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Washington National Opera

The Washington National Opera (WNO) is an opera company in Washington, D.C., USA. Formerly the Opera Society of Washington and the Washington Opera, the company received Congressional designation as the National Opera Company in 2000. Performances are now given in the Opera House of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Opera in Washington, DC had become established after World War I and it did flourish for a time as the Washington National Opera Association [1] until the Depression and World War Two years, and into the 1960s in various outdoor opera venues. However, with the establishment of the "The Opera Society of Washington" in 1956–57, the way was laid for a company to function in the city, especially after the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971 and its move there in 1979.

After making initial appearances with the company from 1986 onwards, tenor Plácido Domingo took over as general director in 1996, a post which he held until June 2011, after which the company, which was undergoing financial problems, came under the auspices of the Kennedy Center administration.


  • The Opera Society of Washington 1
    • The early years, 1956 to 1966 1.1
    • Changes in direction, 1966 to 1977 1.2
  • The Opera Society becomes the Washington Opera 2
    • Under George London, 1977 2.1
    • Under Martin Feinstein, 1980 to 1996 2.2
  • The company becomes the Washington National Opera 3
    • The tenure of Plácido Domingo, 1996 to 2011 3.1
      • "The American Ring" 3.1.1
      • Seasons which have included important new or unusual operas 3.1.2
    • Kennedy Center takes over Washington National Opera 3.2
  • References 4
  • External links 5

The Opera Society of Washington

Paul Calloway

The Washington National Opera was established in 1957 as the Opera Society of Washington by Day Thorpe, the music critic of the now defunct Washington Star, but then the most influential Washington newspaper of its day. Washington National Cathedral, was its first music director. Together, the two set out to seek funding and they found support from Gregory and Peggy Smith who provided $10,000 as seed money for a production of Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail which would be performed following the end of their summer season (which Calloway conducted) by the Washington Symphony Orchestra.

Characteristic of Thorpe and Calloway's early years was a rejection of cuts to the scores, a rejection of opera in English, and a rejection of expensive scenery as well as of "fat sopranos" and "self-centered tenors".[2]

The pair set out to seek a new public and, beginning with the first production of Die Entführung on 31 January 1957, the company presented opera in [11]

Under Martin Feinstein, 1980 to 1996

Martin Feinstein succeeded London as General Director from 1980 to 1995 and "spent the next 16 years luring artists of the stature of Gian Carlo Menotti (who directed La Boheme), Daniel Barenboim (who conducted Cosi Fan Tutte) and Plácido Domingo (who debuted in Washington in 1986 with Menotti's Goya "[12] Feinstein brought in many young singers long before their first appearances at the Metropolitan Opera. His initiative began a Washington Opera tradition of cultivating young talent. Singers nurtured through the program include Jerry Hadley and Denyce Graves, while in 1992, he brought recently retired Berlin State Opera maestro Heinz Fricke to the Washington Opera as music director.[12]

From 1987 to 2001, working under both Feinstein and Domingo, Edward Purrington became Artistic Administrator "at the time..(when the company).. was in the midst of a dramatic expansion. By 1995, The (Washington) Post reported, seats at the Kennedy Center were “almost as scarce” as football tickets, and “usually cost more.” [13] This expansion took place during the period of Feinstein's tenure when he greatly increased the number of performances per season, which had a phenomenal effect on ticket sales (the audience reportedly grew from 32,000 to more than 100,000).[12]

The company becomes the Washington National Opera

The tenure of Plácido Domingo, 1996 to 2011

Plácido Domingo in 2008

Plácido Domingo, the Spanish tenor and conductor, served as the company's General Director until 2011. Domingo began an affiliation with the opera company in 1986, when he appeared in its world premiere production of Menotti's Goya, followed by performances in a production of Tosca in the 1988/89 season. After ten years, his contract was extended through the 2010-2011 season. Parallel to Domingo's management of the company, he has been general manager of the Los Angeles Opera since 2001.

During Domingo's tenure, because of "the company's solid reputation in the United States", a bill was sponsored and passed in 2000 in the US Congress "designating the company as America's 'National Opera' ".[14] The change of name to Washington National Opera was announced in February 2004.

"The American Ring"

The Washington National Opera originally announced plans to perform Der Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle of four operas by Richard Wagner, entitled The American Ring, in November 2009. However, in early November 2008 in view of the nation's economic collapse, the company announced that the full cycle had been postponed.[15] While the first three operas of the tetralogy have already been produced during the previous WNO seasons (Das Rheingold in 2006, Die Walküre in 2007, and Siegfried in 2009), the fourth opera, Götterdämmerung, was given in a concert performance in November 2009.

Seasons which have included important new or unusual operas

During the 2007/08 season, WNO produced three rarely staged operas: Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes were given, while the 2009-2010 season featured Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Ambroise Thomas' Hamlet. In May 2012 the Washington premiere of Verdi's Nabucco took place, directed by the rising star Thaddeus Strassberger. He placed the action at the time of the opera's premiere, 1842 in Milan. The 2014/15 includes a series of three 20-minute operas as part of its American Opera Initiative: The Investment by John Liberatore, Daughters of the Bloody Duke by Jake Runestad, and An American Man by Rene Orth.

Kennedy Center takes over Washington National Opera

With the planned departure of Plácido Domingo as General Director at the end of the 2010/11 season and the mounting deficit of $12 million, it was announced that the Kennedy Center would take over control of the opera company effective on 1 July 2011.[16]

Kennedy Center's Michael Kaiser, 2009

In the announcement, Kennedy Center President, Michael Kaiser (who formerly ran the Royal Opera House in London) saw cost and personnel savings, plus other advantages in the take-over:

In addition to using the Kennedy Center's opera house, Kaiser said he envisions using some of the facility's other performance spaces for smaller or newer operas that might not sell as many tickets. And he wants to expand the Kennedy Center's curatorial role by presenting the work of other companies, domestic and international. "I would like to bring in some really good avant-garde opera from abroad," Kaiser said in an interview this week. He expects that the company will increase its productions, back to seven or eight a year. "I am optimistic that at least by the end of my tenure, four years from now, you'll see a season that's more robust," he said.[16]

On 25 May 2011 it was announced that director Francesca Zambello would become Artistic Advisor and that the present administrator of the company, Michael Mael, would become Executive director. The company retains its 501(c)(3) non-profit status. [17]



  1. ^ Phillips-Matz, pp. 13/15
  2. ^ Phillips-Matz, p. 19
  3. ^ Phillips-Matz, p.21
  4. ^ Herbert Kupferberg in Parade magazine, quoted in Phillips-Matz, p. 21
  5. ^ Phillips-Matz, p. 27
  6. ^ Phillips-Matz, quoting critic Howard Taubman, p. 27
  7. ^ Phillips-Matz quoting Paul Hume, the Washington Post 's music critic, p. 33
  8. ^ Phillips-Matz, p. 33
  9. ^ a b c d Phillips-Matz, p. 37
  10. ^ Paul Home, The Washington Post in Phillips-Matz, p. 37)
  11. ^ a b c Phillips-Matz, p. 41
  12. ^ a b c , February 6, 2006The Washington PostAdam Bernstein, "Obituaries: Impresario Introduced D.C. To World's Stars", Retrieved 30 July 2010
  13. ^ Emily Langer, "Ed Purrington, who helped transform the Washington National Opera, is dead at 82", The Washington Post, 23 April 2012, on Retrieved 5 May 2012
  14. ^ Phillips-Matz, p. 57
  15. ^ Announcement of the postponement of the American Ring from WNO's website
  16. ^ a b Anne Midgette,"Kennedy Center to take over Washington National Opera", The Washington Post, 20 January 2011. Retrieved 21 January 2011: "In what amounts to a rescue operation, the Kennedy Center announced Thursday that it is taking over the Washington National Opera, a company that has been floundering artistically and financially for years."
  17. ^ Administration "News: Francesca Zambello Appointed Artistic Advisor for Washington National Opera; Michael L. Mael Named Company’s Executive Director" on Retrieved 11 January 2012


  • Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. Washington National Opera 1956 - 2006. Washington, D.C.: Washington National Opera, 2006. ISBN 0-9777037-0-3.

External links

  • Official website of the Washington National Opera
  • , June 1991 on bruceduffie.comThe Opera JournalBruce Duffie, "Conversation Piece: Martin Feinstein, General Director of the Washington Opera" Interview, 14 June 1990, retrieved 5 April 2010
In addition to running a fiscally sound company with packed houses, its deficit reduced by two-thirds, and exciting productions such as the city's first

George London in 1952

Under George London, 1977

The Opera Society becomes the Washington Opera

Also while under Strasfogel's tenure, the Opera Society made its move into the newly opened Die Walküre for the opera company in 1974 and was courted to become General Director for the 1977 season.

During this period of the 1970s another person was to enter the scene, stage director Frank Rizzo. There followed a stunning Madama Butterfly and other important productions and his association with the company continued into the 1980s with his introduction in 1984 of the Canadian Opera Company's surtitles system, whereby an English translation appeared above the proscenium arch.[9]

One early success was a production of Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with the composer's widow, Lotte Lenya, in attendance. She described it as "the best production she has ever seen".[9] Other significant productions followed, but, in summing up Strasfogel's success, author Mary Jane Phillips-Matz concludes that "his main achievement, though, was his artistic oversight, for by the mid-1970s critics were regularly covering the Opera Society's extraordinary programming and grants were coming in from important foundations."[9]

Kennedy Center

Taking over a General Manager in 1967 was Richard Pearlman under whose tenure were staged well-received productions of The Turn of the Screw, La bohème, and the first production of Barber's Vanessa. By 1972 Ian Strasfogel, with considerable experience from working at the Metropolitan Opera, took over the helm with the aim of giving it a "businesslike foundation"[9] "it never had in its sixteen years, in spite of the excellent productions it has often achieved".[10]

Three new faces were to bring "imagination and flair to the company"[8] during the period up to 1977 and, by that date, another new face made a short but dramatic appearance in the company's history: bass-baritone George London became General Manager.

Changes in direction, 1966 to 1977

However, as the 1960s progressed, further disasters were to follow. These included "a fiasco of unforgivable proportions",[7] an English-language The Magic Flute which caused Paul Callaway's resignation. Some drastic measures were called for.

However, there was not always such clear sailing, and the company was to experience a series of ups and downs in the first few years of the 1960s. Initially, there was further success: bringing Igor Stravinsky to Washington was the work of Bliss Herbert, then the Artistic Administrator of the Santa Fe Opera who had been involved in that company's early years when the composer regularly visited Santa Fe. However, the first Stravinsky production - The Rake's Progress - was "the most "ill-starred" opera in the Society's history",[6] largely the result of singers' illnesses. But a later double bill of Stravinsky conducting Le Rossignol (along with Schoenberg's Erwartung) was a triumph.

By this time, the attention of the national press had been caught. A December 1958 Newsweek full page article on the company was headlined "Sparkle on the Potomac" and Howard Taubman of the New York Times visited regularly followed by headlines reading "Capital Revival" and "Sparkle on the Potomac"[5]

Igor Stravinsky

Four months later, the Society staged a double bill of Fidelio; Ariadne auf Naxos; Idomeneo; a double bill of Schoenberg's Erwartung and Stravinsky's Le Rossignol (conducted by the composer); and a December 1961 The Magic Flute which resulted in an invitation from President John Kennedy at the White House for some excerpts from the opera.

The early years, 1956 to 1966

[4] However, as one critic noted: "There was no 'company' in the literal sense. Each production had to be conceived, planned, and arranged individually, and financial support had to be scraped up opera by opera. Improvisation was the order of the day".[3]

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