Zambello brings personal touch to retooled Glimmerglass Festival

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.

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.


Francesca Zambello, the new artistic advisor of the Washington National Opera. (Claire McAdams/Glimmerglass Opera/CLAIRE MCADAMS PHOTOGRAPHY)

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.

“I’ve done that,” she says. “I’m eager to take my experience and see how I can put it to use with an organization.” Plus, she adds, “I want to be in the States more. I’ve worked abroad a lot.”

Zambello isn’t new to administration; in the 1980s, she ran Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera for seven seasons. More recently, she was a candidate when the New York City Opera was hastily searching for leadership after the provocative Belgian Gerard Mortier withdrew before ever taking over. The job ultimately went to George Steel, who ran the small and eclectic Miller Theater at Columbia University before a brief stint as head of the Dallas Opera; Zambello, with some of the proverbial fury of the woman scorned, ended up at Glimmerglass, a company that long was seen as a kind of City Opera affiliate.

After two years of Steel’s tenure, though, it’s City Opera that’s struggling to survive. “It’s the last job in the world I’d want right now,” Zambello says.

Glimmerglass, by contrast, is doing pretty well. Under Zambello’s predecessor Michael MacLeod, the festival had cut back to three productions; it’s returned to four, now, on a $6.4 million budget, and Zambello says that ticket sales are up by 20 percent. (This year’s offerings, in addition to “Annie Get Your Gun,” are Bizet’s “Carmen,” Cherubini’s “Medea” and a double bill of contemporary operas, “Later the Same Evening” by John Musto and “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” by Jeanine Tesori.) Zambello, though working hard to put a new face on the festival, is avoiding the new-broom approach that MacLeod took when he came in and recast Glimmerglass’s season’s thematically, offering four operas about Orpheus. Even Zambello’s Broadway initiative isn’t new; it was MacLeod who brought in Glimmerglass’s first musical, “Kiss Me Kate,” for his Shakespeare season in 2008.

Zambello’s innovations are lower-key — adding cabaret-style performances in the theater’s open-air pavilion; creating the position of resident artist for a big-name singer (this year, Voigt) every summer. She’s rewritten the mission statement to emphasize education; one-quarter of Glimmerglass’s budget goes to its 30 young artists (who perform small roles and do double duty as the opera chorus) and 50 production and administrative interns. She’s reaching out to the community: holding a free concert for the wives of inductees to the Baseball Hall of Fame; getting local kids on stage in the children’s chorus in “Carmen.” The last endeavor is close to her heart: This summer in San Francisco, she choked up when talking about how some of the kids she cast as Nibelungs in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” in Washington had caught the opera bug and stayed involved in music.

Zambello also has great connections. “A lot of it is asking your friends,” she said. This summer, she’s lured singer friends into accepting Glimmerglass’s relatively modest fees, sometimes by hiring entire families. The baritone David Pittsinger and his wife Patricia Schuman play the poet Eugene O’Neill and his wife in Tesori’s new opera, “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck,” and two of their children are in “Annie Get Your Gun.” Rod Gilfry’s daughter Carin is in the young artist program, and singing with her father in a recital. (Zambello’s own family has come to Glimmerglass as well, including her mother, the actress Jean Sincere, a nonagenarian who has made a few appearances as the librarian on “Glee.”)

The bottom line, however, is the work, and Glimmerglass this summer is a mixed but generally engaging bag. It’s a good sign that the most familiar opera, “Carmen,” gets such a fresh and involving production from the experimental theater director Anne Bogart. Unlike many straight theater directors in opera, Bogart held the singers to the same standards as actors, working to create choreographed movement that was both realistic and stylized, a visual reflection of opera’s musical conventions, while trusting the story enough to tell it directly and honestly. The opera was only adequately sung — Anya Matanovic’s exquisitely realized Micaela was the standout, while Ginger Costa-Jackson smoldered but made an artificially darkened sound in the title role — but it did show an advantage of adding Broadway to the Glimmerglass mix: The young artist program included several Broadway singers who could also dance, which gave a relaxed, delightfully naturalistic vibe to dance scenes that usually entail bringing in the ballet.

The double bill, which included a world premiere, juxtaposed two composers who have a musical theater sensibility. Musto has written three operas in the past seven years for Washington: “Later the Same Evening,” based on five paintings by Edward Hopper, came to Glimmerglass in a version of Leon Major’s 2007 production from the University of Maryland. Reencountering this agile, light-fingered score made me feel again that Musto has a truly great opera or musical in him, but this isn’t it. Though the music does everything it can to breathe life into the action, Mark Campbell’s libretto diminishes Hopper’s figures by putting words in their mouths, and there is no attempt, a la Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George,” to address what was actually artistic about Hopper’s art. The opera instead offers a paean to theater, culminating in a clever play-within-a-play that has nothing to do with Hopper and is effective precisely because it’s communicated in music and gesture, with no words at all.

Tesori has written successful Broadway shows (“Thoroughly Modern Millie;” “Caroline, or Change”), and she and Tony Kushner, who wrote “Blizzard on Marblehead Neck” (Zambello’s first Glimmerglass commission) are working on a piece for the Metropolitan Opera’s commissioning program. Tesori’s music doesn’t have Musto’s finesse; it gets the job done bluntly, in big gestures that are what many people expect from opera, backed up by her own earnest conducting. Pair that with a libretto that turned an opera about a marital spat into an effective short story, and an outstanding performance from Pittsinger as O’Neill, and the audience will, and did, respond. The double bill has sold well above the company’s expectations.

“Annie Get Your Gun” was the most hyped of this year’s productions, representing the “new” Glimmerglass and featuring Voigt in a departure from her wonted Wagnerian roles. Unfortunately, it misfired. Voigt and Gilfry, two good-looking opera stars, happen to be strikingly uncharismatic performers. Instead of showing glorious voices and personality in delightful music, they looked and sounded like fish out of water, aware at every moment that Broadway was not their natural medium. Their sung phrases flopped spasmodically from inaudibility to full-bore fortes due to poor control of their vocal registers, and they acted as if everything they did were in quotation marks, offering wink-wink nudge-nudge performances like something out of summer stock. (Let’s not even get into the “Hows” and broken English of the musical’s “Injun” characters — Zambello prided herself on presenting the original 1946 text, but authenticity can be overrated.) The rest of the production was better — and the four kids, including the two junior Pittsingers, were terrific — but it felt as if Zambello, who also directed Tesori’s opera, didn’t have the time to elicit from these singers the kind of compelling performance she is known for.

At the dinner table after the performance, Zambello outlines some of her hopes for Washington. There’s her “Ring” cycle, which began in Washington, was called off in 2009, after the first three operas, for lack of funds, and will almost certainly be back in a coming season. There are ideas for testing out young talent in the Terrace and Eisenhower Theaters, or bringing in other companies for collaborations of the kind she’s planning next year for Glimmerglass (when Lully’s “Armide” will be co-produced with Canada’s Opera Atelier, and Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” with the Cape Town Opera). There’s defining the mission of a company that has seemed rudderless of late — perhaps freeing WNO from the implications of the “National” in its name, which has become something of a millstone around its neck. “We can’t do an American opera every year,” Zambello says, “nor should we.”

Perhaps most to the point, though, is simply improving the quality of WNO’s productions; actively reaching out to Washington’s international audiences; “just creating,” she says, “more buzz around the company.”

“Michael [Kaiser] has been great,” says Zambello. “It’s not, ‘Don’t worry about the budget,’ but, ‘Come up with some ideas that we can fundraise around.’ You need ideas to fundraise around,” she adds, speaking with the benefit of her fresh, Glimmerglass experience. “You can’t excite people about something if you don’t have something to excite them about.”

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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