Francesca Zambello, the stage director and newly minted impresario, sits at a corner table in the restaurant of the American Hotel in Sharon Springs at the end of the third week of the Glimmerglass Festival that, as of this year, is hers. Tall with strong features and a thick mane of dark hair and sporting a pair of cowboy boots, Zambello, on the cusp of 55, has the aura of someone who might have just stepped off the stage herself. The cowboy boots, indeed, are a nod to the afternoon’s performance: Zambello’s production of the classic Irving Berlin musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” with the operatic soprano Deborah Voigt in the title role.
(Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Opera/CLAIRE MCADAMS PHOTOGRAPHY) - Francesca Zambello, the new artistic advisor of the Washington National Opera.
As the new general director of Glimmerglass, Zambello is certainly performing. Her role is a mix of stage director and den mother, at once warm and a little bossy, almost aggressively trying to make everyone feel at home. She walks the grounds before shows, visiting patrons’ picnic tables; she personally introduces each performance, making the announcement about turning off your cellphones (and remembering to donate). To get to her table at the restaurant, she moves along a veritable receiving line: patrons from San Francisco and New York; performing arts administrators; the baritone Jake Gardner, fresh from a fine performance as Buffalo Bill; and the owners of the hotel, glowing in the holiday atmosphere of their packed dining room. When Zambello finally takes her seat, a woman approaches from another table; “I just want to tell you how impressed I am,” she says. Zambello immediately stands, thanks her for coming over, and gets her e-mail address.
“As a director, you can’t sell yourself like this,” she says. “It’s inappropriate. But when you’re working for an organization and you want to represent the organization — it’s much easier, because you’re not talking about yourself.”
Summer festivals always get attention. Glimmerglass, founded in 1975, has a coterie of patrons who travel every summer to the Alice Busch Opera Theater, a 900-seat house with a distinct summer-cottage vibe on the shore of Otsego Lake, up the road from the Baseball Hall of Fame. This year, there’s a lot of interest in how Zambello, one of opera’s most prominent stage directors, is going to put her stamp on an organization that could use some sprucing up. This is of special interest to Washingtonians, because earlier this year Zambello was named artistic adviser (not artistic director) to the Washington National Opera.
Zambello is at a logical point in her career to make a change. As a director, she’s busier than ever: fresh off her acclaimed production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle in San Francisco in June, preparing for a September world premiere of the Sept. 11, 2001, opera “Heart of a Soldier” and, in 2012, “La Traviata” on a floating stage in Sydney Harbor and the Broadway opening of a musical version of “Rebecca.” This mixture of highbrow and mass-market entertainment is a Zambello hallmark: Past highlights range from Prokofiev’s “War and Peace” to Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on Broadway. The variety is also an indication that she’s looking for more now than the routine of simply moving from opera house to opera house, staging one opera after another.