Washington National Opera presents world premiere of ‘Grounded’

Composed by Jeanine Tesori with a libretto by George Brant adapted from his eponymous play, 'Grounded' stars mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo in her WNO debut.

Washington National Opera (WNO) opens its 2023–2024 season with the world premiere of Grounded, October 28–November 13. Composed by two-time Tony Award winner Jeanine Tesori with a libretto adapted by George Brant from his eponymous play, and directed by Tony Award winner Michael MayerGrounded is commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and co-produced with the Washington National Opera.

Grounded tells the story of Jess, an accomplished F-16 fighter pilot who is “grounded” from flying because of an unexpected pregnancy. When returning to duty, she is reassigned to combat by operating lethal drones from a trailer in Las Vegas, thousands of miles away from the battlefield. The juxtaposition of using her elite training to protect and serve America by day while returning to her family at night creates a moral and psychological tension that plays out onstage. Playing the role of Jess is “one of the world’s special young singers” (The New York Times), Emily D’Angelo, in her WNO debut. The cast also includes Joseph Dennis as Eric, Morris Robinson as the Commander, Frederick Ballentine as the Trainer, Kyle Miller as the Sensor, and Teresa Perrotta as Also Jess, with Daniela Candillari conducting the Washington National Opera Orchestra.

Grounded tackles subjects rarely seen in opera: drone warfare and its impact on service members and their caregivers. When Brant’s play was first staged in 2013, drone warfare was a new technology. Now drones are used commonly on the battlefields and beyond, but their impact is less understood. To present these issues in opera form, Brant expanded his one-woman play into a multi-character libretto, giving full voice to those in the pilot’s orbit. Working with Tesori, Brant created new characters, such as “Also Jess,” who embodies the pilot’s dissociated self, and a male chorus called the “Drone Squadron,” a haunted group reflecting the history of combat.

The set, designed by Tony Award winner Mimi Lien, is comprised of two huge screens made from 224 and 84 individual LED panels across the floor and the ceiling. These panels are mapped with integrated software for real-time video and projection effects to immerse audiences in the psychological and social implications of remote warfare.

“George’s play opens a window to a world that we may not know but should care more about. We are proud Jeanine, one of the most distinct composers of our generation, has turned it into an opera,” says WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. “Through operas like Grounded and Blue, she is pioneering the future of the art form, positioning opera as a seminal force in our society. Her operas foster dialogue around important cultural issues and ultimately help our communities become more inclusive, respectful, and empathetic. In this way, I passionately believe that Jeanine is not only pioneering the future of opera, but her powerful music is also creating a better world.”

“At WNO, we believe in art that illuminates, inspires, and builds empathy. Grounded gives us an opportunity to do this with subject matter that is not only modern, but forward-looking,” said WNO General Director Timothy O’Leary. “To highlight the stories of those on the frontlines of technology-driven warfare, the WNO team has been connecting with veteran and military communities, in part by partnering with the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Stop Soldier Suicide, the Military Women’s Memorial, and Armed Services Arts Partnership. We hope this work will spark dialogue about mental health and post-traumatic stress for those, like the character of Jess, whose mission it is to serve.” 

In acknowledgement of and to honor the service members and military communities in and around the DC area, WNO is collaborating with them to further explore the themes of the opera and provide access to resources. These partnerships and engagement events include the following:

  • October 8, 2023 at 10a.m.12p.m.Workshop with Armed Services Arts Partnership at the REACH: WNO will partner with the Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP), which provides free art and theater instruction to veterans, and offer a free workshop led by Grounded librettist George Brant. ASAP aims to ease veterans’ transition to civilian life through arts classes that help them rediscover the bonds of their service and become part of a community with common experiences.
  • October 23, 2023 at 5:30p.m.Performance and discussion at the Military Women’s Memorial: WNO Cafritz Young Artists will perform selections from Grounded, followed by a panel discussion featuring George Brant, high-level representatives from the Department of Defense and military families, and a former female fighter pilot to engage the audience in the themes explored by the opera, including the experience of women in male-dominated roles, how those roles impact a woman’s personal relationships, the experience of women in combat, and the new dynamics of modern warfare and the aftermath.
  • October 24, 2023 at 7p.m.Grounded Open Rehearsal for Students: WNO will host an open rehearsal of Grounded for high school students, who are encouraged to access a repository of free online content on WNO’s education page to enrich their understanding.
  • November 1, 2023—“Courage in Service” in partnership with The Elizabeth Dole Foundation & Hidden Heroes: The Elizabeth Dole Foundation and WNO will invite 100 members of the military community to join a special pre-show reception before the November 1st performance of Grounded, as well as a post opera Q&A, open to the entire audience. “Courage in Service” will celebrate the resiliency and bravery of the military community while also allowing space to explore the aspects of military life that are most physically and emotionally challenging.
  • Partnership with Stop Soldier Suicide: WNO seeks to support America’s heroes by providing access to mental health resources through its partnership with Stop Soldier Suicide, a national non-profit that seeks to prevent soldier suicide by addressing the underlying issues before they escalate into a crisis. A table of resources, staffed by Kennedy Center volunteers and service members, will be in the lobby before, during intermission, and following each Grounded performance.
  • Pre-performance Talks: Before every performance, WNO leaders and artistic partners, including Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and Grounded librettist George Brant, will host pre-performance lectures about the opera an hour before each performance.
  • Post-performance Artists Q&A Sessions: To help audience members process the opera’s complex themes, prominent members of the military community, as well as experts in drone warfare and mental health professionals will participate in post-performance discussions, followed by Q&A sessions. These are scheduled after the productions on November 1, 5, and 13. 

Music by Jeanine Tesori
Libretto by George Brant
In English with Projected English Titles
World Premiere; Grounded is commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera and co-produced with the Washington National Opera

Opera House at John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts
Saturday, October 28, 2023 at 7:00 p.m.
Wednesday, November 1, 2023 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, November 3, 2023 at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, November 5, 2023 at 2:00 p.m.
Saturday, November 11, 2023 at 7:00 p.m.
Monday, November 13, 2023 at 7:00 p.m.


Jess…….Emily D’Angelo*
Eric…….Joseph Dennis*
Commander…….Morris Robinson
Trainer…….Frederick Ballentine†
Senser…….Kyle Miller
Also Jess…….Teresa Perrotta
Conductor…….Daniela Candillari*
Director…….Michael Mayer*
Set Designer…….Mimi Lien*
Costume Designer…….Tom Broecker*
Lighting Designer…….Kevin Adams*
Co-Production Designers…….Jason H. Thompson* and Kaitlyn Petras*
Dramaturg…….Paul Cremo*
Choreographer…….David Neumann*

* WNO mainstage debut
† Alumnus of the Cafritz Young Artist program

Washington National Opera (WNO) is one of the leading opera companies in the United States. Under the leadership of General Director Timothy O’Leary and world-renowned Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, the company presents a diverse repertory of grand opera across three main venues of the Kennedy Center. From classic operas to contemporary works, each season the WNO’s artistic output also includes commissioned American works and a variety of special concerts, youth operas, and events. Founded in 1956 and an artistic affiliate of the Kennedy Center since 2011, WNO has a storied legacy of more than 100 new productions, plus world premieres, international tours, live recordings, and radio broadcasts, digitally streamed content, as well as innovative education and community-engagement programs. Recent celebrated productions have included a new production of Strauss’ Elektra; the DC premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s and Tazewell Thompson’s Blue, which was commissioned by Zambello; the world premiere of Written in Stone—composed for the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary season; the world premiere of Philip Glass’ reconceived Appomattox, presented in conjunction with cultural events throughout Washington, DC; the powerful performances of Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars; and the massive feat of WNO’s first complete Ring Cycle, which was helmed by Zambello and played to sold-out houses following international acclaim. The 2023–2024 season includes the world premiere of Grounded by Jeanine Tesori and George Brant, and Turandot with a new ending by Christopher Tin and Susan Soon He Stanton. WNO is committed to expanding opera’s reach and fostering a new generation of opera talent. Among the company’s most successful education and community engagement programs are the American Opera Initiative (AOI), the Cafritz Young Artist Program, the WNO Opera Institute, Opera in the Outfield, in-person and digital Look-In performances, the Student Dress Rehearsal Program, free pre-concert lectures and post-show Q&As after many shows, the WNO Young Associates program, and the Let’s Go There discussion series.


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