‘Songbird’ soars into Kennedy Center with slapstick and farce galore

A kooky cast of characters and ridiculous comedy make up Washington National Opera's fun night in a 1920s New Orleans speakeasy.

If you’re in the mood for hijinks and vaudevillian comedy, then Washington National Opera has just the 80-minute opera for you in Songbird, which soars into the Kennedy Center with slapstick and farce galore.

This recent adaptation of Jacques Offenbach’s 1868 operetta La Périchole comes to the WNO from the Glimmerglass Festival, where it was initially created by director Eric Sean Fogel and WNO artistic director Francesca Zambello, James Lowe, and librettist Kelley Rourke. In Rourke’s libretto, we are transported to a 1920s New Orleans speakeasy, where the liquor flows and the trumpet blows. The musical arrangements and orchestrations by conductor James Lowe completely immerse the audience in a reimagined score that fuses the best of opera and jazz. Lowe and the Washington National Opera Orchestra are the highlights of the performance — they sit upstage as if they are truly the speakeasy band, and it is magical to watch the interactions between them and the vocalists. Lowe’s take on Offenbach is a refreshing innovation that gives his music new context and makes way for fresh interpretations.

Scene from Washington National Opera’s ‘Songbird.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

Beyond the invigorated score is the convoluted plot. The original text by Offenbach, Henri Meilhac, and Ludovic Halévy was always a silly affair, and this libretto continues in that tradition. This work relies on physical comedy, alluring design, and sharp staging rather than story or poetry — its comedy is in its ridiculousness, as evident by its puzzling plot.

Isabel Leonard (Songbird) and Ramin Karimloo (Piquillo) in Washington National Opera’s ‘Songbird.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

During the overture, we are introduced to a kooky cast of characters, including starving artists Piquillo (Ramin Karimloo) and Songbird (Isabel Leonard). Piquillo wants to marry Songbird, but she points out that they do not have enough money for the marriage license, let alone supper. She sends him away from the speakeasy to find food. The Mayor of New Orleans, Don Andrès (Edward Nelson), is quite taken with her performance in the speakeasy and plans to offer her a spot in his mansion as his live-in mistress, but bartender Don Pedro (Jonathan Patton) and seemingly random passerby Panatellas (Sahel Salam) point out it would look suspicious to have an unmarried mistress, so they suggest she needs a sham husband to marry. Don Andrès agrees and put them in charge of finding some schmuck to marry her before approaching her with a chance to be his mistress and eat some shrimp cocktail. Hungry, she accepts and writes a letter to Piquillo explaining that she is “tired of starving for art” and that she is leaving him.

When Piquillo returns with shrimp po’ boys, he is distraught to read her letter while Don Pedro and Panatellas console him with alcohol and the offer of money in exchange for marrying someone as a favor for the mayor. Unwittingly, he agrees, and though he does not know his veiled bride is his beloved Songbird, they marry in a raucous, triumphant wedding song. Also, it’s Mardi Gras, because of course it is.

The plot continues to devolve from there, but there are luckily some standout comedic performances to ground the work. Nelson as Don Andrès shines — he has the gravitas of a Disney villain, and he plays the role with levity and comedy. Justin Burgess, a member of the Cafritz Young Artist Program, brings the most laughs and joy to the stage in the role of Mobster — he nails the physicality, and his presence in the ensemble scenes made the scenes feel fuller and more complete. Both Nelson and Burgess have the physical and vocal acting chops to sell the audience on the silliness. All of the Cafritz Young Artists — who play seven of the ensemble roles — gave present, engaged performances that richly filled the world of Songbird’s speakeasy with flair and fun.

The setting was enhanced by set and props designer James F. Rotondo III, who created such a visually delicious world (and shrimp). This opera would have been incomplete without the sumptuous, detailed costume designs of Marsha LeBoeuf and Timm Burrow. Each costume — save one distracting butterfly cape — felt right at home with the world the creative team had meticulously created. The beading on the flapper dresses is nothing short of stunning, particularly when twinkling under the lighting design of Robert Wierzel.

Scene from Washington National Opera’s ‘Songbird.’ Photo by Scott Suchman.

I felt inclined to actively root against Songbird’s romance with Piquillo, who is a jealous, untrustworthy person who doubts Songbird’s “virtue,” but other audience members seemed inclined to follow the constrictions of the genre. Leonard was divine as always, though she had more chemistry with bartender Mastrilla (Cecelia McKinley), or even with the shrimp cocktail, than with Karimloo, who made his WNO debut Saturday night. Karimloo, who comes from musical theater, seemed adrift vocally among the opera artists despite the production’s use of amplification. All actors wore microphones, which are not traditionally used in many opera performances, but they were also used in the original 2021 Glimmerglass on the Grass outdoor production.

While much of Rourke’s English adaptation helps contextualize the bilingual, franglais world of New Orleans, some translations felt like they missed the spirit of the original poetry. If you are a stickler for nuance in translation, some translations in the surtitles may be distracting for you, but it is an otherwise fun, harmless night at a Prohibition speakeasy with Songbird.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes with no intermission.

Songbird plays through March 23, 2024, presented by the Washington National Opera in the Eisenhower Theater at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Purchase tickets ($69–$195) at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or toll-free at (800) 444-1324.

Performed in English and French with English and French surtitles.

The program for Songbird 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.


  1. “Orchestra” members are also performers. Anyone who is performing are performers, not just vocalists. And that instrumental group is a band since it is not playing classical music. Also, an orchestra has string and wind sections in additional to the brass section.


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