A few weeks before its merger with the Kennedy Center becomes official, the Washington National Opera has announced a new leadership team for its new era. The biggest news: WNO’s artistic advisor will be the acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello.
The company’s executive director will be Michael Mael. This is a smaller change, since as WNO’s chief operating officer since 2008, Mael has effectively been running things since the departure of the last executive director, Mark Weinstein, during the 2009-10 season.
Zambello is not exactly replacing the outgoing general director Placido Domingo. “I’m not the artistic director, I’m the artistic advisor,” she pointed out, speaking by phone from San Francisco, where she is in rehearsals for Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the San Francisco Opera. “My position will be working with Michael [Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center], Christina [Scheppelmann, WNO’s director of artistic operations], and Philippe [Auguin, WNO’s music director] to shape the artistic output of the company. This is an open-ended, exploratory job right now.”
Since her WNO debut in 2001 with “Of Mice and Men,” Zambello has worked here frequently. Notable productions include her wildly popular “Porgy and Bess” and, perhaps most prominently, the start of the “Ring” cycle that is now making its full debut in San Francisco in June. This so-called “American Ring” began in Washington in 2003; WNO ran out of funding and pulled the plug after staging the first three of the four operas.
With Zambello now in a leading role at WNO, chances are good that the “Ring” will be seen in its entirety in DC after all. “It’s certainly on the wish list,” Zambello said.
Michael Kaiser, who has worked with Zambello since his tenure at London’s Royal Opera House at Covent Garden in the late 1990s, began talks with her soon after the Kennedy Center-WNO merger was announced in January. “I think it gives us a nice fresh infusion of ideas,” Kaiser said -- “what every arts organization would like to have. It’s going to allow us to rethink our programming, and add to it.”
Kaiser, who will initially play a more prominent role in WNO’s administration than he currently does in that of the Kennedy Center’s other large affiliate, the National Symphony Orchestra, certainly shares a vision with Zambello for the future of the company. Both of them hope to present opera in all of the Kennedy Center’s different theaters, as well as reaching out to other companies and work that goes beyond the standard operatic repertory.
“It’s about addressing how to make opera more a part of the city at large,” Zambello said, adding, “I want to help make a new image of WNO in its collaboration with the Kennedy Center. I think that collaboration calls out for a new way of approaching [opera] and a new way of selling it.”
Next season has already been announced, so concrete changes will probably not be visible until 2012-13. One innovation that may be introduced sooner rather than later is an expansion of the Kennedy Center’s Conservatory Project, through which ensembles from the country’s leading music schools perform at the Millennium Stage, to include an opera arm as well.
One of the most successful opera directors working today, Zambello, not surprisingly, she divides the public. Her productions are marked by a detailed focus on acting (as in her outstanding “Siegfried” for WNO in 2008) and, often, a large-scale hyperrealism (witness the busy-ness of her “Porgy and Bess” or her recent Covent Garden “Carmen” that came out this season as a 3D movie). But part of her reputation was forged when she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1992 with a dark, abstract “Lucia di Lammermoor” that the public cheerfully loathed. “That production launched my career in Europe,” she has since said in interviews; it also sealed her stereotype as a “Eurotrash” director among some conservative opera-goers.
In fact, Zambello is all about the attempt to reach a wider public. She’s been working on Broadway-type shows since 1990, when a “Napoleon” she staged ran for six months on London’s West End: since then, she’s staged “Aladdin” for Disneyland (it’s still running); Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway (though disliked by some critics, it ran for a year and a half); and an adaptation of “Little House on the Prairie” that toured the country in 2010, among others.
WNO under Zambello may well join other opera companies, like the Chicago Lyric Opera, in exploring works of classic American musical theater, “written,” Zambello says, “for bigger voices without amplification, when that style of singing was much closer to what we consider operatic singing. There are so many great works that we can do that will complement the Kennedy Center’s programming of musicals, but also put our own brand on it.”
Certainly musicals are a new priority at Glimmerglass, the summer opera festival in upstate New York where Zambello took over last year as Artistic and General Director. In her first season, which begins in July, Deborah Voigt will star in a production of “Annie Get Your Gun.”
It remains to be seen how Zambello will balance her new focus on administration with the demands of her international directing career. Administration has clearly been interesting her for some time. She was strongly in contention for a leadership position at the New York City Opera at one point during that company’s ongoing travails in the wake of the appointment and subsequent resignation of the European impresario Gerard Mortier. City Opera named George Steel instead, and Zambello took over as the head of Glimmerglass, the summer opera festival in upstate New York. The WNO post means that she will have a hand in administration year-round. “I live a train ride away,” says the New York-based director, acknowledging that WNO has an unfortunate precedent with absentee directors in Placido Domingo; like Domingo, she says that her international travels for her directing career make her “an ambassador for us, and also an explorer for us.” She’s aware that this refrain may sound familiar to Washingtonians.
Mael, for his part, represents continuity: he has effectively been running the company since the departure of its last executive director, Mark Weinstein, during the 2009-10 season, and he was an architect of the upcoming Kennedy Center merger. At the moment, his responsibilities range from long-range planning to the most mundane details of working out office space under the new, shared administration: WNO will lose, he estimates, about 20 staffers as the company prepares to move into the shelter of the Kennedy Center’s administrative, marketing, and fund-raising umbrella, and give up some of its office space in the Watergate.
The announcement is accompanied by a sense of optimism. After the long period of financial hardship and cutbacks that WNO has been undergoing, culminating in the third-rate “Don Pasquale” that is ending this year’s season, it’s nice for those involved to be able to look ahead to greener artistic pastures. “Our board meetings post-affiliation are considerably more upbeat than they have been in the last year,” Mael says. “We spend more time talking about artistic issues and growth strategy” than where funding for the company’s next production is coming from. “They find that exciting and liberating. It’s fun to come to board meetings again.”
Kaiser envisions a furthering of the company’s long-stated mandate: new commissions, American work, different kinds of opera. The particulars will be emerging over the next year: Zambello will come to Washington for her first official meeting in June.
“It’s all about accessibility, as much as we overuse that word,” the director says. “Opera’s not for everyone, but it’s for more people than are going to it now.”