composed, including its entire, all-new Act II.

The original “Appomattox” was set strictly in the Civil War era. This new production — which simultaneously celebrates the 150th anniversary of the end of that war and the 50th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1965 — sets its second act in the tumultuous 1960s, during which, arguably, the finishing touches were finally applied to Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox as a result of Martin Luther King’s tireless civil rights activities.

We don’t recall that WNO has ever performed an opera by Glass, at least during this writer’s active career as a reviewer, which began in the fall of 1995. And that’s not surprising. An early “minimalist,” whose music has been recognizable for its use of tiny, melodic snippets repeated almost endlessly but with increasingly complex rhythmic variations, Glass has not been this writer’s cup of tea. The same has been true for traditional opera-lovers as well.

That said, Virginia Opera’s astounding and well-received production of Glass’s 1991-1993 “Orphée,” an opera based not only on the ancient Greek myth but also on Cocteau’s eponymous 1949 art film—was brilliantly realized, leading me to a continuing reassessment of this composer.

Glass himself has steadily pushed away from the “minimalist” label over the years, even making forays into the world of popular and art film scores beginning in the 1980s. “Appomattox”—the 50 percent-or-more new version we’ll discover here—is likely to reflect, at least in part, the composer’s latest take on contemporary classical music. Although we, like everyone else, have never heard this new score—which can be rightly regarded as this opera’s “second world premiere”—our positive experience with “Orphée” has us looking forward to WNO’s production of this now nearly-new contemporary American opera.

This new WNO production, with sets designed by Donald Eastman, will be directed by Tazewell Thompson and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

Performance dates: Nov. 14-22 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. The libretto is in English, but WNO will also provide projected English titles as it does for all productions.

American Opera Initiative: Three 20-Minute Operas

One of WNO’s more interesting recent initiatives has been its American Opera Initiative. Evolving into a two-part program generally staged in the December-January timeframe, the Initiative supports the semi-staged productions of three short operas as well as a fully staged production of an hour-long opera. Both the short and the hour-long productions bring together new or nearly-new young composers and librettists who want to try their hand at composing opera—to this day, a genuinely daunting task.

In a series of workshop settings guided by seasoned opera professionals, three carefully selected composer-librettist teams collaborate on original 20-minute operas, not only to “get the hang of” just how you put such a complex musical structure together, but how you create a piece that can, in the words of the poet, “delight and instruct” the audience. There’s an expectation as well that each short opera will deal with topics relevant to America and its history past, present, and perhaps to come.

As always with brand new musical material, there’s a hit-or-miss potential with each year’s new crop of 20-minute compositions. But thus far, in this reviewer’s opinion, most of these initial forays have been quite interesting and original.

On tap this year are short operas entitled “Service Provider,” “Alexandra,” and “Twenty Minutes or Less.” Each production is briefly described on WNO’s website as follows:

Service Provider. Music by Christopher Weiss, libretto by John de los Santos.

“Service Provider” is a comic opera detailing the erosion of modern romance by our obsession with mobile technology. When a loving young couple goes out for their anniversary dinner at an elegant restaurant, the evening descends into farcical disaster as the constant threat of cell phone use eventually unmasks the fractured reality of their marriage.

Alexandra. Music by David Clay Mettens, libretto by Joshua McGuire.

“As a young widow tries to return a library book stolen by her deceased husband, she realizes it is the first link in a chain of secret messages from another time. With the library closing around her, she is forced to choose between her own complex history with the book and an uncertain future.”

Twenty Minutes or Less. Music by Sarah Hutchings, libretto by Mark Sonnenblick.

Osha’s first night working at Pizza Queen coincides with its most important delivery of the year. Will her co-workers like and respect her? Will she get the pizza to the customer in time? Will the thin veneer of human civilization prove strong enough to keep the empty chaos of the universe at bay? The clock is ticking…

Performance date: Dec. 02, 7 p.m. at the Terrace Theater.

“Hansel and Gretel”

WNO has also been mounting a special family-oriented opera production each year with an eye toward appealing to the entire family during the Christmas and year-end holiday season. This year’s production is the company’s revival of a perennial family favorite, German composer Englebert Humperdinck’s (the original Englebert’s) well-known operatic take on “Hansel and Gretel.”

We all know the story, including probably most of today’s kids, or at least we hope. In Humperdinck’s 1893 classic, our intrepid brother and sister team, lost in the woods, come upon an enchanting cottage built entirely of candy and confections, which they immediately begin to devour. Unfortunately, they’re actually dismantling the home of a very wicked witch and, as they say, complications ensue.

This opera has endured for so many years precisely because its story is so accessible and its music is so delightful—yet challenging in its own way. Humperdinck composes largely in the Wagnerian tradition, and in his most famous work, we—and the kids—get to hear and enjoy a rich, musical tapestry that’s far more interesting than the background music of standard Saturday morning cartoon fare—or what’s left of it in today’s videogaming/iPhone culture.

Add to that an enchanting set and plenty of fluttering fairies and dancing animals, and WNO’s upcoming “Hansel and Gretel” might just be the way to introduce the kids to the kind of traditional Western music and culture they’ll never get in today’s dismal public school environment.

Sung by WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists—another plus for those budding young musicians and singers in the audience. Directed by Sarah Meyers with an orchestral reduction by Kathleen Kelly.

Performance dates: Dec. 12 and 20, at the Terrace Theater.

American Opera Initiative: “Better Gods”

Part two of this season’s American Opera Initiative features the world premiere performance of a brand new one-act opera entitled “Better Gods.” WNO’s website informs us that the new work was created by “Luna Pearl Woolf, winner of OPERA America’s 2014 Discovery Grant, and Caitlin Vincent, the librettist of Uncle Alex, one of our 20-minute world premiere operas in 2013….”

“Better Gods” tells, through a third party, the story of Hawaii’s last monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, who battled to preserve her people and her culture when the U.S. annexed the island chain in 1898, largely due to fallout from the Spanish-American War.

WNO promises us that Ms. Woolf’s score “incorporates authentic Hawaiian instruments, themes and sounds–including a framework set by the traditional Hawaiian Creation Chant and elements of Lili’uokalani’s own musical compositions.”

Again, as with all new music, anything can happen in these productions. Thus far, we’ve experienced two good ones—2013’s “Approaching Ali” and last year’s surprisingly moving “Penny”—and one rocky premiere, the company’s 2014 production of Huang Ruo’s “An American Soldier,” which was, to this reviewer at least, unstintingly anti-American and rather bombastic as well.

“Better Gods,” perhaps, will risk similar PC treatment as well, given the current U.S. political climate and given the somewhat quiet but still growing nationalist sentiment in contemporary Hawaii, something not much covered by today’s press corps.

On the other hand, Verdi got in plenty of trouble for his political forays back in the day, so we’ll resist the temptation to pre-judge. Besides, in opera at least, it’s usually the quality of the music that will win an audience over in the end.

“Better Gods” will be sung by a cast of young singers from the Domingo-Cafritz program plus, according to WNO, “other talented performers.”

Directed by Ethan McSweeny with a chamber orchestra led by North Carolina Opera conductor Timothy Myers.

Performance dates: Jan. 8-9, 2016, at the Terrace Theater.

The remainder of WNO’s spring season actually seems like a whole new season to us, featuring not only a pair of vocal recitals and what we believe is a first-in-Washington performance of Kurt Weill’s last stage work, “Lost in the Stars,” but—at long last—the first-ever complete production by WNO of Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” of operas. We’ll preview the entire spring stanza for you in January 2016.

This original WNO “American Ring” will be, de facto, Washington’s hugest musical event of the new season by far, and tickets will be in great demand. They’ll be going on sale in February, first for Kennedy Center Members and a bit later in the month for the general public.

The last full “Ring Cycle” here in DC was a 1989 production by the Deutsche Oper Berlin at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and we were fortunate enough to get hold of tickets for that one, which was a weirdly time-traveling affair with all the action set inside what looked very much like a Washington, D.C. Metro tunnel.

Opera fans interested in WNO’s upcoming main event should start preparing in advance for what’s sure to be a February ticket rush. We’ll report further details on the “American Ring” as soon as they become available.


For tickets and information on WNO’s 2015-2016 season: Visit the WNO pages on the Kennedy Center’s website.

Terry Ponick

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17