The Washington National Opera, having steered itself into the safe harbor of the Kennedy Center and enjoyed a season rocking gently at that anchor, has pulled one more noteworthy administrative announcement out of its hat. On Thursday Christina Scheppelmann, the company’s director of artistic operations, announced that she will be leaving the company in November.
Scheppelmann, responsible for casting and repertoire, has been at WNO since 2002, and has effectively been running the company in many regards for the last couple of years, particularly as Placido Domingo’s tenure as general director drew to a close. Since WNO’s merger with the Kennedy Center in 2011 and the appointment of Francesca Zambello as the company’s artistic advisor, there was some question about the compatibility of two strong and separate artistic voices. Scheppelmann has always stressed that Zambello keeps plenty busy with her job as artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, where she is about to start her second season, in addition to her international directing career.
Scheppelmann’s departure, however, leaves Zambello in what may be an even more active role at WNO. According to Michael Mael, WNO’s executive director, the Kennedy Center’s president Michael Kaiser, Zambello, and Mael himself will be primarily responsible for selecting Scheppelmann’s successor – subject, of course, to the board’s approval.
Zambello “is the artistic advisor, and this is the key artistic position” at the company, Mael said Thursday morning. “It’s critical that she be involved in the decision.”
Above: In addition to announcing Christina Scheppelmann’s impending departure, WNO announced details of the first phase of its American Opera Initiative program. In addition to three 20-minute works in November, next season will see an hour-long work, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali (A Ghost Story),” by D J Sparr, whose orchestral work can be seen on this video starting at about 1:40. Details below.
There is no timetable, Mael says, for hiring a new general director. “It was never our intention to replace Placido,” he says.
However, it seems logical that Zambello may assume a position of even more active responsibility at WNO, particularly if she has a say in hiring the person responsible for carrying out her own artistic agenda.
Thanks to the security afforded by the Kennedy Center merger, Scheppelmann has been able to plan out repertoire and casting, for the most part, through the “Ring” production in the 2015-16 season.
She has also been able to oversee this week’s announcement of the start of the American Opera initiative, dedicated to creating a support and training system for young composers. WNO has selected three mentors – the composer Jake Heggie, the librettist Mark Campbell, and the conductor Anne Manson, with additional input from Robert Wood, the founder and conductor of Urban Arias – to work with the young composer-librettist teams.
The first round, three new works of 20 minutes each, will be presented November 19 in the Terrace Theater. They are “The Game of Hearts,” a piece about widows in a Seattle nursing home, by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg; “Part of the Act,” set in a vaudeville theater in the 1920s, by Liam Wade and John Grimmett; and “Charon,” an allegorical piece about the boatman who bears people into the underworld after their death, by Scott Perkins and Nat Cassidy.
In June, a new hour-long work by the composer D.J. Sparr and librettist Davis Miller, “The Tao of Muhammad Ali (A Ghost Story),” will have its premiere.
Both the trio of short works and the hour-long work are conceived as annual events in WNO’s future seasons. The short works will be cast with members of the Domingo-Cafritz young artist program, Scheppelmann said. Eventually, the hour-long work will be developed by one of the composer-librettist teams from the showcase of 20-minute works.
“I feel that American companies continue to commission mainstage pieces, expecting masterpieces to come out of it, but we do not provide the steps in between,” Scheppelmann said of the need for opportunities for composers under 32. She added, “The idea is also to give them a chance to fail… I want them to have the opportunity to try something out and realize, that didn’t work.”
She is closemouthed about her new job, saying only that “it was a pretty irresistible offer.”