WNO’s brilliant new opera ‘Grounded’ lifts off at Kennedy Center

Renowned composer Jeanine Tesori’s latest work is a Washington National Opera co-pro with the Met, where it will open the season next year.

What a season opener! Saturday night, on the Kennedy Center’s Opera House stage, we all were taken up into the blue by a world premiere that exclaimed at once “This is opera!” and “The form is alive and well!” Indeed, if you hadn’t bought into the argument before, you need look no further—starting with a design world that is very 21st century and gobsmacking brilliant.

Imagine a bifurcated stage, not the oh-so-20th-century division of stage left and right but a platform that seems to float halfway up the vast proscenium and can dip into a dangerously raked “above world” while below sliding panels upstage serve to reveal a bar entrance, a Wyoming cabin exterior, and a series of rooms in a modest home in Los Vegas. Tony Award–winning set designer Mimi Lien delineates the above world with seemingly dozens of LED panels that fly in to meet the platform at different angles and create multiple surfaces on which projection co-designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson create montages of magical, dizzying projected images. They help the audience feel both the rush of freedom as glorious as any early pioneer aviatrix must have experienced, breaking the ceiling and soaring into the blue and the horror of a drone vaporizing “enemy coordinates” to blinding white dust.

Scene from ‘Grounded’ in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Photo by Scott Suchman.

The opera Grounded is composer Jeanine Tesori’s latest work, commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Opera (The Met) in a co-production with Washington National Opera (WNO). Our home team hosts the premiere, and it will open the Met’s season next year.

Tesori’s crossover credits include Broadway musicals Caroline, or Change; Kimberly Akimbo; and Fun Home. I was fortunate to follow the long gestation of her 2020 opera Blue with librettist Tazewell Thompson and midwifed by WNO through COVID, but I also recall one of her earlier operatic works, a haunting chamber piece about the tempestuous relationship between American playwright Eugene O’Neill and his wife, Carlotta Monterey. Grounded is on another scale altogether and, by its sheer vision and resources put to bear, joins the ranks of “grand opera.”

This time Tesori has collaborated with playwright George Brant, who first conceived of and wrote Grounded as a one-woman play. DC’s Studio Theatre presented a production of the play from London’s Gate Theater in 2014. Together Tesori and Brant examined the cost to individual psychological health during modern technological warfare, raising questions about our common humanity.

Grounded tells the story of Jess, a female fighter pilot, who, due to a “failed” one-night stand while on leave, becomes pregnant and therefore gets grounded and joins back up with the Wyoming rancher she’d met, the father of her unborn child. By the time she is ready to fly again, her daughter is eight years old and the military has moved on to drone warfare. Jess gets assigned as one of the new “chair pilots,” and it’s sold as a plum deal as she gets to go home to family after a 12-hour shift. “It’s war with all the benefits of home,” sings Jess’ Commander.

Bass Morris Robinson as Commander (above); mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo (below) as Jess with Willa Cook as Sam and tenor Joseph Dennis as Eric in ‘Grounded.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Jess is made of “top gun” stuff, and in mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo the opera world has broken out with a new model. Tall, broad-shouldered, and fit, with the requisite military-style buzz cut, she embodies the female military hero. Did I say “fit”? The demands that stage director Michael Mayer and choreographer David Neumann have placed on her, including stripping, humping sex, and throwing herself across the stage and up and down platforms in lightning time, would have daunted most opera divas. D’Angelo is a beast and can sing, it seems, in any position and at any height. Her diction is crisp, her voice strong and deliciously emotive. Most of all, we can see her intelligence, thinking through her character’s dilemmas and options, which in turn color her sound. It’s a layered, “smart” performance still all too rare in opera.

In her compositional palette for this opera, Tesori has made much use of percussion and brass as befits the world of the military, and her writing for the male chorus bears additional eclectic experimenting with sound, including low rumbling, droning, and insect-like buzzing, but there are also military Jody songs and lyrical passages featuring tight harmonies. Conductor Daniela Candillari makes her WNO debut with this opera and leads the orchestra with assuredness, bringing out the full musical palette of Tesori’s composition.

Scene from ‘Grounded’ in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Photo by Scott Suchman.

If there are any reservations it might be in some of the setup of the situation in Act I, especially establishing the domestic world below. In opening up the play to make it into an opera, a little diffusion has taken place. Most of the other characters are not sufficiently developed. I love the performer Frederick Ballentine, and as Trainer he makes his mark vocally and physically immediately, but I couldn’t grasp quite how his character advanced the story, and he disappears all too soon. Morris Robinson as Commander was written all on one level, and the bass singer was unable to bring nuance or changes in his delivery.

Tenor Joseph Dennis made me believe his character of the rancher Eric in his first scene. I adored the moment Jess reappears into his life and he sees, then sings to, the telltale tummy “bump.” The arc he creates from pickup lover at a bar to a tender and committed partner and from loner rancher to a blackjack dealer in Vegas made me root for the many sides of this man trying to hold onto his ”fly girl.” I also found myself rooting for Sam, the daughter, played by eight-year-old Willa Cook. I love the loping cowboy song Eric sings to his daughter, and I sense Eric is a righteous partner to Jess, a western hero in his own right.

However, just as her mic was giving Cook problems at first before providing the young singer the necessary amplification boost on opening night, so I believe the unamplified tenor sound of Dennis will attain even more vocal presence in the role in subsequent performances.

Act II is when the opera as story comes into laser-like (or should I say drone-like) focus. The act opens with a crowded Vegas mall scene. Seemingly unrelated, it injects a necessary lighter and exuberant energy. Then, as if the audience has been suddenly caught off guard and inattentive, the story straps us into our seats. We are taken into the emotional journey of a character unraveling before our eyes.

Meanwhile, the story deftly introduces a new character, Also Jess, who helps clarify the disassociation of a soldier who succumbs to PTSD. Soprano Teresa Perrotta plays that other half of Jess. It is a brilliant choice, and Tesori makes this doppelganger relationship work in what opera does best, fusing two voices together. The duet writing is one of the highlights of the evening. Perrotta’s bell-like high notes and the lower rich notes of D’Angelo work together to break open our hearts.

We struggle as Jess/Also Jess struggles with being a warrior in this new world, not because she has no reprieve from her high-stakes professional job as a killer-at-a-distance but precisely because she must juggle daily her two incompatible worlds and experiences emotional whiplash. We get jittery following the dark blur of an enemy car on screen as it travels for miles without stopping. We experience the high-alert jaggedness of the sleepless but ever-more invested Jess in marking an assignment as her kill.

Suddenly, the bifurcated playing space makes shocking sense. Jess is above the peopled world below because Jess is no longer a gun-for-hire. She is playing God. She is God, deciding this day, every day, who will die.

The opera also works in the afterward, forcing the audience to reflect and grapple with the new realities of war, moral and ethical questions about not seeing our enemies and not putting ourselves at physical risk. We are in a world at war, several wars. These are important questions.

P.S. The audience on opening night of the season was younger than usual. If, as I suspect, this is part of WNO’s mission with Grounded, then bravo.

Running Time: Two hours and 25 minutes with a 25-minute intermission.

Grounded plays through November 13, 2023 (November 1 and 3 at 7:30 p.m.; November 5 at 2:00 p.m.; November 11 at 7:00 p.m.; November 13 at 7:00 p.m.), presented by the Washington National Opera performing in the Opera House at John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($45–$199, with student rush and discounts available) at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

The program for Grounded is online here.

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. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.

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

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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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