The trustees of the Washington Opera have voted to change the company's name to the Washington National Opera, effective immediately, company president Michael Sonnenreich announced yesterday at the Senate Russell Office Building.
The move comes almost four years after an act of Congress officially designated the troupe as the "national opera" of the United States. The legislation was introduced by then-Rep. William Goodling (R-Pa.) and championed by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Warner (R-Va.), among others; it passed in June 2000.
According to Placido Domingo, the company's general director, the new name is a reflection of "the fact that it is in the nation's capital and therefore touches a wide national audience.
"In fulfilling its national mandate, the Washington National Opera is concentrating on three initiatives: the promotion and performance of America opera, performance and education outreach to bring opera to all citizens, and the education and training of opera professionals," Domingo added.
The company simultaneously announced performance dates for a new opera, "Democracy," based on the Henry Adams novel, with music by Scott Wheeler and a libretto by Romulus Linney. The world premiere will take place Jan. 28, 2005, at Lisner Auditorium; there will be a repeat performance on Jan. 30, as well as a special preview performance for high school and college students on Jan. 26. Although "Democracy" had been announced previously, the venue and the dates weren't confirmed until yesterday.
American opera will also be represented by a revival of Andre Previn's "A Streetcar Named Desire" in May and the co-commissioning of a children's opera, "The Enchantment of Dreams," by Cary John Franklin, with Opera Theatre of St. Louis. The latter work will receive its premiere in Washington this summer.
In coming years, the Washington National Opera plans to bring its performances to people increasingly through radio broadcasts on NPR and telecasts on PBS, and the company will also present concerts at military bases throughout the country. Finally, the recently renamed Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program (financier Alberto Vilar's name was removed from the endeavor after he failed to make promised payments) will work on developing the careers of young singers, accompanists, conductors and directors, presenting them onstage as well as in embassies, libraries and schools.
Sonnenreich said the company's new name would "more closely designate who we are and where we are going, both nationally and internationally. Most of the world's great opera companies have some sort of national identification -- it helps with outreach and fundraising.
"Four years ago, when Congress had the foresight to designate us as the 'national' opera, some of us had some hesitations about actually using the name. But Domingo has made a dramatic change in the quality of our performances, and I no longer have any qualms about adopting the title. We have become one of the best opera companies in the world.
"We'll never be the Metropolitan Opera," he continued. "We don't want to be the Met. We're not the largest company but a smaller company that presents wonderful productions. Think of the Met as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Washington National Opera as the National Gallery and you'll have the general idea."
Sonnenreich added that there was never any question of dropping "Washington" from the name. "That's our home, that's where we are," he said. "We are the local opera company, but we are global as well -- call us a 'glocal' company!"
The Washington Opera was founded in 1956 and has been in residence at the Kennedy Center since its opening in 1971. Domingo became artistic director in 1996 and general director in 2002.
Throughout 2003, the company was based at DAR Constitution Hall during reconstruction of the Kennedy Center Opera House. It will return to the Kennedy Center on March 27 with a production of Puccini's "Manon Lescaut."
Currently, the troupe is generally ranked at or near the top of the second tier of America's opera companies, after the Met, the San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and the New York City Opera. Certain productions, such as last year's presentation of Wagner's "Die Walkure," with Domingo and the German soprano Anja Kampe, under the musical direction of Heinz Fricke, have won extraordinary public and critical acclaim.
What's in a name? Does this represent a new path for the company -- or will its effect be minimal, with roughly the same significance of USAir changing its name to US Airways a few years ago? Patrick J. Smith, former head of the opera and musical theater program at the National Endowment for the Arts and a longtime observer of the company, adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
"The company will be judged by what it does, not by what it calls itself," he said.