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Washington National Opera sings praises of bond with Kennedy Center

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When the financially strapped Washington National Opera became affiliated with the Kennedy Center a year ago, some skeptical WNO members likened it to putting one's head into the open mouth of a lion that hadn't had its lunch. Amid the hope of survival there was much talk about loss of identity.

What a difference a year can make.

As the WNO begins its second season as a Kennedy Center affiliate, the consensus both within the company and outside it is that the transition has been more successful than many had thought possible.

"The affiliation went incredibly smoothly, exceeding everyone's expectations," said Michael Mael, executive director of the WNO, on Wednesday. "There were opportunities for it to go wrong, but the Kennedy Center welcomed us like an old member of the family after a long absence. [The WNO] was never made to feel unwelcome; they embraced us."

An important element of that embrace was a commitment by the Kennedy Center to underwrite any shortfalls in box-office income.

"Everything has worked out smoothly," said Selwa (Lucky) Roosevelt, a longtime member of the WNO board of trustees. "I'm looking forward to [the WNO's] future, and I'm very optimistic."

The Washington Opera agreed, after lengthy discussions, to seek shelter under the Kennedy Center's umbrella in 2011. At that time it had a deficit of $12 million, had reduced its repertoire for the season to five operas and was about to lose its artistic director, supertenor Placido Domingo, who had announced his retirement from the job in 2010.

Public response last year to the newly affiliated company's still inherited season of five operas was "terrific," Mr. Mael said. Nine performances of Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca," for example, played to near-full houses. A brand-new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco" (with the audience joining — somewhat hesitantly — in singing the historically famous chorus "Va pensiero") also was well-received.

This year is the year of the diva at the WNO: The season opens Sept. 15 with "Anna Bolena," Gaetano Donizetti's operatic version of Anne Boleyn's tragic life and sticky end, with the American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role. A revival of "Don Giovanni" follows Sept. 20 through Oct. 13. Soprano Patricia Racette, a Metropolitan Opera regular, makes her role debut in Puccini's "Manon Lescaut" (March 2 through 23). Spring will see a new production of Vincenzo Bellini's "Norma" (March 9 through 24), with Angela Meade in the title role, and Francesca Zambello's new production of the classic American opera "Showboat" (May 4 through 26).

The popular M&M's Opera in the Outfield program of free performances at Nationals Park is to be expanded this season from one presentation to two — "Showboat" and "Don Giovanni." And the WNO signals its commitment to developing the American opera repertoire with the launch of its American Opera Initiative, designed to encourage new U.S. composers and promote American stories.

On Nov. 19, the opera will perform a triple bill of 20-minute operas by young composers based on American themes: "Charon," by Scott Perkins and Nat Cassidy, about the mythological boatman who steers the dead to the Underworld; "The Game of Hearts," by Douglas Pew and Dara Weinberg, which focuses on the lives of a group of aging widows in Seattle; and "Part of the Act," by Liam Wade and John Grimmett, with vaudeville theater as its setting.

And in June, "The Tao of Mohammed Ali: a Ghost Story," a one-hour opera commissioned from a more seasoned composer and guitarist, D.J. Sparr, will be performed.

The affiliation inevitably has brought personnel changes at the WNO, and they're not over yet. In November, Christina Scheppelmann, the highly accomplished director of artistic operations for nearly 11 years, will step down to become director of the Royal Opera House in Muscat, in the Persian Gulf sultanate of Oman.

Ms. Scheppelmann was responsible for much of the heavy lifting in choosing operas and casts. Mr. Mael said the WNO is in no hurry to choose a successor, but the company is "looking at our options."

Ms. Scheppelmann's departure brings into sharper focus the future role of Ms. Zambello, the WNO's recently appointed artistic adviser. Ms. Zambello enjoys a global reputation as a director, and the question of how much time she would devote to the Washington National Opera has not been publicly spelled out.

However, the fact that the WNO has revived plans to produce Wagner's complete Ring Cycle of operas in 2016 suggests a large commitment by Ms. Zambello. She created the Ring Cycle the WNO started five years ago but then aborted after staging three of the operas when the company ran out of funds.

Also left unfilled is Mr. Domingo's post of full-time artistic director. It's not an issue the WNO will address in a hurry — if at all.

"You can't replace Placido Domingo," Mr. Mael said. "All we can do in his absence is respect his legacy."

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