The Washington National Opera announced something of a coup Friday morning: The company’s new general director will be Timothy O’Leary, 42, who for 10 years has been general director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis. He will take over July 1.
The title of general director signals some retooling at WNO; O’Leary’s predecessor, Michael Mael, had the title of executive director. The general director is understood to have overarching authority for every aspect of the company. Francesca Zambello, whom many have seen as WNO’s de facto head in recent years, will continue as artistic director.
“Part of the reason I’m interested in coming is I believe in what she’s doing,” said O’Leary, who has known Zambello since the start of his career at the New York City Opera in the late 1990s. “She and I have very similar sets of priorities and approach about opera and the arts in general.” He added, “I think we’re going to have an easy time being on the same page.”
“He’s a very thoughtful leader,” said Deborah Rutter, the president of the Kennedy Center, who was on the search committee that identified O’Leary. “He wanted to make sure everything he knew and loved about working with [Zambello] would continue.
“The opera company in the nation’s capital being led by one of the stars in the field is a great opportunity for everybody.”
It is indeed a major step for Washington; O’Leary is one of opera’s leading lights. Having taken over in St. Louis when he was only 33, he has led that company — one of America’s best summer festivals — with notable strength, at once building its artistic profile with an interesting array of work and securing its finances.
Charles MacKay, the general director of the Santa Fe Opera and O’Leary’s predecessor in St. Louis, calls it “a simply phenomenal record of success.”
“Artistically it has been very strong,” he said, adding, “He also has a striking record of success with outreach and community engagement.” And then, “it’s a record of balanced budgets, and one of the most enviable records. Tim has galvanized the support of the St. Louis community and has been able to expand funding in new and very interesting ways.”
One notable feature of O’Leary’s St. Louis tenure has been his ability to draw the community into discussions of challenging operas. John Adams’s “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which became a lightning rod of controversy when it came to the Metropolitan Opera in 2014, had no such problems in St. Louis three years before, because the company instigated a citywide discussion, with interfaith dialogues addressing the tough issues of terrorism, religion and the nature of evil that the opera brings up. Instead of protesting the opera, St. Louis’s Jewish Community Relations Council gave O’Leary an award.
Under O’Leary, the company — always known for innovative work — has given second chances to other major American operas, such as John Corigliano’s “The Ghosts of Versailles,” presented in 2009 in a smaller-scale version. It’s not unlike what Washington National Opera did in 2015 with Philip Glass’s “Appomattox.” of which O’Leary said, “That’s what we should be doing every time. That’s what the art form should be.”
He’s also commissioned several new pieces, including Terence Blanchard’s “Champion,” which came to WNO last year. O’Leary says that his decision to come to Washington was partly motivated by personal concerns. He and his wife, Kara, a clinical psychologist, are both from the East Coast — O’Leary grew up in Connecticut and majored in English at Dartmouth. They have three children, ages 7, 4 and 2, and are eager to be closer to family.
O’Leary was bitten by the opera bug in high school, when he sang in the chorus of a couple of opera productions at Yale. His initial aspiration was to be a director, but, he says, he found his greater skill set lay in facilitating artists to do their best work. “I’ve always admired the idealism of the Kennedy Center project,” O’Leary said, “and the idea of the Washington National Opera. I think the challenge is for the company every season to live up to its middle name.”
As for his own middle name, it’s Fitzgerald, like the center’s namesake. He should fit right in.