Washington National Opera appoints Philippe Auguin as music director

HIS DEBUT: Philippe Auguin will conduct "Salome" on Thursday.
HIS DEBUT: Philippe Auguin will conduct "Salome" on Thursday. (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Washington National Opera has appointed a new music director. Philippe Auguin, who made a huge impression on both the orchestra and the audience when he stepped in for ailing then-Music Director Heinz Fricke to lead the concert "Götterdaemmerung" last fall, is now replacing him altogether. Auguin officially assumed the post on Monday, though one might say he really takes office at the premiere of Richard Strauss's "Salome" on Thursday night.

The musicians appear to be thrilled. "From the very first downbeat of our first rehearsals with him last year, the orchestra felt an instant connection to Maestro Auguin," said Greg Drone, the principal horn player and chair of the orchestra committee. (The players demonstrated their approval with an unusual ovation from the pit at the end of the evening.)

Asked whether that rapport was carrying over in rehearsals for "Salome," Auguin, 49, a large, voluble Frenchman who is comfortable in at least three languages, fell uncharacteristically silent. "Oh," he finally said, holding back emotion. "We have a great time."

Auguin represents a big change for the WNO. Although he will conduct only two productions a year here, he wants to be in Washington much more; he plans to move to the city, as Fricke never did. His wife and 15-year-old daughter will eventually join him.

Naming Auguin represents a nice step forward for a company that has mainly made news for inner turmoil of late, with budget woes, the announcement that General Director Plácido Domingo is not renewing his contract at the end of the season, and the possibility of a merger with the Kennedy Center.

It's also a remarkable step for a conductor with a high-flying international career. Auguin, born in France, has an active career conducting everywhere from the Metropolitan Opera to La Scala to the Vienna State Opera (where he returns, after "Salome," for performances of "Manon Lescaut" in November and December).

But Auguin also wants the more intimate relationship with an orchestra that a music directorship can bring. "One is not only a conductor," he said, speaking of the desire to identify with a place, to watch the development of an orchestra, to experiment with different styles with the same group of players.

Another advantage Auguin offers the beleaguered company is that he's not coming in with a long list of plans. "From the very early years, I got to conduct exactly what I wanted," he said, noting that he has led Wagner's complete "Ring" cycle 14 times.

"There's no need for me to push the company in a certain direction. . . . It's not like I can finally do 'Turandot' and make the opera company bankrupt."

That is music to the ears of a company that is focusing on making the best of limited resources.

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