Franceesa Zambello Joins Washington National Opera

Francesca Zambello, on the phone, at a table, in print, from a distance, and just from reading her resume, feels and sounds like a force of nature, a woman who isn’t daunted easily if at all.

She is in town now in her new role as Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera, directing the upcoming production of “Showboat”, which she created and directed at the Chicago Lyric Opera. As Artistic Director of the WNO, she succeeds Placido Domingo and still remains Artistic and General Director at the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York.

You could tell there was a fresh wind blowing just by dint of her personality, which is outgoing, forthright and direct. Earlier this year, she bounded onto the stage at the Kennedy Center Theater For Young Audiendces during the center’s annual season announcement for the media. With Zambello, it was as if she was opening up a rather large bag of Christmas presents: expanded roles for children’s theater, “The Magic Flute” in English, new commissioned American operas—there’s one in June—a never- in-Washington production of “Moby Dick”, an expanded role for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program, and the list went on consider- ably and still does.

Perhaps more significantly, during an opening night of one of the two earlier spring operas, you could see a woman greeting people as they came in past the ropes at the Opera House, an unusual sight at what is often considered the last bastion of tradition and decorum in American performing arts. It was Zambello acting very much like an enthusiastic greeter for the opera, there were hearty handshakes, hellos and even hugs amid introductions.

“I believe in putting yourself out there,” she said. “It’s not that unusual. We’re asking people to pay good money for what we’re putting on stage so we should make every effort to making that process a success, to be a part of this city and think about the audience for our work.”

There is in Zambello something of a populist streak, in the sense that while she’s worked on most of the great operas stages and companies which makes her a natural citizen of the world, she leans often toward American work, toward the unusual and cutting edge but also the accessible. She hasn’t always succeeded—there have been a few bumps in the road here and there— but her approach has always been an open armed stance, with which she hopes to capture larger and new audiences.

In that sense, “Showboat”, while familiar is in some way typical of that approach. “Some people will tell you its not really and opera, its some sort of hybrid, but it is an opera in the sense there’s continual music, and that music and the songs by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein III are world class. And, like many operas as we understand them have big themes, big subjects—race, gender, the role of women, even the business of show business, miscegenation and so on.”

When it suggested to her that opera has a culturally elitist reputation, she says, emphatically, “haven’t I made myself clear, that’s not what I’m about.” We were talking about perception, but even in a misunderstanding, we get a little closer to what she’s about. When it comes to the Washington National Opera, she’s interested in emphasizing all three words in that title.
“The WNO—and especially with being part of the Kennedy Center, is a national company and I want to emphasize that, because that makes it an American company, where American themes can breathe and resonate and we’re also a Washington company. To me that means we have to make a greater effort to be a part of the city, identify with the city, which is a city that’s about politics and great issues and history as well as all the people who live in it, ” she said.

Another word might be added, and that would be family. “I know many of us who love opera passionately first felt that way when we were taken to operas by our parents as children,” she said. “One of the things I intend to do is expand our family programs. We hope to make a tradition of a holiday opera for children and the whole family—we are doing “The Magic Flute” in English, next spring, we will also increase the use of and involvement our artists in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program.”

Almost anybody who’s familiar with Zambello’s artistic and professional history knows change is coming with her arrival—is already here in fact. But there is method to her changes. “Opera isn’t immune to that,” she said. “For me, change is about the audience, finding out who your audience is and what it wants to see and hear,” she said. “I believe in new operas, in staging operas that haven’t been done often or not at all, without abandoning traditions, the classic and great staples of operas. But what’s surprising is how often you find echoes of our times in Verdi, in Puccini, in Wagner and Bizet and Strauss. I do not believe there is one way to do a particular opera.”

Zambello’s connection to family opera and her passion to expand the audience comes in part from her connection to the American musical theater—she’s directed “The Littlest Mermaid” on Broadway. “American musicals are a true and popular American art form, much as opera was the European popular art form in the 18th and 19th century,” she said.

In the 2013-14 season, there will be a Verdi and Wagner celebration right off with Zambello directing Verdi’s “The Forces of Destiny” (La Forza del Destino”)which comes to the Opera House for the first time in 25 years, while the great soprano Deborah Voigt” will star in Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde,” which kicks off the season. Zambello will also direct a world premiere production of “The Lion, The Unicorn and Me” in December, with a production of this family-friendly world premiere in the Terrace Theater.

The new American Opera Initiative begins with the promising “Approaching Ali”, a new opera by composer D.J. Sparr and librettists Mark Campbell and Davis Miller about a reporter’s meeting with boxing legend Muhammad Ali June 8 and 9, in the Terrace Theater, which is also an example of Zambello’s search for new American work and using all the available spaces in the Kennedy Center, not just the Opera House.

She’s already making her presence felt: young performers amid the stars and veterans, great operas rarely seen, the rise of a Washington company that’s a larger part of its setting—the Kennedy Center, the city, the country—than before and oh yes, lions and unicorns, and Tristan and Mozart, oh my. You could be forgiving for thinking that Francesca Zambello could be something of a forza del destino herself at least when it comes to the WNO.
“Showboat” runs May 4 to 26 at the Kennedy Center Opera House


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