First there was the “American” Ring. Then Francesca Zambello’s production of Richard Wagner’s operatic tetralogy became the “San Francisco Ring,” after the Washington National Opera couldn’t come up with the money to stage the fourth opera and the San Francisco Opera got to preside over the premiere of the complete cycle in June. Now, call it the “Once and Future Ring”; the Washington National Opera announced Tuesday that it will present a staging of the complete cycle — in 2016.
WNO’s Tuesday announcement made good — surprisingly rapidly, in operatic terms — on the promises of innovation that Zambello hinted at when she was named the company’s artistic adviser in May. And if the “Ring” is, in Zambello’s words, one artistic “tent pole,” new American work is another.
Hence the Washington National Opera’s New American Works project, which will roll out in the 2012-13 season. (The season will not be announced until March.) It’s conceived as a three-tiered system: 20-minute commissions from student composers; hour-long works by “emerging” composers; and, eventually, full-length works by American masters. The first student commissions — presented in threes, in concert, at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater — are projected to arrive late this year.
“The sense of laboratory and workshop is something we are going to work hard to develop,” Zambello said. “Of course, you can workshop something to death. But I think opera is such a complex, strange beast. We’re also addressing the question of what is opera today. We’re all grappling with that issue. What is it going to be in 10 years, 20 years?”
Speaking from Vienna, Austria, WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin pointed out the benefits of exposing young composers to the resources of an opera house. Even if the scale of the works is small, he said, the composers have the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra at their disposal.
“If a composer wants to use eight percussion players, he can,” Auguin said. “It’s like offering a painter the full range of all the colors.” He added: “If Stravinsky had not been allowed to use two tuba players in ‘The Rite of Spring,’ he would have never written ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Allowing composers to write something from a larger dimension helps composers to go deeper into what they can bring.”
WNO is not the first company to put muscle behind a commissioning program (witness the Minnesota Opera’s ongoing seven-year New Works Initiative, including three main-stage commissions) or to turn to a smaller format as a way to generate new work without staggering expense (such as the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s American Repertoire Program). But the three-tier system and emphasis on working with young composers is distinctive.
The announcement is also a positive step for a company that has seemed to be dwindling in recent seasons, walloped by the financial crisis after years of living slightly beyond its means. It makes good on the company’s long-bruited goal of committing to American work, albeit in a smaller form than once hoped for by Placido Domingo, WNO’s longtime general director, who stepped down last year. And it is not a sign of new overspending.
“The budget will not be too impacted,” said Christina Scheppelmann, WNO’s director of artistic operations. “That was part of the brainstorming process, to come up with something that is important in extending what we offer on the main stage but without adding expenses to the point where you’re going to have to pull back and say, ‘Oops.’ ”
“Part of our objective is just to get more performance volume,” Zambello added.
In other words: Don’t look for the number of main-stage productions to go up from the current five per season. “Being fiscally conservative, I don’t believe in daydreaming,” Scheppelmann said. And don’t look for the main-stage fare to become much more adventurous, either. Although Zambello and Scheppelmann said they are committed to second and third performances of large-scale works that have been premiered elsewhere, Scheppelmann also said that “if you do new productions at the Terrace Theater, you’re going to have to balance that on the main stage.” The implication is that the large-scale fare might remain conservative, and the unusual offerings will move to the smaller theaters — which are newly available to WNO since its official merger with the Kennedy Center on July 1.
WNO also announced that it will stage a holiday-themed work every year. “For me, getting families and kids into the theater is a top priority,” Zambello said. In addition, Zambello will direct one production every season — though this is hardly an innovation, because Zambello has been something of a fixture at WNO for years, with 10 productions to her credit. Though the 2012-13 season won’t be announced until March, Zambello’s contribution to it is known: the co-production of “Show Boat” with the Chicago Lyric Opera, which opens in Chicago on Feb. 12.
Zambello and Scheppelmann speak with the authority of an artistic team, and it’s clear that Zambello is taking an active approach to her advisory role with WNO. But when Zambello was asked whether she planned to settle in the District, Scheppelmann stepped in to answer for her.
“Cesca is also the general director of Glimmerglass,” she said, referring to the summer festival in upstate New York that Zambello took over in the summer. “We wouldn’t want to overwhelm her with too much.”