February 09

Wagner in Washington: The Road to the Ring

​by Kelley Rourke

“Wagner’s characters and his stories always feel very contemporary to me,” says Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director of Washington National Opera. “He’s exploring the core of what it means to be human. What is it that drives us? Is it a lust for power? An all-consuming romantic passion? Yearning for a home? We all know what it is to hunger for something, and we’ve all seen how desire can push people to do things they wouldn’t imagine themselves capable of.”

The Flying Dutchman (1843) is Wagner’s fourth opera, and his earliest work to remain in the regular repertory. Inspired in part by his own harrowing sea voyage from Riga to London, Wagner set the legend of a ghostly sea captain’s search for redemption and a young woman’s obsession with saving him. This is WNO’s third production of The Flying Dutchman, which was also seen in the 1991-1992 and 2007-2008 seasons.

Like Dutchman, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (1865) has made three appearances at WNO. With its enormous orchestra and marathon running time, Tristan feels both epic and intimate as it immerses us in the title characters’ obsessive love.

“That’s the thing about Wagner,” says Zambello. “The works are gigantic, in one sense. But in another way, they are like intimate chamber works. Most scenes have only two or three people in them. When we think of Wagner’s works, we think of overwhelming spectacle, and yes, that’s a part of what makes these pieces so exciting. But they’re also intense and truthful psychological studies.”

Next season, WNO will produce its first ever Ring cycle, Wagner’s crowning achievement. Written over the course of 26 years, the four-opera cycle tells of a magic ring that endows its owner with the power to rule the world. As gods, men, and monsters clash over ownership of the ring, they set in motion a chain of events that eventually destroys the world of the gods.

Die Walküre, the second opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, was the first Wagner opera to be produced by the company now known as Washington National Opera. Staged by Richard London, the 1974 production was among the first operas the Opera Society of Washington presented in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

In the 2003-2004 season, WNO took its first step toward a complete Ring cycle with a new production of Die Walküre, directed by Francesca Zambello, in DAR Constitution Hall. That set the stage for an entire cycle under Zambello’s direction, co-produced with San Francisco Opera. It was launched with Das Rheingold in DC in 2006, followed by a new Die Walküre (2007) and Siegfried (2009). Götterdämmerung, presented in concert here in 2009, made its debut when San Francisco Opera presented the entire cycle in 2011: “Drawing on American imagery in bold, playful ways, it presents the Ring as a story about the amassing of power and its corrupting effect, the despoiling of nature and the oppression of have-nots,” wrote The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, who called the cycle “inventive and involving.”

Partnering with another opera company was a key part of developing the production, according to Zambello. Not only did the partnership help with costs, it allowed the artists to refine their ideas along the way. “Rheingold was totally reworked in San Francisco, as was Die Walküre,” says Zambello. “We made minor adjustments to Siegfried, and of course when we get into rehearsal here with new cast members, we will continue to think about how we can present the story in ways that are even more clear and powerful.”

In spring 2016, Zambello’s entire Ring cycle will finally be unveiled for Washington audiences. “I’m so thrilled to finally bring this production to D.C.,” says Zambello. “There is absolutely nothing like immersing yourself in Wagner’s epic vision in the space of a few days. I’m also proud of what this production says about the company. The Ring is always an event because it requires tremendous resources. The amount of skill, experience, and dedication it takes to produce these four operas simultaneously is not something you find in every opera company. I’m proud of our international cast, with some wonderful American singers as well as Wagnerians drawn from around the world, and I can’t wait to hear them make music with our fine orchestra under the baton of Music Director Philippe Auguin. I feel very lucky and proud to work with the team that is making the Washington Ring happen, and I can’t wait to share Wagner’s masterwork with Washington audiences.”

Washington National Opera’s first Ring cycle begins in April 2016. For more information and tickets, visit http://kennedy-center.org/ring.

—Kelley Rourke is dramaturg of Washington National Opera.
February 09

Boat Show

​by Kelley Rourke

Many a boat has graced the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House in recent seasons. These floating worlds can serve as a laboratory for examining human nature as they place individuals—and groups of them—literally “out of their element.” In these claustrophobic, inescapable mini-societies, each with its own code, minor disagreements can flare into epic drama, and unlikely alliances are a key to survival; as The Flying Dutchman’s Daland notes upon meeting the Dutchman, “Hospitality is the sailor’s way.”

Some choose a life at sea because they wish to escape their landlocked existence. The narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, as re-envisioned in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s opera, explains his choice to join a whaling crew: “Nothing to interest me on shore. I’m someone who found himself stopping at coffin warehouses. Attending the funerals of strangers. Someone who wanted to drive off the spleen, to see the world, and to chase away a dark November in my soul.”

Others, like Moby-Dick’s Starbuck and The Flying Dutchman’s Daland, sail out of practical necessity, with hearts firmly anchored by their homes and families on land. “Through thunder and storm of far-off seas, my darling, here I come,” sings the Steersman as he draws closer to port. No such comfort for The Flying Dutchman’s title character, who mourns that home is the one place he has failed to find on his travels.

Even Show Boat’s relatively domesticated Cotton Blossom, traveling within easy reach of the Mississippi River’s banks, makes special demands on its traveling troupe, demands that set them apart from those who perform on solid ground. The floating theater’s assortment of characters, with all their desires and differences, is set in stark contrast to the elemental “Ol Man River,” who “jes’ keeps rollin’ along.”

—Kelley Rourke is dramaturg of Washington National Opera.
February 09

The Flying Dutchman: Synopsis

Daland’s fishing boat is caught in a storm. A second ship appears and its captain, a ghostly Dutchman, laments his fate: For an act of hubris he has been doomed to sail the sea eternally unless he can obtain the love of a faithful woman. Daland catches sight of the Dutchman’s ship and agrees to provide shelter for him and his crew. When the Dutchman reveals that he possesses a considerable fortune, Daland offers his daughter’s hand in marriage. The Dutchman agrees, hoping the girl, Senta, may be the one to lift his curse.

The village girls chatter as they await the sailors’ return, but Senta is lost in her dreams of the legendary Flying Dutchman. The girls tease her, warning that her fiancé, Erik, will react violently to her fantasies. Senta, however, will not be distracted from her obsession; she declares it her mission to redeem the lonely sailor. When her father returns home with his ghostly guest, Senta and the Dutchman are transfixed by each other. She pledges to marry him.

The men of Daland’s ship, together with the local girls, celebrate their ship’s safe return. In vain, they attempt to rouse the crew of the Dutchman’s ship to join them. Erik pulls Senta aside and pleads with her to reconsider her promise to the Dutchman, but she refuses. The Dutchman, overhearing only part of their conversation, believes she is unfaithful to him and, despairing, summons his crew to sail away. Senta, true to her word, follows him to her death.

January 22

Dialogues of the Carmelites: Synopsis

​Just outside Paris, 1789: The French Revolution is in full force. Arriving home safely despite the mobs in the streets, a young noblewoman, Blanche de la Force, is frightened by a footman. Interpreting the events of the day as a sign, she tells her father that she intends to become a nun. When she enters the Carmelite convent at Compiègne, the elderly and infirm Prioress warns Blanche that difficult ordeals await her. After Blanche is admitted to the convent, Sister Constance, another young novice, shocks her by suggesting they offer up their lives for that of the Prioress. Constance also tells Blanche that she has had a premonition that the two of them will die together.

The Prioress, on her deathbed, entrusts Blanche to the care of Mother Marie. In her final moments, the Prioress has a vision of their chapel desecrated, with straw and blood on the ground. As she continues to cry out, delirious, she demands an audience with Blanche, who witnesses the older nun’s final, terror-filled moments.

Sister Constance suggests to Blanche that the late Prioress was given the wrong death by mistake, one meant for someone else, who will now have an easy death. A new Prioress arrives and greets the nuns and reminds them that their most important duty is prayer.


Blanche’s brother tries to convince her to leave the convent for her own safety; she refuses. The sisters’ Chaplain tells them he has been forbidden to perform his duties and will go into hiding. Mother Marie suggests that an act of martyrdom by the sisters will make France safe for priests again; the new Prioress rebukes her, telling her God alone will decide. Two commissioners arrive, backed by a mob, to inform the nuns that the convent will be seized and put up for sale.

While the Prioress is away, Mother Marie proposes to the community that they take a collective vow of martyrdom in order to save their order and their country. A secret vote is taken, with all but one in favor. Sister Constance tells the group it was her vote and she has changed her mind. Blanche flees. Mother Marie finds Blanche, who is living as a servant in her family’s ruined home, and gives her an address where she can safely hide. Meanwhile, all of the nuns except Blanche and Mother Marie are imprisoned and condemned to death.  The sisters sing defiantly as they go to the guillotine, one by one. Constance is the last to ascend the scaffold; as she pauses, Blanche, making her way through the crowd, catches her eye. Constance continues and Blanche follows.

January 22

Francis Poulenc and Dialogues of the Carmelites

​by Kelley Rourke

The works of largely self-taught composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) are as varied as the preoccupations of the man himself. His earliest works to receive a public hearing were for voice and piano, and over the course of his career he wrote around 150 songs. The apparent simplicity of his melodies, so closely fitted to their texts, belies their meticulous craft. Poulenc’s musical settings of the sexy, subversive, and surreal verses of contemporary poets (Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard, Jean Cocteau, and Louise de Vilmorin, among others) seem absolutely inevitable. His first opera, based on Apollinaire’s play Les mamelles de Tirésias (“The Breasts of Tiresias”), sparkles with the same high spirits and sly sensuality that animate his miniature masterpieces.
In 1936, after a friend was killed in a violent car crash, Poulenc first visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Rocamadour; his Litanies à la Vierge Noire (“Litanies of the Black Virgin”) were inspired by the statue of the Black Madonna there. “In that work I tried to get across the atmosphere of ‘peasant devotion’ that had struck me so forcibly in that lofty chapel,” Poulenc later said. A lifelong Catholic, Poulenc began making regular pilgrimages to Rocamadour. In 1937 he brought forth his Mass in G; it was followed by a number of other religious works, including Quatre motets pour un temps de pénitence (1938-39), Exultate Deo (1941), Salve Regina (1941), Stabat Mater (1950), Gloria (1959), and Hodie Christus Natus Est (1952), among others.
When Poulenc was approached to write a new ballet for La Scala, he proposed an opera instead. Ricordi, his publisher, suggested a treatment of the story of the Carmelites of Compiègne. After trying his hand at a few scenes to ensure he could find the right tone, he proceeded, finishing his second opera in 1956.
Dialogues of the Carmelites was first heard in an Italian translation at La Scala, as Poulenc felt it necessary that the work, so reliant on subtle verbal arguments, be performed in the language of the audience. Five months after its La Scala premiere, Dialogues was presented in French in Paris. Later that year, a young Leontyne Price took the stage as Madame Lidoine in an English-language performance at San Francisco Opera. 
Poulenc’s opera is driven forward less by suspense than by the characters’ struggle to understand how they must live—and how they must die—in a world that has fallen to chaos. The dialogues of these Carmelites—about prayer, heroism, and grace—are the heart of the opera. Having spent her days in prayer and contemplation, each nun comes to her own hard-fought understanding and convictions, which may or may not be shared by those around her.
Composer Ned Rorem neatly summed up Poulenc as “deeply devout and uncontrollably sensual.” Poulenc’s simultaneous embrace of the suggestive and the sacred may seem a paradox, but, to borrow a phrase from Walt Whitman, we all contain multitudes, and nowhere is that more apparent than in Blanche’s courageous fear; Mother Marie’s devotion and pride; Sister Constance’s delight in austerity.
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
January 22

The Carmelites of Compiègne

​by Kelley Rourke
“...with his gentle hand he wounded my neck and suspended all my senses. I remained, lost in oblivion, my face resting on the Beloved. Everything ceased and I abandoned myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.”

—Saint John of the Cross

Prayer and contemplation are at the heart of the Carmelite Order, which counts two of the great mystic saints, John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila, among its members. The Order takes its name from Mount Carmel, a site associated with the prophet Elijah that has been home to a Catholic religious order since at least the 12th century. The first settlements of Carmelite friars appeared in France in 1244; by the end of the 13th century, there were around 150 Carmelite houses scattered throughout Europe.
The Carmelite monastery in Compiègne, France, was founded in 1641. A century and a half later, the cloistered community there, along with religious orders throughout France, came under attack. A little more than three months after the fall of the Bastille, the taking of religious vows was forbidden in France. Shortly afterwards, church property was confiscated and declared property of the state. Believing that no one could willingly live under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, authorities interrogated members of religious orders one by one, seeking to “liberate” them from their bonds.
When Compiègne’s Madame de Croissy was summoned, she delivered her response in the form of a poem, written in advance, which read, in part: “How false are the judgments that the world makes of us!...I despise its pride, I consider its hatred an honor; and I prefer my chains to its spurious freedom.” Unlike her operatic counterpart, Madame de Croissy lived through the years of terror and eventually went to the guillotine with her sisters.
The Carmelite seeks freedom to surrender to the will of God. As Teresa of Ávila wrote, “It is presumptuous in me to wish to choose my path, because I cannot tell which path is best for me. I must leave it to the Lord, who knows me, to lead me by the path which is best for me, so that in all things His will may be done.”
And there was the paradox for the Carmelites of Compiègne, who sought to live a life of prayer and sacrifice, yet could not actively seek any fate other than that which God allowed them. Gertrude von Le Fort’s novella, The Song at the Scaffold, is the fictionalized version of the sisters’ tale that inspired a screenplay by George Bernanos, which in turn inspired the opera by Francis Poulenc. Its most significant invention is the character of Blanche de la Force, a fearful young novice who eludes arrest but appears at the last moment to follow her sisters to the guillotine.
Four of the nuns in the novella had direct historical parallels: Madame de Croissy, the elderly Prioress; Madame Lidoine, the Prioress who succeeded her; Sister Marie of the Incarnation; and Sister Constance. After the nuns were expelled from their convent, Madame Lidoine proposed that each member of the community make a daily offering of herself to God, body and soul, in a “holocaust” to restore peace to France. Like her fictional counterpart, however, she stopped short of urging a vow of martyrdom. The heroic end so desired by Mother Marie of the Incarnation was to come to her sisters, although not to her, as she was away at the time of the arrest. Her great sacrifice was to live, to serve as custodian of the story of her sisters’ dramatic end.
The Carmelites of Compiègne were “tried” and sentenced to death in 1794. They began singing together in the open cart that took them to the guillotine, a journey of well over an hour. Sister Constance, the young novice, was allowed to go to the scaffold first, so that she need not endure the deaths of her sisters. The law had prevented her from taking her final vows as a Carmelite; she made them as her last earthly act before receiving the Prioress’s blessing and walking calmly to her death, singing all the while. One by one, the nuns received their Mother’s blessing and walked forward. The crowd, ordinarily a mass of jeering hostility, witnessed in stunned silence as the blade cut off each voice. The Prioress was the last to ascend the scaffold.
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
October 16

Bohemia 2014

“Today, as of old, every man who enters on an artistic career, without any other means of livelihood than his art itself, will be forced to walk in the paths of Bohemia. The greatest number of our contemporaries who display the noblest blazonry of art have been Bohemians, and amidst their calm and prosperous glory they often recall, perhaps with regret, the time when, climbing the verdant slope of youth, they had no other fortune in the sunshine of their twenty years than courage, which is the virtue of the young, and hope, which is the wealth of the poor.”
—Henry Murger, Scènes de la vie de bohème
Making a living as an artist has never been easy. According to data compiled by the National Endowment for the Arts, there are 2.1 million artists in the U.S. workforce, and just over one-third of them are self-employed. For the emerging artist, the gaps between engagements can be longer than one would like, and the expenses significant.
A typical college graduate may expect to spend a few months interviewing before settling into a job for several years; an opera singer who wins a role in an upcoming production is employed for only a few weeks before the cycle of auditions begins again. Landing a spot in a long-term program like WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program is a tremendous coup.
“There are so many talented young singers graduating from American conservatories,” says Michael Heaston, who directs both WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program and The Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists Program. “But those first few years after graduation are tough. It’s difficult to find work, and it’s expensive to stay in the game—in addition to covering their living expenses, singers need to spend money on voice lessons, audition and concert attire, scores, and travel. Programs like ours alleviate the financial pressure so they can focus on the art. We also provide them with the training they need to take their performances to the next level.”
“I feel like I won the YAP lottery,” says Christian Bowers, who sings Schaunard in WNO’s new production of La bohème. “I did the programs at Sarasota Opera, Santa Fe Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, and now Washington. I haven’t really had any big gaps in employment. I have plenty of friends who have had to walk dogs or babysit to cover their expenses.”
Soprano Jacqueline Echols, who worked as a K-12 music teacher for several years before deciding to pursue performance studies at Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, says, “I wasn’t even planning to audition for any young artist programs, but my teacher told Michael Heaston he needed to hear me, so I auditioned for Glimmerglass, and boom!” Jacqueline not only landed a spot in The Glimmerglass Festival’s Young Artists Program, she was cast in the principal role of Giulietta in the company’s 2013 production of King for a Day, and was subsequently invited to audition for WNO’s young artist program. This season, she will sing the role of Musetta in the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance of La bohème on November 14. “If I were not in this program, I’d probably still be doing tons of auditions, or trying to get into competitions. The application fees really add up. People can spend up to $1,500 every audition season, only to get rejected multiple times.”
“The paths of art, so choked and so dangerous, are, despite encumberment and obstacles, day by day more crowded, and consequently Bohemians were never more numerous.” Henry Murger wrote those words in 1888, but anyone trying to make a living as an artist today is keenly aware that there are more artists than opportunities. Last year, Washington National Opera chose four emerging singers from among nearly 700 applicants for the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program.
The program also provides opportunities for pianists seeking work in opera. Kevin Miller began his career singing soprano with the Boys Choir of Harlem, taking his place at the piano a few years later. “When it was time for me to figure out what to do with my life, I chose music. At the University of Michigan, I realized that I didn’t like playing the piano by myself—I like making music with other people. “ When Kevin learned that it was possible to have a career as a coach/accompanist, it all clicked: “I got the opera bug when I was 12 or 13, when the Boys Choir participated in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Lake George Opera.”
An opera coach is more than a skilled pianist: he or she must be well versed in operatic repertory, performance traditions, languages, and singer psychology. “Having a good coach is extremely important in an opera singer’s life,” says Jacqueline. “You need that second set of ears, because it’s impossible to truly hear yourself. You may feel that you are singing very well, but someone who is trained to listen to the voice will always hear things that you don’t hear.”
As Kevin prepares for his own career as a coach, he is able to spend time working through standard repertory scores with renowned musicians like Louis Salemno; he also learns by watching how his mentors work with singers. “I take note of what they’re hearing, what they choose to go after. Playing for William Stone and Diana Soviero’s voice lessons has completely changed how I listen to a singer,” says Kevin. “Also, I’m getting to work with talented singers who are my age. I know we’ll be seeing each other throughout our careers.”
The Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists stay busy: “If I’m in a mainstage show, I’m in rehearsal all day,” says Christian, “and when there’s no show, I have Italian lessons once or twice a week, coachings on standard rep and whatever else I’m working on, and voice lessons. People don’t realize how much work goes into this career; if I tell someone I’m an opera singer, they say, ‘That’s nice, what do you do during the day?’” For Murger’s Bohemians, the little money they have goes to rent and food; for today’s young opera singer, the costs of education and training can exceed everything else. “I often say that Sallie Mae is like my first marriage and divorce,” says Christian, referring to his student loans. “I’ve been in school long enough to be a doctor, but instead, I’m an opera singer.” After school, singers continue to pay steep prices for regular coachings and voice lessons; at WNO, members of the Domingo-Cafritz program each receive the equivalent of more than $1,000 in coachings and lessons on a weekly basis.
Landing a spot in the Domingo-Cafritz program is an economic boost, to be sure, but there’s more to it than that, says Jacqueline: “We get so much support from the administration. Michael, Francesca, all the coaches—everyone is really pushing for us to be great. It’s an incredible team, and they work together to make sure all of us succeed.”
WNO has been training singers for more than a decade; more recently, the company began creating opportunities for composers and librettists through the American Opera Initiative, a comprehensive commissioning program. Each fall, the program presents three new 20-minute operas; an hour-long opera premieres later in the season. Composer/librettist teams have the opportunity to workshop their operas at the Kennedy Center, working with mentors that have included composer Jake Heggie, librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson.
Composer Liam Wade recalls feeling discouraged about his prospects after finishing his graduate studies. “There wasn’t too much going on. I had written a lot of songs for my friends, and I kept waiting for something to come along. I was starting to think it might be time to throw in the towel when I checked my email and found a message from Washington National Opera asking me to send a sample of my work.”
Liam’s Part of the Act, written with librettist John Grimmett, was part of the inaugural group of 20-minute operas commissioned and premiered by WNO. “It was a wonderful program—we really bonded with the singers and the music staff,” says Liam. “The librettist and I created the piece we really wanted to create. Strauss and Mozart are my idols, and I wanted to write a comic opera. At the time, WNO was doing Don Giovanni, and it was really cool to be around and spend time with that piece.”
“WNO has a great team of mentors,” says Liam. “Besides people like Mark Campbell and Jake Heggie, they have a wonderful music staff. Ken Weiss would say things to me like, ‘Maybe Shantelle needs an O vowel sound on that note.’ Ken also reminded me that Mozart, Strauss, and Verdi are my greatest teachers. I was working on one ensemble where the text wasn’t coming through, so he suggested I study some of those great ensembles where everyone is singing at once but all the words come through very clearly.”
Caitlin Vincent, who received an American Opera Initiative commission to write the libretto for a 20-minute opera in 2013, has worn many hats over the years. A classically trained dancer, she studied literature and history at Harvard and voice at the Peabody Conservatory. She now covers expenses with the help of an administrative position at Peabody. This is not unusual; earlier this year, the NEA looked at the phenomenon in a data set called “Keeping My Day Job: Identifying U.S. Workers Who Have Dual Careers as Artists.”
Just as Caitlin completed her master’s degree in music, Baltimore Opera went bankrupt. Her response? “I decided to take matters into my own hands and start an opera troupe,” says Caitlin. “I wanted to produce the work I was interested in seeing and singing. I thought, why wait for opportunities to come to me?” The troupe began with Caitlin’s original adaptations of Mozart operas (The Figaro Project and Who Killed Don Giovanni?, based on Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, respectively). In 2013, they commissioned a new opera, Camelot Requiem, featuring music by Joshua Bornfield with a libretto by Caitlin. “I think every period needs its own art. There is always room for the classics—we’ll always have Pride and Prejudice—but we need more things that speak to the world we’re living in.”
Caitlin believes her varied background makes her a better librettist. “As a singer, I have a sense of what sings well. As an administrator, I think about how I can make a piece that is as practical as possible. Sure, it would be great to have a set that is an island in the middle of a pool of water, but if my goal is to get my work in front of a lot of audiences, I need to make something that works for smaller companies.”
“We can’t teach someone how to write a great opera,” says Michael Heaston. “But we can give talented young writers a chance to prove themselves, and we can give them an opportunity to learn from some of the top professionals in this highly collaborative art form—established composers and librettists, accomplished singers, music staff, and more. As a company with ‘national’ in its title, I believe we have a responsibility to help identify and encourage emerging American talent.”
“Ever since I was 15, all I wanted was to be a composer,” says Liam. “Stravinsky once said that if you put a pig in the woods, trained or not, it will look for truffles. In the same way, I think I will always be rooting around for melodies, hearing them in my dreams. But it is nice to have a little bit of acknowledgement.”
The path of an artist is seldom easy, but, as Murger wrote: “Talent is the diamond that may for a long time remain hidden in obscurity, but which is always perceived by someone.”
—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera
October 16

A Special Time in Paris: How costumes help create the world of WNO’s new production of La bohème.

by Kelley Rourke
La bohème, the timeless tale of a group of struggling young artists, has been reinterpreted countless times since its 1896 premiere. For Washington National Opera’s new production, explains costume designer Jennifer Moeller, “the company wanted a production that felt traditional; at the same time, we wanted something that would be accessible for a modern audience.” The creative team eventually settled on the period just after World War I. “The men are wearing suits, so it is a little more contemporary, a little more relatable,” says Moeller. “It was also a special time in Paris—Hemingway was there, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Modigliani. It was an artistically exciting time, but also a difficult one. The number of people who died from starvation and disease during this period exceeded the number of people killed on the battlefield. Modigliani died at 35, completely destitute, of tubercular meningitis.”

Photos from the period were a rich source of inspiration as Moeller began to develop the look of the young artists in La bohème. “We know Rodolfo is a writer, and while you don’t want to say Rodolfo equals Hemingway, we certainly looked at photos of Hemingway and Ezra Pound. A woman known as Kiki de Montparnasse really defined so much of Parisian culture then; she was a painter, performer, and artist’s model featured in numerous portraits by Man Ray. She was our inspiration for Musetta, so when we thought about Alcindoro, we thought about what Man Ray, a successful American artist in Paris, represented.”
When Moeller begins thinking about a production, she pulls together visual research from the period; she began the process more than a year ago, and began sending sketches to Costume Director Marsha M. LeBoeuf in March and April.
“I start by looking at everything with my team,” says LeBoeuf. “We look at the designer’s sketches, the research, the singers’ measurements and photos. We have discussions about whether we will build something from scratch, modify something in stock, or make a purchase.”
Making something from scratch “is not like making a costume for your child’s school play,” says LeBoeuf. “We’re lucky to have a wonderful group of artisans who figure it out, who take us from a two-dimensional sketch to a one-of-a-kind garment in three dimensions.”
“If you’re doing a new man’s suit from 1919 for one of the cafe customers in the second act, It takes a costume tailor at least 20-30 hours to create the pattern,” continues LeBoeuf. “An assistant will cut out the pattern in muslin, which takes another 10 or 15 hours, and then it takes a couple more days to stitch the mock-up of the coat, vest, and trousers. After an hour or so of fitting time with the singer, the draper will spend another five or so hours correcting the muslin. Then the process will be repeated in real fabric. So it takes three people a full week to make a one-of-a-kind suit.”
Each costume is a masterwork in its own right, but that’s not the entire goal. “Ultimately,” says Moeller, “I want to give the characters clothes that help tell the story and inform the character. For this production, I’ve given them elegant shapes, but these are not wealthy people, so we have the costume crafts artisans distress the clothes. Everyone should look pretty dirty. We also thought about how the war affected these men. Maybe Marcello still has his military-issue boots. Maybe one of them has a limp. There is a real silhouette shift from the teens to the 20s, particularly for the women, who go from longer length skirts with high waists to more of a flapper silhouette. We begin with the longer skirts, but when the women come back later in the show, we see that shift a little bit. It helps tell us that time has passed, but it also says something about the characters. Once Musetta and Mimì take up with wealthy men, they are able to be a little more fashion forward.”
LeBoeuf, who has been WNO’s Costume Director since 1988, never tires of the process. “My favorite part, and it always will be, is the moment we introduce a costume to a singer. We’ve been working on these costumes for almost a year now, and the singers have also been working—they have their own inner vision of who their characters are. We get to show them what they will be wearing when they show the audience their character. It’s important for the designer to have a dialogue to explain the why of it. Sometimes there are problems, but mostly it’s fun to see the wheels begin to turn. Some artists will begin to work immediately, trying different movements, asking practical questions. If singers have been in rehearsals before the fitting, they may have information that will be useful to us, such as whether they need to run up stairs or have a sword fight. Maybe we will learn we need to add a pocket for a prop. Ultimately, we don’t want the audience thinking about these practical questions. We owe singers clothes they can breathe in, move in, and be safe in. We want to take care of the details so they can become the characters and the audience can absorb the beautiful singing and storytelling.”


—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg for Washington National Opera


August 15

​​A Song of the Amazon: Collaborating with Gabriel García Márquez

By Marcela Fuentes-Berain

Cinematographic tales are told through the eyes; the author imagines the story, so to speak, from a visual point of view. In the case of opera, we could say that narrative develops from auditory imagination. Rhythm and meter must serve the melody, and ultimately, they both serve the voice.

Florencia in the Amazon was created as a tribute to the great Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. Twenty years after its premiere, it now serves as a memento of both Márquez and its composer, the late Daniel Catán, a Mexican musician of audacious vision.

I had the privilege of working closely with Gabriel García Márquez, and the honor of befriending my mentor. He was a skillful writer and a creature of daylight. He woke up with the dawn and claimed that, before anything else happened, he connected his dreaming unconscious with his waking life through the act of writing. This is the moment where silence, calm, and solitude reign.

Our opera contains no direct quotes from Márquez. This meant a greater challenge for me, the writer responsible for the homage. To try to imitate the style of my outstanding mentor would have been as tasteless as impossible. Which is worse? I recently read a Buddhist/Zen aphorism, consoling words indeed: “Don’t follow your mentor’s footprints; rather, seek after what he sought.” That is what I have happily tried to do.

When I wrote the libretto I took into consideration that to sing and to tell (in Spanish, cantar/contar) makes demands on both hemispheres of the brain, each of which are also activated with the act of writing. Consciousness is present in Gabriel García Márquez’s work through both real and symbolic universes. But only through the unconscious mind can human nature be truly understood.

Our opera originates from an apparently linear story, which stretches from the two points—the two harbors—of Puerto Leticia and Manaus. The main character, Florencia Grimaldi, is a diva who was born there and belongs to the Amazon and its jungle. She left her hometown seeking fame, retaining only a murky memory of the place. Years have passed, and the long-awaited public recognition has become a burden to Florencia. Fame has invaded her world of inner emotions. She has lost her sense of identity in the process of trying to please crowds of strangers. She believes that if she can find the butterfly hunter Cristóbal—the boy who fell in love with her when her voice blossomed—she will recognize herself, and all that defines her. Instead, her journey down the Amazon will show her that true meaning lies not in a single encounter, but in the flow of events.

The other travelers are making the journey to witness the great prima donna as she reopens the Manaus Opera House with her singing, never dreaming that she is on the ship with them. The passengers hope Florencia’s singing will guide them toward a redefinition of the experience of love and happiness in relation to the present time.

The Captain guides the vaporetto and the passengers’ destiny; he maintains balance on the journey through his balmy voice and wise advice. He keeps the helm of the boat pretending to lead Florencia to Cristóbal, even if he believes that the butterfly hunter is dead. Ríolobo is also a leading character. The spirit of the river reveals itself always and forever, and, in its infinity, gives voice to nature, which is an important element in this opera. The ship is guided not only by its skillful captain, but also by Ríolobo’s timeless experience.

The two couples, one formed by youths, the other by adults, contrast with each other to express different stages of life and the experience of love. The Captain’s nephew, Arcadio, must prove to his uncle that he is capable of taking the helm and commanding the boat. Adding to this rite of passage, this character also faces the incomparable dazzle of first love. Rosalba, who is the subject of his passion, is not quite convinced by the idea of joining the adventure proposed by Arcadio. She wants to be the biographer of Florencia Grimaldi so that she can have the privilege of getting to know her closely. Because of Rosalba’s immaturity, she’s unable to realize that the diva stands before her.

Paula and Álvaro have ventured into the absurd labyrinth of power that can consume love. In their effort to dominate each other, they’ve fallen into the habit of addressing each other in opposed monosyllables. Between them sprout bitterness and resentment. They have forgotten the joy they once found as a loving couple and now habitually seek happiness from outside sources; they are traveling to Manaus because they hope the diva’s song will rekindle their love.

A cholera outbreak prevents El Dorado from landing. To Florencia, at this point, death is not considered a tragic, final experience, but one of many moments that are part of human evolution. Love is the door that connects mythical sleep and wakefulness in the hallucination of lovers who can meet, alive or dead, because the energy of their emotions. Florencia’s last song evokes Cristóbal, and she creates a magical moment of metamorphosis between Eros and Thanatos.

—Marcela Fuentes-Berain is the librettist of Florencia in the Amazon 

August 14

Embodying Florencia’s Journey

​by Kelley Rourke

Marcela Fuentes-Berain has said that nature is the eighth character in Florencia in the Amazon. In Washington National Opera’s reworking of the original production, the world of the Amazon is made present, in part, by the addition of video projections, but it is the five dancers who truly bring the natural world to life. “It boils down to theatrical interaction,” says choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, whose work was seen in WNO’s recent productions of The Force of Destiny and The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me. “The dancers allow both the audience and the principal singers to connect with the environment on a more personal level.” Like nature herself, the dancers are hard to pin down—one moment, they suggest members of an indigenous tribe, the next they are swarming piranhas or mating birds, says Fogel: “They also show us the constant, unpredictable motion of the waters, as well as the spirits called forth by Ríolobo.”

“I looked for dancers who had the ability to embody distinct aspects of the natural world,” says Fogel. “The original production used an equal mix of male and female dancers. This time, we started with the idea of all male dancers, because we wanted a very powerful, almost aggressive depiction of the Amazon. We also liked the idea that Florencia could see Cristóbal in any one of them. But as our ideas about the production evolved, I found that adding a female dancer allowed us to soften the energy. It also gave us the opportunity to explore and parallel Florencia’s journey in, for instance, a mating dance for the birds. I’m thrilled to be able to feature Alison Mixon; she is a very strong dancer who can hold her own with the men, but who can also introduce a different quality.”  

“Casting was interesting because I wanted to have as many different body types as possible,” continues Fogel, who compares the process to solving a puzzle. “Because of the array of beings and ideas they have to personify, I needed different things within the group—one dancer with more athleticism, one with more ballet experience, one more modern. Each choice informed the next. Alison brings incredible strength, much like the character of Florencia; she’s also not afraid to be vulnerable on stage. Matthew Steffens is like the Captain in that he is a strong partner and leader. Christopher Pennix is sinewy and delicate—you might even say aquatic. Durell Comedy has unlimited flexibility while Ricardo Zayas is a technical wonder; both of them can transform their bodies to represent anything a production requires.”

Before rehearsals at Washington National Opera begin, Fogel will spend two full weeks of studio time with dancers, improvising and developing the movement vocabulary to serve the story and the music. The process will be rich and challenging: “I did a lot of research because I wanted to honor the indigenous tribes the dancers sometimes represent. At the same time, there is a magical quality to the storytelling, which gives us a lot of leeway. Ultimately, it is more like a dream than a documentary.”

—Kelley Rourke is the dramaturg of Washington National Opera

1 - 10Next