For its 25th anniversary season, the Washington Opera, which began life as the Opera Society of Washington, will present at total of 43 performances. That is nearly five times the number given in that distant first season, and close to three times the largest number of operas ever offered in any of its previous years.
From the time the company opens with Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" next Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House to its closing there next March 22 with Montemezi's "L'Amore dei Tre Re," it will present the Verdi four times in the big house, four performances of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," and four of the Montemezzi. In addition to these, it will offer four operas in the smaller Terrance Theater. These will include six performances of one of Handel's lovliest operas, "Semele," 10 of "The Barber of Seville," by Rossini, nine of "Wiener Blut," or "Vienna Blood, by Johann Strauss Jr., and six of its hit from last season, "Postcard From Morocco" by Dominick Argento.
By taking advantage of the splendid ambience of the Opera House and the intimacy of the Terrace Theater under a single roof, the Washington Opera is paralleling the operation of La Scala in Milan, which uses both its magnificent large theater and the delights of the Piccolo Scala.
There are both artistic and economic reasons for doing so. The size of the Terrace Theater makes it, like the Residenz Theater Munich as well as the Piccolo Scala, ideal for operas that gain from an audience's being near to the performers. Its orchestra pit is large enough to hold ensembles suited to operas by Monteverdi, Mozart, Handel and many more recent scores that do not call for hugh insrumental resources. The operas scheduled for the Terrace this season also have the advantage of requiring few singers and either a small chorus or none at all. Thus they can be repeated enough times to pay a larger proportion of their production costs.
The Kennedy Center's Opera House is one of the world's ideal opera theaters, with approximately the same number of seats as La Scala and the Colon in Buenos Aires. Larger than the houses in Paris, Salzburg, Bayreuth and Vienna, it is blessed with acoustics which have been called by Karl Boehm, the dean of today's opera conductors, "as fine as those of any opera house in the world, and rivaled only by the acoustics of the Grosse Musikvereinsaal in Vienna."
While there is a welcome diversity to this anniversary year's repertoire, thanks to the presence of operas by Handel, Johann Strauss, Argento and the Montemezzi masterpiece, no one could claim that the repertoire is particularly balanced: There is no French opera and nothing in German. And if the total number of performances is far larger than in any previous season, there is a disturbing element in the fact that the company is playing in the superb surroundings of the Opera House only three times. To put it another way, welcome as the Terrace Theater is for many reasons, it must not become the major center of the Washington Opera's activities. That which is "grand" in opera must not be surrendered even to the special pleasures of opera on the small scale.
There is in this season one fact of particular interest, especially in the light of the Opera Society's early tradition of engaging outstanding younger sngers who, it turned out, were on their way up to some of the top rungs in the opera world. In the coming season's 43 performances precisely two artists singing here can be described as of world-wide reputations: Teresa Zylis-Gara and Jerome Hines. This is a reminder that when the Washington Opera began life, its leading roles were frequently sung by the then young, rising John Reardon, Donald Gramm, Mildred Allen, Adele Addison, Richard Cross, Ellen Faull, David Lloyd, Sylvia Stahlman and others, all of whom soon became leading singers with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan or major European houses.
Thus there is no feeling of dismay at this season's shortage of "big-name" stars, most of whome merely condescend to appear with American companies other than those in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco and generally refuse to join in the extended rehearsing that is characteristic of the Washington Opera. Even more important is the fact that we are, at the moment, in a time when great voices and singers are in substantially smaller numbers than they were two decades ago. It is therefore even more vital that young singers be engaged and encouraged and thus enabled to build their carerrs. If the coming season discloses new talents of special merit the Washington Opera will be doing its subscribers and the world of opera a real favor.
For another season, the Washington Opera ought to consider engaging some of the truly great singers who, for various reasons, are not singing at the Met these days, but whose art is worthy of any houses: Sylvia Sass, Hiri Te Kanawa and Margaret Price are three whose names come to mind instantly. They should be heard in Whasington as they should be in any great company. Along with bringing to the public the best young singers of the time, the Washington Opera would cover itself with distinction if it were also to present Washington opera lovers with some of those few great singers who are at present being strangely neglected in this country.
Finally, the resident company must be praised for engaging two young musicians of proven gifts for critical roles: John Mauceri as music director and Norman Scribner as choral director. The continuing presence of these solid artists is one kind of assurance of excellence in the preparation of opera in Washington.