UPDATED: More news from the Washington National Opera: in a long-awaited step, the company announced Thursday that Francesca Zambello, who has been serving since June of last year as artistic adviser, will assume the title of artistic director on January 1.
She will work together with Michael Mael, WNO’s executive director. Both will report to the Kennedy Center’s president, Michael M. Kaiser.
Zambello will retain her position as artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival in Upstate New York, which she took over last year. She will also continue to direct productions around the world, although, she says, “I will be scaling back on some of my work” to spend more time in Washington.
This move was something of a foregone conclusion since Zambello became WNO’s artistic adviser, a position she took very seriously and in which she had already helped implement several new additions to the season. It seemed inevitable after Christina Scheppelmann, the company’s longtime director of artistic operations, announced this summer that she would be leaving in November to take over as chief executive of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman.
“I’m glad that it’s happened,” Zambello says, speaking by phone from Moscow, where she is directing a production of “La traviata” at the Bolshoi. “I’m looking forward to it very much.”
She has already articulated, and started to realize, many of her goals for the company in her capacity as artistic adviser: more new work, more American singers, expansion into different Kennedy Center theaters, and, she hopes, more productions per year. “A lot of what I’ve been setting in place the last year with the staff will come into fruition,” she says, “just in terms of everything we have been planning, particularly in terms of new works.”
She also hopes to give the company more visibility in Washington. “We have a chance to be in such a city,” she says, “with such a persona of government and politics, the capital of America, and we’re not connected to any of that. I want to connect, in terms of both content and audience development.
“We have to think in a much broader way, much more horizontally,” she says. “In Glimmerglass, I have been working with other arts organizations; I plan to do that ferociously in Washington. I am already in touch with other institutions [about] collaborating with us.”
Zambello is already popular with some of the key players in the opera’s leadership. “Everybody on the board I’ve spoken with was enthusiastic about her coming,” says James A. Feldman, the board’s president, adding, “People were happy with her as artistic adviser; liked her productions; and uniformly liked her Ring.”
“Francesca and I have known each other for 26 years,” says Kaiser, who worked with the director when he led London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in the 1980s. “I already have entered into discussions with her about the future” of WNO.
“I think it’s very positive,” says Mael of the appointment, observing that Zambello has had a chance to learn the workings of the house over the past year, and that within the company, she is associated with the positive change ushered in with the Kennedy Center merger and attendant freedom from the threat of bankruptcy. “People who have been with the company for a long time,” Mael says, “for the first time in four or five years saw growth.”
There are pros and cons to being familiar. One of the biggest immediate objections is that Zambello seems to have some things in common with WNO’s last leader, Placido Domingo. Like Domingo, she has an international artistic career; like him, she runs another organization in addition to WNO. Zambello, of course, will be artistic director rather than general director, but concerns about absenteeism remain.
“It’s actually something we spent a lot of time discussing,” Mael says. “She has made a major commitment to be here a significant amount of time. The contract is specific about the amount of time she will be here” — according to Kaiser, between four and six months a year.
Kaiser says that, due to the Kennedy Center merger, the job is now markedly different from that of running most other opera companies. “Because of the Kennedy Center structure,” he says, “the person running WNO is not overseeing marketing, finance, personnel, HR. All those things are being done for them.” He equates the position with that of a music director: “How many major conductors have one orchestra? It’s more akin to that situation than the general director of a standard opera company.”
“I’m scaling back on directing,” Zambello says, “and focusing on two companies an hour plane ride apart. . . . Placido was in demand in a way nobody is in our profession; he’s unique.” She says she has already been speaking to Domingo about having him back to perform at WNO.
Inevitably, Zambello is not universally liked, and within the company, there have been some murmurings of anxiety. Some audience members, too, are nervous about avant-garde productions, though Zambello’s cinematic efforts, such as “Porgy and Bess,” should allay some of those concerns.
But it is unquestionable that she brings a great deal of energy to the job, and a lot of ambition, and, most importantly, something the company has needed for some time: artistic vision. It will be interesting and exciting to see what a strong artistic energy, backed up by the Kennedy Center’s resources, may be able to do for opera in Washington.