Washington National Opera's 2017-18 Season quietly breaks through American opera's gender imbalance in a big way.
Washington National Opera's current season (2016-17) goes a long way to redress one of opera's most consistently vexing problems -- risk-averse programming that leans heavily on works by dead European males -- by presenting the work of three living composers: Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (February - March), Terence Blanchard's Champion (March), and Mohammed Fairouz's The Dictator's Wife (presented last month). For an American opera company of its size and stature, this may be an unparalleled achievement in diverse programming. WNO's 2017-18 season announcement, which came out late last month, continues that trend and pushes the envelope even further, with a season featuring two living women composers, and a schedule loaded with women conductors and directors at a level unprecedented for a major American opera company.
No mention of this is made in the WNO 2017-18 season announcement, as if it isn't remarkable in any way, and perhaps that's a wise choice given what really matters is what's on the stage, so let the results there make the ultimate statement. But this kind of programming and hiring diversity is still worth our attention and praise, and should remain so until it actually is no longer remarkable. Instead of highlighting the number of women featured across the season's schedule, WNO's Artistic Director Francesca Zambello states "Opera can be the launching pad to stimulate conversations about humanity -- it can combat indifference, ignorance, and polarization. I hope our programming choices for the 2017-18 season demonstrate WNO's dedication to our role as the national opera company and our firm commitment to harnessing this unique power of our beloved art form to help us grapple with the issues of our time."
On the surface WNO's 2107-18 season doesn't look ambitious at all, dominated by the appearance of Verdi's Don Carlo and Aida, Rossini's Barber of Seville, and Bernstein's Candide. Handel's quasi-kinky Alcina is the most exotic of the five main productions. But add in Rachel Portman's family-friendly The Little Prince (based on the book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) and the world premiere of Missy Mazzoli's Proving Up and you have a season in which nearly 30% of the works are composed by two living, women composers. That's no small achievement. The same percentage goes for the season's conducting and directing assignments: Nicole Paiement conducts Candide and Jane Glover is on the podium for Alcina; it doubles for the directing assignments with Zambello helming Aida, The Little Prince and Candide, and Anne Bogart directing Alcina. Let's also add that Mazzoli's Proving Up is based on a short story by Karen Russell, and a season that looks somewhat staid on the surface actually represents a significant step forward toward gender parity in the operatic arts. There's still a long way to go, but let's celebrate and acknowledge progress where we have it.
Here's the rundown on the WNO 2017-18 season, in chronological order.
The marvelous, powerful Amber Wagner alternates with Tamara Wilson as the lead in Aida, conducted by Michael Christie, with Eketerina Semenchuk and Marina Prudenskaya alternating as Amneris, and Yonghoon Lee and Carl Tanner alternating as Radames. 25 years since its last appearance at WNO, this is a new co-production with San Francisco Opera, Seattle Opera, and Minnesota Opera (September 2017).
Alcina appears in the smaller, more intimate Eisenhower Theatre and boasts a strong cast featuring Angela Meade, Daniela Mack, Ying Fang, and Elizabeth DeShong in the opera's first WNO appearance (November 2017).
The casting for The Little Prince comes from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists alongside the WNO Children's Chorus for this family appropriate work during the holiday season. James Lowe conducts (December 2017).
The world premiere of Mazzoli's Proving Up is a commission from the American Opera Initiative. Mazzoli and her librettist Royce Vavrek's Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, is probably the most talked about and admired new work of the current season, so there's going to be a lot interest in their new opera, about a homesteading family in Nebraska. Casting and conductor TBA (January 2018). Three twenty-minute operas, also commissioned by the American Opera Initiative, will be staged the same weekend as Proving Up's debut.
Don Carlo leads the season as far as high-wattage casting with Leah Crocetto, Jamie Barton, Eric Owens, Andrea Silvestrelli, Quinn Kelsey, and Russell Thomas in the lead roles, the latter two making their WNO debuts. The co-production with Philadelphia Opera and Minnesota Opera is new to WNO, directed by Tim Albery, Philippe Auguin conducts (March 2018).
Rossini's ever popular Il barbiere di Siviglia, aka The Barber of Seville, gets a boost from having Isabel Leonard as its Rosina. Taylor Stayton and Andrey Zhilikhovsky make company debuts as Figaro and Count Almaviva, with Domingo-Cafritz artists Valeriano Lanchas and Wei Wu rounding out the cast. The revival of Allen Moyer's production is conducted by Maurizio Benini,directed by Peter Kazaras (April - May 2018).
Candide is part of the Kennedy Center's celebration of the Bernstein Centennial. This production, imported from the Glimmerglass Festival, features Alek Shrader, Kathryn Lewek, and Denyce Graves. It's the first WNO production of Candide (May 2018).
View the entire WNO 2017-18 Season announcement here.
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