Francesca Zambello aims to bring ‘a new image’ to Washington National Opera

The Washington National Opera announced Wednesday the final elements of the leadership team that will guide its first seasons as an official affiliate of the Kennedy Center. The most visible change: The opera’s artistic adviser will be the acclaimed stage director Francesca Zambello.

The company’s executive director will be Michael Mael. As WNO’s chief operating officer since 2008, he has effectively been running things since the departure of the last executive director, Mark Weinstein, during the 2009-10 season.

Zambello, 54, is a savvy opera director with decades of experience at the world’s leading houses and has directed eight productions with the WNO since her debut with “Of Mice and Men” in 2001. But she is also committed to reaching beyond the traditional opera-going public, be it in film (her Covent Garden production of “Carmen” was made into a 3-D movie released this year) or on Broadway (where her production of Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” ran for a year and a half).

Her role at the WNO will include “addressing how to make opera more a part of the city at large,” she said Wednesday from San Francisco, where she is in rehearsals for Wagner’s “Ring” cycle at the San Francisco Opera. She added, “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.”

Zambello is not exactly replacing the outgoing general director Placido Domingo. “I’m not the artistic director, I’m the artistic adviser,” she said. She will work with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser; Christina Scheppelmann, WNO’s director of artistic operations; and Philippe Auguin, the music director, “to shape the artistic output of the company,” she said. “This is an open-ended, exploratory job right now.”

Zambello’s appointment may mean that Washington gets its “Ring” after all. The “Ring” cycle she is directing in San Francisco — the four operas will run for the first time June 14-19 — is the one that began at the Washington National Opera, starting with “Die Walkuere” in 2003. The WNO ran out of funding and pulled the plug after staging the first three of the operas, leaving audiences here in suspended animation after a very strong “Siegfried.”

Both Zambello and Kaiser cite the “Ring” among their plans. “It’s certainly on the wish list,” she said.

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, which takes effect July 1, was announced in January.

“I think it gives us a nice, fresh infusion of ideas,” Kaiser said. “It’s going to allow us to rethink our programming and add to it.”

Kaiser 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 theaters, as well as reach out to other companies and work that goes beyond the standard operatic repertory. Next season has been announced, so concrete changes will probably not be visible until 2012-13.

Zambello’s productions are marked by a detailed focus on acting (as in her outstanding “Siegfried” for the WNO in 2008) and, often, a large-scale hyperrealism (as in “Porgy and Bess”). 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 said in interviews; it also sealed her stereotype as a “Eurotrash” director among some conservative opera-goers.

But that reputation is belied by Zambello’s work in musical theater, starting in 1990 with a “Napoleon” that ran for six months on London’s West End and extending to the present with, among other projects, an adaptation of “Little House on the Prairie” that toured the country in 2010.

Indeed, the WNO under Zambello may well join other opera companies, such as the Chicago Lyric Opera, in exploring works of classic American musical theater, written, she said, “for bigger voices without amplification, when that style of singing was much closer to what we consider operatic singing.”

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.”

Administration has been interesting Zambello 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; that didn’t work out, and she took over Glimmerglass instead. The WNO post means that she will have a hand in administration year-round. It remains to be seen how Zambello will balance these responsibilitie s with the demands of he r international directing career — and she’s aware that the WNO is sensitive to the downside of an absentee director after years under Domingo. “I live a train ride away,” said the New York-based di rector.

Mael, for his part, is responsible for everything from long-range planning to the most mundane details of working out office space under the new shared administration. The WNO will lose about 20 staffers as the company prepares to move into the shelter of the Kennedy Center’s administrative, marketing and fundraising umbrella.

Within the company, the announcement was accompanied by a sense of optimism. “Our board meetings post-affiliation are considerably more upbeat than they have been in the last year,” Mael said.

Hoped-for changes include 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 said. “Opera’s not for everyone, but it’s for more people than are going to it now.”

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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