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Posted at 01:00 AM ET, 09/17/2012

Washington National Opera’s opening night: Dueling queens, two justices, and a Tudor tutorial

Oren Gradus as King Henry VIII and Christina Scheppelmann as Queen Catherine of Aragon in Saturday’s opening night of "Anna Bolena" at the Kennedy Center. (Photo by Scott Suchman for Washington National Opera)
Opening night of the opera kicks off Washington’s fall social season — although, technically, it’s still summer for another week. Further confusing the issue: The gift shop at the Kennedy Center, where the Washington National Opera performs, is already decked out with Christmas trees and ornaments.

This being an election year, not one member of Congress made it to Saturday’s season opener of “Anna Bolena” and the post-performance gala; even the company’s new artistic director, Francesca Zambello , was out of town (in Moscow directing her “La Traviata” at the Bolshoi).

Cita Sunatgan, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sondra Radvanovsky, and Justice Elena Kagan at the post-performance dinner of "Anna Bolena." (Yassine El Mansouri for the Washington National Opera)
But there were plenty of other VIPs: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, Jackie Mars, Ken Feinberg, Nina Totenberg, Stuart and Wilma Bernstein, Lloyd and Ann Hand, board president Jim Feldman, the ambassadors of Italy and Colombia, plus the opera singers who played out the tale of Henry VIII’s doomed second wife. (Handy mnemonic to keep track of all six: “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded, survived.”)

And, for the first time in her 11 years in Washington, the opera’s Christina Scheppelmann took the stage as a supernumerary, a non-singing, non-speaking role. As director of artistic operations, her job is usually behind the scenes; for this production, the director ordered her to play Henry’s first wife.

“He came up to me one day during rehearsal and said, ‘You will be Catherine of Aragon’ and walked away,” she told us. “It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. I hesitated at first, then thought, ‘Well, why not?’ ”

So Scheppelmann donned full makeup and costume for her brief appearance in Act I, where the production’s star, Sondra Radvanovsky, has to bow to her onstage rival — and offstage close friend. “I’ve known Sondra for 20 years. She hands me the crown and whispered, ‘I can’t believe I’m bowing to you!’”

This was also Scheppelmann’s last time on the WNO stage: She’s leaving D.C. in November to become the chief executive of the new Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman. “I think it’s fabulous — interesting and different and new.”

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By  |  01:00 AM ET, 09/17/2012

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