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.