Washington National Opera announces new 2015-2016 season

2015-16 will be a big season for American opera, including WNO’s long-awaited complete “American Ring” cycle in 2016, new Weill, Glass productions.

Eric Owens in
Still from YouTube video of Glimmerglass Opera's production of Weill's "Lost in the Stars," starring Eric Owens. This South African production will be presented here next fall.

WASHINGTON—The Washington National Opera (WNO) issued a press release Tuesday morning detailing its upcoming 60th anniversary season at the Kennedy Center. The company’s 2015-2016 schedule of operas will be highlighted by three complete performances of the company’s long-awaited but never-quite finished “American Ring” cycle.

According to the release,

“The 2015-2016 season includes a new-to-Washington staging of Bizet’s Carmen, the world premiere of a newly revised version of ‘Appomattox’ by composer Philip Glass and librettist Christopher Hampton, a revival of WNO’s charming holiday production of ‘Hansel and Gretel,’ the company premiere of Kurt Weill’s ‘Lost in the Stars’ in a gripping production from Cape Town Opera, and WNO’s first complete staging of Wagner’s extraordinary four-part Ring Cycle, with a world-class cast under the direction of Francesca Zambello and featuring the WNO Orchestra conducted by WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin.”

RELATED: Incoming: WNO’s American Ring in 2016 – all of it

In order to pique the interest of regular patrons and potential new audience members, the company also notes that musical highlights previewing the new season “will be performed by the WNO Orchestra and special guests at a free preview concert on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 at 6 p.m. as part of the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.”

The 2015-2016 schedule makes it clearer still that, while old favorites remain a staple in this company’s evolving identity, artistic director Francesca Zambello is continuing to move WNO into more adventurous, more controversial and decidedly American territory.

“As WNO looks forward to celebrating 60 years of bringing great opera to Washington in 2015-2016, our season represents the breadth of who we are at WNO,” notes Ms. Zambello. “From the classic to the contemporary, all of our upcoming productions are ambitious, challenging, and inspiring in their diversity, not to mention exhilarating and entertaining.”

Here’s a synopsis of the new season’s productions, including excerpts from WNO’s release and a few extended thoughts and observations of my own.

“Carmen” (Sept. 19-Oct. 3, 2015 in the Opera House)

I’ve often told fearful potential opera newbies that if they want the best possible introduction to this kind of musical theater, they should try to catch a good production of Georges Bizet’s immortal “Carmen.” Given its rather transformational new season schedule, WNO likely agrees, and this one should get the turnstiles humming.

Canadian Opera Company still from "Carmen."
Carmen sure has a way with those military types. Video still from the Canadian Opera Company’s “Carmen,” whose production WNO will be using here.

A flop for all the wrong reasons when it was first staged, this then-controversial 1875 opera, with its amoral, hedonistic and pre-feminist heroine turned a 180 shortly thereafter, becoming perhaps one of the greatest hits of all time. Even people who think they hate opera quickly discover they already know about half of its famous tunes.

Success, alas, came a bit too late for its French composer, Georges Bizet. He died not long after his failed premiere and never got to witness the eventual, more-than-platinum success of his masterpiece—or pocket the resulting royalties.

The simple but not-so-simple love story of “Carmen” is the tale of a gypsy woman that we first discover making ends meet by working as a “cigarette girl” in a cigarette factory, even as she moonlights with other gypsies and fellow criminal types as a smuggler. But when she sets her eyes on a good-looking but low-ranking soldier named Don José, the inexorable machinery of fate and tragedy is set into motion.

According to WNO, the cast of this new production, imported from the Canadian Opera Company

“…features two acclaimed French mezzo-sopranos, Clementine Margaine and Géraldine Chauvet, in the title role. Tenor Bryan Hymel makes his WNO debut as Don José, sharing the role with Rafael Davila (WNO’s Norma and The Force of Destiny). The toreador Escamillo is portrayed by baritones Michael Todd Simpson (WNO’s Show Boat and Florencia in the Amazon) and Aleksey Bogdanov, an alumnus of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. The role of the innocent village maiden Micaëla is shared by two rising star sopranos: Janai Brugger, in her WNO debut, and Jacqueline Echols, a veteran of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.”

Evan Rogister, who conducted the company’s fine production of “Moby Dick,” will conduct, and E. Loren Meeker will direct.

A special Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance of “Carmen” will be presented in the Opera House on Oct. 2, 2015.

“Appomattox” (Nov. 14-22, 2015, Opera House)

Here’s a surprise. This newish Philip Glass opera was premiered in 2007 by the San Francisco Opera, although I confess I’m not familiar with this one at all. But that original production must have had some issues, as at least one half of it has been completely revised, giving WNO a chance to claim the world premiere of the revised version later this year. Appropriately, it’s a new production, too.

American composer Philip Glass.
Philip Glass, American composer of the newly revised “Appomattox.”

Regarding Glass, WNO is a little behind the curve here in presenting a Philip Glass opera locally. To my considerable surprise, they were actually beaten to the punch by the much-smaller Virginia Opera, which has not had the rep, in recent years, of hosting a great deal of new material. Yet seemingly out of the blue, that Norfolk-based company presented a perfectly astounding production of Glass’ 1993 opera “Orphée” in northern Virginia at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts during the 2011-2012 season.

The original version of “Appomattox” dealt entirely with the historical events and characters involved in the bitter conclusion of the American Civil War. The new version to be premiered here retools the second act entirely, a little bit like “Back to the Future,” in that the new second stanza fast forwards us to Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights battles that climaxed almost exactly 100 years from the date of Lee’s surrender to Grant.

It’s not clear to me whether it was music, politics or both that led to this sweeping change in the original opera. But it’s a fair conclusion that we’re pretty much dealing with something entirely new in this edition.

Personally, I have not been a big fan of Philip Glass and his “minimalistic” approach to music, often finding that listening to many of his passages is akin to enduring Chinese water torture.

I was largely confirmed in that opinion when I attended a “Met in HD” performance last season of the composer’s 1979 homage to Gandhi entitled “Satyagraha” (“Insistence on Truth”). It was a visually amazing production to be sure, populated at times by giant puppets. But, at a Wagnerian length of 5+ hours, the incessant minimalistic droning patterns in this work were maddening, even while they proved bizarrely compatible, in a way, to the patterns of classical Indian music.

That said, I’d refer back to my earlier thoughts above on Virginia Opera’s “Orphée.” Clocking in at a far more manageable length than “Satyagraha,” that company’s outstanding production was snappy and deco-contemporary. It was a perfectly appropriate approach and style for this work, given that the opera is based not so much on the Greek myth as on Jean Cocteau’s somewhat precious and self-absorbed celluloid triptych based on that story.

Glass’ music, minimalist still, seemed somehow more polished, more interesting and more intense in “Orphée.” Quite by surprise, I found myself attracted to the whole thing−which I rather like when I attend something new and find that my jaundiced preliminary opinion is utterly shattered. It keeps life interesting. It keeps a critic out of a rut.

Which is to say, we shouldn’t run away from this one just because we haven’t heard it or “know” we don’t like it. Instead, we should choose to try it on for size. There must have been a reason that the composer put considerable effort into re-doing so much of his original concept for “Appomattox.” It should be interesting to see what he’s done and why.

From the press release:

“Cast members take on dual roles to tell Glass and [librettist Christopher] Hampton’s powerful story. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger (WNO’s “Florencia in the Amazon” and “The Magic Flute”) is Robert E. Lee and Edgar Ray Killen, baritone Richard Paul Fink is Ulysses S. Grant and Nicholas Katzenbach [remember him?], and baritone Tom Fox sings the roles of two presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson. Former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist and rising star [I think he actually is a star] bass Soloman Howard is Frederick Douglass and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., while soprano Melody Moore (WNO’s Florencia in the Amazon) sings the roles of Julia Grant and [murdered civil rights worker] Viola Liuzzo and tenor Robert Brubaker is Wilmer McLean and J. Edgar Hoover [the villain in this act?] in his WNO debut.”

This second premiere is directed by Tazewell Thompson. New sets are designed by Donald Eastman, with costume designs of Merrily Murray-Walsh, clearly one of the coolest names I’ve heard in some time. WNO adds that the WNO orchestra will be under the baton of “American conductor Dennis Russell Davies, a noted champion of the music of Philip Glass, in his WNO debut.”

“Hansel and Gretel” (Dec. 12-20, 2015, Terrace Theater)

It’s ba-a-a-ack! We’re talking about Engelbert Humperdinck’s classic “Hansel and Gretel,” an opera that is frequently presented around the world at Christmas time.

Hansel and Gretel still.
PR photo from Washington National Opera’s previous (and upcoming) production of Englebert Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”

Since WNO is now committed to putting on an annual family opera in the Terrace each December, this one’s a good choice even if you’ve seen it a few times already. The youngsters will enjoy the opera’s still-enduring fairy tale story. At the same time, adults will enjoy the music itself, which is first-class late Romanticism at its best.

WNO is bringing back the colorful production we remember from a couple of seasons back. As has been the tradition in these family opera productions, the cast will be selected from current and past members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. We’ve been impressed with the talent and skill of these young singers for years, and few if any in the target audience will be disappointed in the quality of this production.

“Lost in the Stars” (Feb. 12-20, 2016, Eisenhower Theater)

As the company notes, “For the first time in 15 years, WNO returns to the Eisenhower Theater for an important company premiere, Kurt Weill’s [1949] ‘Lost in the Stars’….”

It was that long ago that then-General Director Plácido Domingo pushed to get all WNO’s operas performed in the Kennedy Center Opera House, not just a few. And he was right for a variety of reasons, including stage and pit space, more seats, and an acoustic space that proved friendly for larger productions. Unfortunately, WNO’s smaller or moderately riskier productions didn’t always fill the seats.

The problem back then was, and still is, that rightly or wrongly some unfamiliar or newer productions are not likely to sell tickets like hotcakes because traditional opera fans don’t know them and won’t see them.

Alternatively, another reason for staging an opera in a smaller, somewhat more traditionally theatrical space like the Eisenhower is that it’s the perfect setting for more modest, intimate productions.

I would guess that the move of this production to the Eisenhower is due at least in part to both these reasons, and it’s probably a good choice.

Eric Owens in "Lost in the Stars."
Still from YouTube video of Glimmerglass Opera’s production of Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” starring Eric Owens. This South African production will be presented here next fall.

WNO describes “Lost” as based on on Alan Paton’s famous novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” which deals with the former apartheid regime of South Africa, making it thematically at least a story that parallels “Appomattox.”

“This searing work,” says WNO, “defies categorization as an opera, a musical, or a play. Merging influences from Broadway, gospel, African spirituals, jazz, and blues, ‘Lost in the Stars’ soars with thrilling operatic passages, including the haunting title number.”

Yep. Sounds like the Eisenhower is a good place to try this one out with DC audiences. I’ve never seen a production of “Lost in the Stars,” so I’ll have to enquire about those “thrilling operatic passages.” That said, I’m good to go with this one.

Even better, the company is bringing in the big vocal guns for this production. Heading up the cast is the star of WNO’s upcoming production of Richard Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman,” Metropolitan bass-baritone Eric Owens.

I had a chance to interview Owens years ago when he performed at the Wolf Trap Opera as a rising young singer, finding him to be modest and both personable and massively talented. He still is all of the above. And in addition to bringing skill and heft to the Dutchman this March, he should also be most impressive in the central role of Stephen Kumalo in this WNO first, in a production originated by the Cape Town Opera.

Better yet, Owens has sung the role in this production before, having done so with the Glimmerglass Opera (in which Ms. Zambello also has a hand). That virtually assures this production will be ready for prime time on opening night.

“Lost” will be directed by Tazewell Thompson and conducted by John DeMain, who helmed the WNO orchestra a couple seasons back when the company presented its wonderful “Showboat.”

Weill for some is an acquired taste. While his and his librettists’ sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious Marxist tics can be irritating, I find his music to be a uniquely intriguing, almost undefinable amalgam of Second Viennese School, 1920s Berlin cabaret, and American-style New York City brashness.

It’s classical music that sometimes ends up with its face on the barroom floor. All that mid-20th century grit and working class sullenness and resentment is released in Weill’s scores. There’s nothing quite like this composer’s acid-etched take on contemporary subject matter. It all works for me.

We’re glad to see that WNO is taking a chance with this one in a measured way. It would be great to see the company have a go at “Mahagonny” or better yet, “Threepenny Opera,” sometime in a future season. Both deserve a first rate production here.

Perhaps even Weill’s lesser-known 1947 “Street Scene,” last seen here quite a few years ago in a surprisingly expensive production by the Wolf Trap Opera company (when they had an actual budget to work with). But for now, we have “Lost in the Stars,” an excellent example of Eurostyle musical art filtered through the American melting pot.

We’re going to stop our WNO season preview here, due to its length and detail, both of which we realize tend to irritate most short attention-span Internet readers. But we haven’t forgotten WNO’s “American Ring,” which we’ll preview separately a bit later today.

For more news on these productions, check out the WNO tab on the Kennedy Center website.

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