Washington National Opera’s 2018-2019 Season: It’s Here, Something For Everyone

If football has geared up and baseball is headed into the playoffs, it can only mean that opera season is upon us, and for Washingtonians, it means WNO’s first offering is about to raise the curtain.  Verdi’s La Traviata kicks off on Saturday for an eleven-performance run over two weeks, rotating two professional casts and a single performance with the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists.  Contemporary opera fans will not have to wait long: Silent Night starts in early November. Kids will get a turn in December with The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me.  This mix of old and new will continue in January when the new works commissioned by the American Opera Initiative are presented, including the hour-long chamber opera, Taking Up Serpents. Then we have trips to Russia (Eugene Onegin), France (Faust), and a return to Italy (Tosca) to finish out the season.

WNO Season 2018-2019

La Traviata (1853) – Oct 6, 7, 9, 11, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20, 21

Silent Night (2011) - Nov 10, 14, 17, 18, 20, 23, 25

The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me (2013) – Dec 14, 15, 16

Taking Up Serpents (American Opera Initiative, 2019) – Jan 11, 13

Three New 20-Min Operas (American Opera Initiative, 2019) – Jan 12

Eugene Onegin (1879) - Mar 9, 17, 20, 23, 25, 29

Faust (1859) - Mar 16, 18, 22, 24, 27, 30

Tosca (1900) - May 11, 12, 14, 17, 19, 20, 22, 25

Jacqueline Echols as Violetta and Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo. Photo by Cade Martin; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Jacqueline Echols as Violetta and Joshua Guerrero as Alfredo. Photo by Cade Martin; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

La Traviata: La Traviatas are all about the sumptuous music and Violetta, the secretly ill courtesan who lives for pleasure until she falls in love and must make a heart wrenching choice (composer Giuseppe Verdi and librettist Francesco Maria Piave).  Upfront, WNO gives us the choice of three Violettas. Rotating in the role will be Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva, American soprano Jacqueline Echols, and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Marlen Nahhas.  You can see this as a dilemma, having to choose just one, or as an opportunity to see all three.  I will be giving first priority to Ms. Gimadieva because this will be her first U.S. appearance and she comes with rave reviews from Europe and Russia; she was also named by opera authority Fred Plotkin as one of the 40 under 40 opera singers to watch.  However, I can also give a strong endorsement to Ms. Echols whom I have seen in several minor roles that I praised in OperaGene blog reports, and this might be the breakout performance that propels her to stardom.  I am not yet familiar with Ms. Nahhas, but seeing the performances by young stars-in-the-making has its own special excitement.  The guys all have impressive CVs and add appeal, and they might also factor into which performance you decide to see.  Also adding luster to this La Traviata is that it will be a new production, directed by WNO’s Artistic Director Francesco Zambello with new set designs and turn-of-the century Paris costumes.  One of Ms. Zambello’s themes during her tenure at WNO has been to use color and art in WNO’s productions to increase their visual appeal (see the OperaGene reports on WNO’s Aida and Madame Butterfly). 

Production photo for  Silent Night . Photo by Jeff Roffman for the Atlanta Opera; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Production photo for Silent Night. Photo by Jeff Roffman for the Atlanta Opera; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Silent Night: Coming up in November is the opera I anticipate will be the highlight of the season for me as a fan of new opera.  Silent Night by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Mark Campbell tells the World War I story of a ceasefire initiated by trench soldiers of different nationalities to honor Christmas Eve; it is based on the film “Joyeux Noel”.  Mr. Puts won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Silent Night.  It has been regularly produced in the U.S. since its premiere in 2011, including productions in five cities this season.  The Puts/Campbell team worked together on two other operas, Manchurian Candidate and Elizabeth Cree; I am a fan of Cree which premiered at last year’s O18 Festival Opera Philadelphia.  The cast will be headed by Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and recent graduates, bass Kevin Kellogg, tenor Alexander McKissick, and soprano Raquel Gonzalez.  I recently heard Mr. Kellogg’s strong bass voice in Maryland Lyric Opera’s La Fanciulla del West and Mr. McKissick’s impressive tenor voice as Romeo in Wolf Trap Opera’s excellent production of Romeo and Juliette. Contrasting with the beauty of the music is the ugliness of war. Depiction of warfare in the trenches has caused WNO to caution that this opera is appropriate for ages 12 and above, even though the scene is short, bloodless, and is obscured behind a scrim; better to err on the side of caution.

The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me: December is the holiday season and parents are always on the lookout for something festive to do with their kids.  WNO has an excellent option for you.  The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me presents a fable based on animals contending to lead Mary and Joseph to Bethelem and is based on a book of the same name by Jeanette Winterson with lyrics by poet J.D. McClatchy and music by Jeanine Tesori. Composer Tesori wrote music for “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Shrek the Musical”, and has five Tony Award nominations. Directed by Francesca Zambello who has been involved with this opera from the beginning, the cast will principally be from The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists and the Washington Children’s Chorus.  Washington Post critic Anne Midgette provides an informative overview of this work as first presented in 2013. One immediate caution: kid’s operas at the Kennedy Center tend to sell out; get your tickets early. 

AOI: January belongs to the American Opera Initiative, WNO’s program to provide support and collaborative opportunities to emerging composers and librettists for the advancement of contemporary American opera.  On Friday evening and Sunday afternoon, a one-hour opera is premiered, and on Saturday evening three new 20-min operas are presented in two different performances, all using cast members from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program.  This year’s one-hour opera has composer Kamala Sankaram and librettist Jerre Dye.  The story revolves around a daughter’s return home to the deep South when her father, a fire and brimstone preacher, is bitten by one of the snakes he handles.  I grew up in Georgia and its hard to say which scares me more, snakes or fire and brimstone preachers. You can read the bios for this talented team here: Ms. Sankaram; Mr. Dye.

Stock photo of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Todd Rosenberg; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Stock photo of Eugene Onegin. Photo by Todd Rosenberg; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Eugene Onegin: The rest of the new year will be allotted to the traditional greats, beginning with Eugene Onegin by composer and librettist Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky based on the novel by Alexander Pushkin.  Tatiana is a young woman reared in the country who falls in love with a more mature, more sophisticated man, Eugene Onegin, and declares her love in a letter to him.  She is rejected, but as time passes the tables start to turn.  One of our favorite opera experiences for my wife and I was hearing Anna Nebtrebko sing Tatiana at the Metropolitan Opera.  WNO is bringing in talented Russian singers for the lead roles of Tatiana (soprano Anna Nechaeva), Onegin (baritone Igo Golovatenko), and Lensky (tenor Alexey Dolgov).  Tchaikovsky’s music is lush and lovely and Onegin has a central theme and melody that will stick in your head for a very long time. 

Faust: Faust with composer Charles Gounod and librettists Jules Barbier and Michael Carré has perhaps the best known story in the world - Dr. Faust sells his soul to the Devil to have his youth restored - and some of the most recognizable music in the repertoire.  Soprano Erin Wall who will play Marguerite is a highly sought after opera performer and concert artist.  Marco Puente (Faust), Raymond Aceto (Mephistopheles) and Joshua Hopkins (Valentin) have all earned stellar reputations.  WNO’s production was originated by Ms. Zambello with the Houston Grand Opera and uses a “storybook aesthetic”.

Tosca: Tosca’s librettists are Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  The composer is…pause…let’s all bow, and repeat “we are not worthy several times” to…Giacomo Puccini!  I recently heard Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West played by an 80-piece orchestra on stage and now have an even greater respect his music.  And Tosca has some of his best.  It also has a dynamite tale of lust, power, critical miscues, a surprise plot twist or two, and a villain (Scarpia) that you can really sink your teeth into, and you will want to.  WNO will also do this one with rotating casts, but all performances will be anchored by renown base-baritone Alan Held as Scarpia, especially well-known to DC audiences; in many ways, this is Scarpia’s opera.  This year Mr. Held is serving his second stint as Artist in Residence for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. 

The Fan Experience: Individual tickets are available for all performances at this time, though tickets for the The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me and American Opera Initiative already have limited availability.  For La Traviata and Tosca, be sure to select the date when the cast you wish to hear is performing. If you are interested in buying tickets to more than one opera, check with the box office at 202-467-4600 to see if subscriptions are still possible for two or more operas ; with subscriptions, you may be eligible parking discounts and/or other benefits, such as the ability to change your ticket to an alternate performance date.  Also remember that the Kennedy Center uses dynamic pricing which means that if certain performances are in high demand they may raise the prices for the remaining tickets closer to the performance.  Generally all operas will have a pre-opera talk by a local expert and some performances will have after opera Talk Backs with members of the cast and creative staff; check the WNO webpage for the opera of interest for exact times and dates.

Parking is available in the Kennedy Center Garage for $23, currently with discounts of $3 for pre-paid reservations. Traffic in the area near performance times is typically highly congested and can cause significant delays.  You can save wear and tear on your nerves by taking the subway to Foggy Bottom Metro stop and then the red KC bus parked right outside the station; it runs every fifteen minutes.

Please note that Silent Night carries the following statement: “This performance is recommended for audience members age 12 and up.”