The first-ever performance of “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein musical, was staged at Washington’s National Theater in its pre-Broadway tryouts in the spring of 1927.
Its plot threads of racism and addiction were daring at the time, and the chorus of 96 singers of mixed races onstage caused surprise.
Francesca Zambello’s Washington National Opera production of “Show Boat” opening Saturday at the Kennedy Center has a chorus of 100, half of them black — a fact that any modern audience will take in their stride.
But “Show Boat” remains a seminal piece of American musical theater with a powerful story and unforgettable music.
“It’s a wonderful piece, so sophisticated and so passion-filled all at once,” Ms. Zambello said. “It’s much closer to an opera than a musical.”
In one respect, “Show Boat” is Ms. Zambello’s directing debut in her role as artistic director of the WNO, succeeding Placido Domingo. But she was a known quantity to Washington audiences from her daring 2009 version of Richard Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” for the WNO, which had to be shelved as a result of the company’s money problems after three of the four individual operas had been staged.
She also had a hand in programming for more recent seasons as artistic adviser, prior to her full appointment after the WNO was merged with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts last year.
The merger was “the best thing that happened to the company,” Ms. Zambello said. “We’re in a unique situation of having different venues to perform in.”
In June, the WNO will stage “Approaching Ali,” a new opera by D.J. Sparr, at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater. It’s all part of Ms. Zambello’s strategy to take the company in new directions and to “make opera resonate in the capital,” she added.
Her Wagner “Ring” will be revived and performed in full in 2016, but for the moment, Ms. Zambello said, “Wagner is in the parking lot of my mind” while she works on the 2013-14 season. Her concept of time, she said, is divided into three sections: “tomorrow, next season and then beyond.”
In the coming season, she will direct a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (The Force of Destiny) — the WNO’s bicentennial tribute to the Italian composer, who was born in 1813.
Ms. Zambello moves easily from operas to musicals. She has directed Irving Berlin’s musical “Annie Get Your Gun,” with the soprano Deborah Voigt as Annie. Her “Show Boat” originally was performed last year by the Chicago Lyric Opera.
“But there are a lot of changes from that production,” she said. “The cast is different. You generally keep working on these pieces and making them better.”
As with “Annie,” Ms. Zambello has cast opera singers in the key “Show Boat” roles, including baritones Michael Todd Simpson and Rodney Gilfrey, soprano Alyson Cambridge, mezzo Jennifer Holloway and bass Solomon Howard.
The “Show Boat” of the title is the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River showboat, and the narrative follows the lives of its troupe of performers over a span of 40 years from 1887 to 1927. Some of its songs, such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Only Make Believe,” have separate lives from the musical as stand-alone recital classics.
Ms. Zambello will remain artistic director of the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York, but she said she will be “scaling back” some of her other commitments to spend about half the year at the WNO.
“What interests me about the Washington National Opera is that word ‘national’ — we’ll be enhancing the role of American artists, promoting American music, and enlarging the role of the [Domingo-Cafritz] young artists program,” she said. The WNO also plans to commission more one-act operas by young musical theater professionals like the ones performed on the fringes of the current season.
“The next season,” she said, “will be, fall, Verdi and Wagner, winter, American initiatives, spring, “Magic Flute” and “Elixir of Love.” The Wagner is “Tristan and Isolde,” and the American offering is composer Jake Haggie’s opera “Moby Dick.” Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” will be sung in English, for which Ms. Zambello has commissioned a translation.
In advancing contemporary American opera, she is following Mr. Domingo’s policy of including one such work in the repertoire per season. In 2007, for example, the WNO staged William Bolcom’s opera version of Arthur Miller’s play “A View From the Bridge.”
In other respects, Ms. Zambello’s opera preferences are mainstream. Her favorite opera composers, she said, are Verdi, Mozart and Wagner. “It didn’t used to be that way — you tend to appreciate Wagner more as you get older,” she added.
She would like to stage more Handel, who is having a renascence after more than a century of neglect. “Handel is great, fluid and easy to listen to, and there are the countertenors now, a lot of young voices who can sing baroque very well, making modern productions very accessible,” she said.
WHAT: Washington National Opera production of “Show Boat”
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F Street Northwest
WHEN: Saturday through May 26 (see website for performance times)
TICKETS: $30 to $270
PHONE: 800/444-1324 or 202/467-4600