An inside look at WNO’s January 21 American Opera Initiative

Kelley Rourke, the new artistic advisor for the program, previews three new 20-minute operas.

Trending. The world of American Opera finds companies across the land racing to identify and promote new voices telling stories through music about issues relevant to our society. Even major production houses agree that for the art form to survive, it no longer can be the “same old same old.” Nowhere is this more true than our own Washington National Opera (WNO). Artistic Director Francesca Zambello has staked her legacy on this.

Since 2012, when Zambello first came aboard as artistic advisor, there was a first American Opera Initiative (AOI) just launched by then-company-artist Christina Scheppelmann. Zambello became a natural fit for the company then seeking a permanent artistic director who would build up the program and present annually original 20-minute and sometimes 60-minute operas.

Zambello in turn appointed Robert Ainsley to run AOI and its twin, then called the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program for singers. It made sense. The Ainsley and Zambello (A-Z tag team) sought to demonstrate “America’s got talent” and develop American opera voices who could both serve and amplify works by American composers and librettists. The creative teams in turn would benefit from writing for specific voices and hearing their works sung by their contemporaries.

Kelley Rourke. Photo by Brittany Lesavoy Smith.

Recently, after Ainsley departed to take over the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, Zambello thought his role was too heavy a lift for one and decided to split the developing artists’ program, appointing longtime WNO collaborator Kelley Rourke to serve as artistic advisor, serving alongside Christopher Cano, who takes over Ainsley’s position.

I asked Rourke what, after serving in capacities as dramaturg, sur-titlist, and mentor to librettists for three AOI seasons, drew her to this directorship role:

When Francesca approached me, I leapt at the chance to be a more permanent part of AOI. WNO was a pioneer with the program.

To have young composers and writers have their works mounted at a major company with top-class singers! No major opera company will hire an emerging artist because the stakes are too high. A program like AOI enables both the producer and the artists to take risks.

Now there are other such programs cropping up. Opera of St Louis commissions 20-minute operas. Seattle has a very similar model to WNO. Everyone is hungry for new voices. Audiences too are growing more eager to hear new operas.

On this particular model where WNO places its resources on a chamber ensemble drawn from the WNO orchestra toward this program:

Almost all commissions come with some limitations or boundaries. There were practical considerations to call for the same size and complement of instruments. The model is a huge opportunity and good training for artists.

The program thrives because of its mentorship program. This year they include filmmaker and librettist Kimberly Reed and Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence Carlos Simon. This crop of new short operas will also benefit from working with WNO Principal Conductor Evan Rogister, who will conduct all three operas this January, and Zambello, who will provide directing mentorship.

American Opera Initiative composers, librettists, and mentors: Kimberly Reed, Cecelia Raker, Jens Ibsen, Walken Schweigert, Carlos Simon, Silen Wellington, B.E. Boykin, Jarrod Lee, Kelley Rourke. Photo by Caitlin Oldham.

On how the creative teams are selected and the process:

There is a two-tier system. The director of the program makes a first pass. Maybe the artists are not quite at the stage where this opportunity makes sense for them — either because they don’t have the requisite experience or are past it. But then the mentors are always involved, and the slate of mentors rotates on and off the team. That avoids the trap of the artists chosen always reflecting the taste of one person. The mentors shape the development of the pieces and should be excited about the works.

Usually, the first assignment given is for the librettists to come up with and pitch three possible stories they could get excited to work on.

The 20-minute opera is a tricky form. To get in there and do something really interesting in 20 minutes, you have to have that right-sized story. It comes down to “Is that an interesting story that can fit the 20-minute form?”

Artists apply as individuals. Each one is asked to list potential collaborators they would like to work with, and everyone is asked if they would be willing to work with another person selected. Then through our short list of composers and librettists, our selection team will determine if a match is evident; otherwise, we will do some matchmaking.

On what excited Rourke about this year’s operas:

The stories all relate to contemporary life and yet have mythic dimensions. The mythic dimension is something opera does so well.

In the order they will be performed, we will open with Oshun with music by B.E. Boykin and words by Jarrod Lee. Lee worked with a professor at Howard University to get the myth told correctly, and the team was interested in focusing on a story of sacrifice, self-love, and redemption.

The second piece on the program will be by librettist Cecelia Baker and composer Jens Ibsen. I love this story! Many people ask, “Where are the great comic operas?” In Bubbie and the Demon, Cecilia and Jens have definitely written a laugh-out-loud piece, but the work is also deeply touching, and having comedy brings the story home even more strongly. This piece speaks to the isolation we all felt during the pandemic, especially older people. It also speaks to how we project our ideas on other people. For me, it becomes a moving and serious piece about the human condition and about connection and disconnection, but one that has a lot of laughs of recognition as well as a lot of good tunes. [The PR write-up describes the opera as “a pandemic take on a viral internet myth… [it] laces classical music with heavy metal.”]

What the Spirits Show is a work with a light, lyrical touch by composer Silen Wellington and librettist Walken Schweigert and weaves contemporary politics and identity themes into a story about transformation. A teenage artist shape-shifts with the aid of a magic elixir but faces a tyrannical politician who criminalizes such substances and does not allow people to be who they are.

On characterizing the creative artists:

Most of the creative artists this year are singers, and I think this adds another dimension and deeper understanding of what the opera singer needs to do, not just the coordination of all the little muscles but what it means to stand on stage and embody the character and the score.

On the timeline and process of the AOI mentorship:

It’s an open door all the way through the process and depends on each mentor and what the artists involved want. I’ve been a mentor three different years, and sometimes there has been a lot of contact, but everyone works a little differently.

Having said that, there are some key checkpoints. First is clearly when the writers present their pitches. Another is when a writer submits the first draft of his/her/their libretto. Then with everyone on site, there is the all-important piano-vocal reading which takes place over four days. This is not just for everyone to hear the score, get notes, and go home. There is time for notes, time for additional workshopping and rewriting, and then the fantastic opportunity for the singers to perform the rewrites. The young artists are right there, and all so talented and so game!

Teams are normally chosen the beginning of February, and pitches are put forward. Librettists submit their first drafts sometime in April. The piano scores come due beginning of September, and the piano-vocal workshop is at the end of the month. Following that comes the work of full orchestration before rehearsals and presentations, so the entire process takes almost a full year.

And where does Rourke want to take program?

The bones of this program are so strong and especially the rotation of new mentors to help refresh the program every year. I’m also very interested in the dynamics of collaboration and how we can help artists create a shared space for collaboration, and that is not something that is usually taught in music conservatories or drama schools. I want to bring in collaboration principles and opportunities early in the process to establish a community of makers.

What an opportunity to start off the New Year by getting in on the inside track of today’s operas for tomorrow!

American Opera Initiative will present all three 20-minute operas together without intermission on January 21, 2023, at 7 and 9 p.m. in the Terrace Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($19–$25) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.

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Susan Galbraith
Playwright, librettist, songwriter, director, theater reviewer, and actress Susan Galbraith has worked in London, Singapore, New York, Minneapolis, Prague, and Boston before settling in DC. Her resume includes working with international directors including Peter Brooks, Miřenka Čechová, and Peter Sellars; choreographer Takao Tomono; and rock-and-roll superstar Prince. After moving to Washington, she helped found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and in the past decade led the development of original works across the spectrum of music-theater including musicals and opera. For over a decade, she was also pleased to support the greater Washington theater community as a happy member of the reviewing team of DC Theater Scene under Lorraine Treanor. She holds a BA from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and two graduate degrees, including a Fulbright fellowship. She now lives in Kalorama with three cats, a happy Samoyed, and a most understanding partner. You can read more of her theater writing here.


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