Washington National Opera’s 2019-2020 Season: Otello Leads Off a Season of Relevance

Otello and Desdemona by Alexandre-Marie Colin, 1829. Public domain image from  Wikipedia .

Otello and Desdemona by Alexandre-Marie Colin, 1829. Public domain image from Wikipedia.

Washington National Opera’s 2019-2020 season pushes strongly forward in engaging current social issues and making good on its commendable commitment to minority and gender balance among performers, creative staff, and leadership positions, while balancing this effort with a solid program from the classic repertoire and some newer works; examples include: 

  • African American tenor Russell Thomas will star in Verdi’s Otello

  • Female conductor Eun Sun Kim will lead The Magic Flute

  • Blue, composed by a female composer, Jeanine Tesori, is about a black teenager killed by a white police officer

  • Marian Anderson awardee, African American bass Howard Soloman, sings in recital

  • An all-female team comprised of composer Laura Kaminsky, librettist Kelley Rourke, and conductor Anne Manson will provide mentorship for the American Opera Initiative (AOI)

  • The female director of Don Giovanni with its sexual issues is E. Loren Meeker

  • African American mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges will sing the role of Delilah

  • Porgy and Bess to be directed by WNO Artistic Director, Francesca Zambello

Washington National Opera 2019-2020 Season*

October 26, 30, November 3, 8, 11, 16:

Otello (1887) – Giuseppe Verdi and Arrigo Boito

November 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 17, 22, 23:

The Magic Flute (1791) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder

January 10:

American Opera Initiative Festival: Three New Twenty-Minute Operas

February 29, March 2, 6, 8, 11, 14, 19, 22:

Don Giovanni (1787) – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte

March 1, 4, 7, 13, 16, 21:

Samson and Delilah (1877) – Camille Saint-Saëns and Ferdinand Lemaire

March 15, 18, 23, 28:

Blue (2019) – Jeanine Tesori and Tazewell Thompson

May 9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23:

Porgy and Bess (1935) – George Gershwin and Dubose Heyward/Ira Gershwin

*Added event, November 25: Howard Soloman, Marian Anderson Vocal Award winner, in concert

Otello is of course based on Shakespeare’s “Othello” or “The Moor of Venice”, the tale of a Moorish Venetian general who succumbs to his jealousy and murders his innocent wife Desdemona, a tragedy engineered by his ensign Iago, perhaps literature’s purest villain.  Otello is Verdi’s penultimate opera premiere and his librettist Arrigo Boito, a close friend, was a composer in his own right.  After Don Carlo in 1867 came Aida in 1871 and Otello not until 1887, then Falstaff in 1892, his last.  When he composed Otello the opera world was already looking elsewhere for new wave leadership.  Nonetheless, Verdi was still revered and Otello was a success, though never as much so as some of his earlier operas; musicologists claim this is due to the “severe vocal and orchestral demands” of Verdi’s mature dramatic style.  Now we get to tenor Russell Thomas who sings the role of Otello; he was last seen here in WNO’s Don Carlo.  I refer you now to an excellent article by Anne Midgette covering both the vocal demands made upon Mr. Russell by this role as well as those of being a black opera singer in today’s environment.  Let us also not overlook soprano Leah Crocetto who plays Desdemona.  Ms. Crocetto is also an exciting talent who has appeared recently in DC, in WNO’s Verdi Requiem and Aida.  The bad guy is played by international opera star baritone George Gagnidze, who this past May at Met Opera gave his 100th performance as Rigoletto; tell me you didn’t think the bad guy would be played by a tenor.  Musicologists can argue about its placement in the opera pantheon; I’ve not seen it, but I am listening to a recording and love the music.  Great composer, great cast, ball in your court – starting October 26.

The Magic Flute is a holiday season favorite that comes a little early this year, running November 2-23, but then Christmas decorations are already going up in stores, so who knows when holiday season begins anymore.  I digress - In addition to more fabulous music by Mozart, this very accessible opera will have sets designed by famous children’s author Maurice Sendak.  The tale is a comical allegory about truth and love, and not too heavy, it can be enjoyed by the youngsters as well as the adults; and it will be performed in English which also helps.  The performers on November 22 will come from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program.  WNO also reports that a Family Look-in—a special introduction to this opera designed for families and children—is scheduled for Saturday, November 23; a separate ticket is required. For the Family Look-in, audience members will experience excerpts from The Magic Flute along with insight into behind-the-scenes aspects such as lighting, scene changes, costuming, and many other elements that create stage magic.” Speaking for myself, I attend The Magic Flute to hear the Queen of the Night.  That role will be sung by soprano Kathryn Lewek who is currently featured on a 2017 live Met Opera recording of The Magic Flute – can’t wait!

The American Opera Initiative festival will still be held in January, but only the program of three new twenty-minute operas will be presented.  I mourn what I hope is only a pause in presenting a new one-hour opera each January as well.  For those of us who crave new operas, the AOI offerings are a highlight of the season. The operas are performed by the members of the Domingo Cafritz Young Artist program.

Don Giovanni has earned its position among the best and most often performed operas of all time.  Librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte created an enduring tale about a sexual predator using his wealth and power in attempts to seduce every woman he meets, and composer Mozart created some of his greatest music to surround and help tell the story. However, for centuries-old works in the classic repertoire, this is the ‘age of the director’; the burden of proof falls to the director to tell these stories in ways that both entertain and most strongly connect with audiences of today.  Enter E. Loren Meeker, a much in demand director, to give her hand a try; what will her Giovanni emphasize?  She has directed operas for many of the major companies in the US, including Washington National Opera.  I greatly enjoyed her production of The Touchstone for Wolf Trap Opera.  She will certainly bring a female point of view to Giovanni’s exploits which adds interest, I think.  An exciting young cast familiar to DC will work with Evan Rogister in his first principal conductor performance for WNO.

Samson and Delilah is based on the well-known Bible story found in the Book of Judges.  Composer Camille Saint-Saëns is best known today for his orchestral music.  Sampson and Delilah is the only one of his 13 operas that is performed today.  In the story, Samson is a hero of extraordinary strength rallying the Hebrews in their struggles with the Philistines; Delilah is used by the Philistines to seduce and bring about Samson’s downfall.  It is a story rich with political and psychological dimensions and offers some beautiful music by Saint-Saëns.  Delilah, especially, has some beautiful arias, and WNO is bringing in star mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges to sing them. 

Blue is a co-production with The Glimmerglass Festival and the Lyric Opera of Chicago that premiered this summer at Glimmerglass.  Two black parents in Harlem are gifted with the birth of a son and must deal with the hopes and fears of black parents in America today.  The father is a police officer, and his son is killed by a white police officer, a story seeming to be ripped from today’s headlines, but that is also based on black literature and illuminates the private stories behind the public story.  The composer is Tony-award winning director Jeanine Tesori, and the librettist is playwright and theater director Tazewell Thompson who will also direct.  Blue stars former Domingo Caftitz Young Artist bass Kenneth Kellogg.  The music includes themes of gospel, blues, jazz, and opera.  WNO’s season announcement indicated that “WNO is forming a committee of local and national leaders from the African American community, the law enforcement community, and other stakeholders who will collaborate to design events that foster dialogue about the story of the opera. Event details, and ways that the public can participate, will be announced later”.

Porgy and Bess is “a tale about southern blacks by a white novelist, set to music by a New-York-based Jewish songwriter-lyricist team”.  The story was derived from DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy”; Mr. Heyward wrote the libretto working with lyricist Ira Gershwin.  While composer George Gershwin had a longtime, genuine interest in the African American experience, it is the performers, an all-black cast, who must bring authenticity to the work.  It is the wonderful melodies from songs like Summertime that have sustained its popularity.  WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello will direct her own production of this ‘folk opera’, as labeled by the composer, rotating two casts among performances.  Several of the supporting cast members, including up and coming soprano Janai Brugger and star mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves are currently appearing in the Met Opera revival of Porgy and Bess.  This perhaps is George Gershwin’s greatest work, certainly revealing more of the genius of this American composer.

The Fan Experience:  Individual tickets are available for all performances at this time.  For Porgy and Bess 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 for 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.  There will be two same-day performances of the American Opera Initiative operas which often sell out; get your tickets early.

Generally all operas will have a pre-opera talk by a local expert; check the website of the opera of interest to find additional events that may be scheduled.

Parking is available in the Kennedy Center Garage for $23, currently with discounts of $3 for pre-paid reservations. Construction limiting access to parking entrances has been completed, but 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.