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Prophecy fulfilled: WNO announces Zambello extension, Rogister appointment

Evan Rogister will take over as principal conductor of the Washington National Opera, the company announced Friday. (Simon Pauly)
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Francesca Zambello will remain artistic director of the Washington National Opera. On Friday, the company made a long-expected announcement that the director’s contract has been renewed, for three more years, through the 2020-2021 season.

The company will have a new musical leader, as well: Evan Rogister will take over as principal conductor for a four-year term, through 2021-2022. Rogister, notably, will not have the official title of music director, although WNO’s statement said he will hold “the same responsibilities as a music director.” He will report to Tim O’Leary, WNO’s general director.

“I’m happy that it’s working out,” Zambello said, reached by phone earlier this week during rehearsals for “La traviata,” which opens WNO’s current season on Oct. 6. She believes the company has achieved many of its goals during the first five years of her official tenure, she said, “in terms of artistic content, style, casting, and commitment to American works.”

“I think the next five years is about what we can achieve in collaboration with the Kennedy Center, not just about opera but about bigger issues and themes.” The Kennedy Center, she says, gives WNO a platform for contextualizing repertoire with “more lectures, more programs, more content surrounding the opera” — creating, she says, “a dialogue with the audience.”

For Rogister, 38, this is the first permanent appointment after a promising career as a freelancer in the United States and in Europe. At WNO, he has conducted “Moby-Dick,” “Carmen” and, most recently, “Aida,” when his eleventh-hour hiring to replace the originally scheduled Michael Christie seemed to indicate he was at least being strongly considered for the job.

Rogister entered Indiana University as a trombonist but soon took up singing, as well, although he double-majored in political science and wavered between law school and music school until he was accepted for a graduate degree at Juilliard. By the end of his time at Juilliard, he was clear that he wanted to move into conducting, and managed to get into Peabody’s conducting program, thence to the opera studio in Houston and to a first professional job at Berlin’s Deutsche Oper under Donald Runnicles, who remains a mentor. Since then, the bulk of Rogister’s professional work has been in Europe, with some marquee engagements in the United States, such as his Metropolitan Opera debut in the family version of “The Magic Flute” last season or his Santa Fe Opera debut in Szymanowski’s “King Roger” in 2012. Rogister’s preparing his first “Ring” cycle with the Gothenburg Opera, starting in November with “Das Rheingold.”

In Washington, Rogister will conduct two productions a year. He will also be involved with some of the company’s community outreach programs, and he speaks particularly highly of the “Look-ins” the company puts on for schoolchildren. The conductor, who has an apartment in Brooklyn but has been based in Brussels (where his girlfriend, a diplomat, works), says he will relocate to Washington full time starting next season. The WNO orchestra, he says, “is one of the most passionate places [I’ve been]; people are very eager to make great music together.”

In addition to these two key announcements, WNO has made other administrative changes and additions — notably hiring Samuel Gelber away from the Los Angeles Opera as director of artistic planning, replacing Andrew Jorgensen, who left earlier this year to take over as executive director of the Opera Theater of St. Louis.

Both Zambello and Rogister speak of big plans — but cannot, of course, reveal anything concrete until the announcement of next season, sometime in early 2019.

“The ’19-20 season will have more operas in it,” Zambello says. “That, I can say.”