Spotlight on Robert Ainsley, Program Director of WNO’s American Opera Initiative and Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists

Before we dive into opera, tell us a little bit about yourself! When did you discover your love of the arts?

I grew up in a small city in the north of England with a lot of history – Durham, with its beautiful 1,000 –year-old Norman cathedral and castle. I was very academic and ‘nerdy’ through high school, and my big break came when I received a government scholarship to attend the private school in my hometown. Although my mum had paid for a few guitar lessons (she always harboured secret hopes that I would be the next Jimmy Page…), my first real musical experience came at 11, when the school provided me with free violin and piano lessons ‘in return’ for my singing treble in the chapel choir; it seemed like a good deal to me, and I never looked back.

By 15, I was playing the organ for the daily chapel services, taking lessons at the cathedral, and directing the school choir on occasion. Although always more of a pianist, I went up to St Catharine’s College, Cambridge both as the Organ Scholar and as a mathematician, running the music in the college. The combination did not  last – the mathematicians seemed to have a lot less fun than the musicians, so music became the focus and remained so after university. After finishing my degree, I got a call from the Director of Music at a large church in Greenwich, CT, who invited me to come over as his assistant for a year. I stayed for six, doing a piano performance degree at Mannes College of Music and freelancing as an accompanist in my spare time. These were all great years, commuting into the city, teaching, playing, learning, getting invited to the opera, helping found a music festival, and I still have many very close friends there.

I do not get back home much, as I do not have a lot of family left up there anymore – those I do prefer to visit me instead! – however, it’s always nostalgic and beautiful when I do.

Tell us about your career path leading to opera and to WNO.

In my final year at Mannes, having become a regular audience member at the Met and having worked extensively with singers of all types, shapes, sizes, and ages, I did a rough assessment of my skill set and decided to ask Maestro Colaneri (now Music Director at Glimmerglass) if I could be involved in the opera department at Mannes. He immediately set me to work playing their production of La bohème, and single-handedly taught me how to be a répétiteur for that show over the next weeks. Then one day about three months later, I played the final full piano dress, dashed across town on the bus, and took an audition for the Lindemann Young Artist Program at the Met, with zero expectation of success. Half an hour later I walked out, completely star-struck, and knowing that somehow I had gotten the job. The next two years were some of the most valuable (and stressful) of my life.

From that point on, I took a job as Chorus Master and Assistant Conductor, then Associate Music Director at Portland Opera in Oregon. This led to the chorus master position at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, to which was added Head of Music Staff later. After Portland, I took the Head of Music/Chorus Master position at Minnesota Opera, and now I am here! The administration side of things is fresh to me, and a completely new challenge which I am  enjoying getting my teeth into.

Now that you are in this new position, what are your goals for the Young-Artists program?

It is important to realize how much Michael Heaston did for this program – this is already a magnificent place for young artists to thrive, and it is important to me not to tear down any of that amazing work. I do relish the opportunities they have to actually perform on the mainstage, especially in leading roles in their own performances, and I want to see as many of those chances as possible in the future; there’s no better experience than actually going through a full rehearsal period with a performance at the end of it to work towards. I am also a great lover of song repertoire and am looking for opportunities to get more recital work into their curriculum where possible, obviously while keeping opera as the focus.

What are you most excited for this season?

The other part of my job is the American Opera Initiative, and it has been such a pleasure working with these young composers and the mentors to create these new pieces. I think it will be a very emotional moment to see them all come to life in January, with the young artists all creating the roles for the first time. It is  a major team effort just to put on an opera, never mind actually write one from scratch as well, and I think that is  the newest and most exciting thing for me this year. Unlike most of you, I’ve actually done Champion before, so that is  a known quantity for me (and it is great!)

So far, what do you enjoy most about DC? What is still on your DC bucket list?

Coming from Portland and Minneapolis (both great cities, about which I have nothing but good things to say, by the way…), I think it is  great to be back in such a diverse community. Takoma Park, where I live, has a really vibrant mix of people and cultures, and DC has that East Coast buzz and drive without the mania and aggression of New York.

I love that the buildings here are low, and that everything is free! There are still so many museums I have to visit, and so my bucket list is fairly extensive at the moment. Maybe check back with me once I have had time to explore, maybe after the summer!

Why give to the arts?

Being serious for a moment: a culture is measured largely by the quality of its art – when we stop making art, it is a sure sign things are in decline, and when we start to actively destroy it (think of Palmyra), it is a real warning. Art teaches us about ourselves, it teaches us about others, it teaches us right and wrong, it teaches us about why we are here. These are troubled times across the world, and our best weapon to combating ignorance is by acknowledging and fighting for the finest things we are capable of – and that is  our art! Want to make a difference in this world, and leave it a little better than you found it? GIVE TO THE ARTS!

Daughters, Mothers, Warriors

wno_16-17_daughteroftheregiment_620xlongFrom the playbill for The Daughter of the Regiment

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg


Much of the humor and suspense of Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment concerns the title character’s lack of “feminine” influence. Can a young girl brought up on the battlefield ever take her place in polite society?

For some legendary women warriors, the call to military service crowded out any other desire. Joan of Arc took a vow of chastity as a teenager and successfully petitioned against an arranged marriage. When she was captured and tried, the charges against her ranged from heresy to dressing like a man. Joan is perhaps the most notorious—but far from the only—cross-dressing patriot. In our country, Deborah Sampson served for three years in the Revolutionary War under the name “Robert Shirtliffe,” and once cut a musket ball out of her own thigh to avoid having her deceit discovered by a doctor.

The specific situation of Donizetti’s Marie—adoption by an entire regiment of “fathers”—was unique, but her general position was not. Female vivandières, also known as cantinières, were attached to the French army for more than three centuries.  Although they served near the front lines, their role was initially a supporting one—preparing meals, boosting morale, and the like. In the Napoleonic wars, their numbers and roles were expanded to include nursing and sometimes fighting in campaigns.

daughter_lisette_480x270Marie is hardly the only unconventional woman we meet in The Daughter of the Regiment. Although the Marquise of Berkenfield puts up a proper front, we learn that she, too, was once stirred by the rataplan of the military drum, and that Marie is the fruit of a long-ago affair with a captain of the army.

And what of the formidable Duchess of Krakenthorp? As written by Donizetti’s librettists, Jean-François Alfred Bayard and J.H. Vernoy de Saint-Georges, her role is small and rather one-dimensional. We learn only that she has the power to dispose of the Duke of Krakenthorp, her nephew, and that the vivandière Marie is found wanting. In the years since the opera’s premiere, a tradition has developed around the role, which has been assigned to everyone from retired sopranos to sitcom stars. Typically, the Duchess du jour is given an expanded scene that makes a nod to her own personality and talents. Our production will open with a Duchess who has played a pivotal role in dismantling gender-related stereotypes in this country: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While she will cede the stage to the actress Cindy Gold after the opening night performance, our version of the scene, inspired by her notorious wit and wisdom, will remain intact.


“Inherent differences” between men and women, we have come to appreciate, remain cause for celebration, but not for denigration of the members of either sex or for artificial constraints on an individual’s opportunity.

—Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, requiring the admission of women to the Virginia Military Institute

The Marriage of Figaro: Reading List!

For Further Exploration

The Figaro Trilogy: The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, The Guilty Mother (Oxford World’s Classics)
Figaro, one of opera’s most enduring characters, sprang from the imagination of French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Translated by David Coward, this volume includes source materials for the beloved operas by Rossini and Mozart.

Improbable Patriot
Not content with being a master watchmaker and plotter of plays, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais conceived and carried out a plan to aid the rebellious American colonists in 1776. Harlow Giles Unger tells the fascinating life story of the man who brought us Figaro and friends.

The Mozart-Da Ponte Operas
Mozart wrote his three most enduring operas in collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte. Andrew Steptoe explores the cultural and social context in which they were written, the practicalities of opera production in the time, and the place the works hold in the creators’ artistic development.

The Librettist of Venice
Rodney Bolt tells the story of Lorenzo Da Ponte, “Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America.”

Mozart’s Operas
Daniel Heartz’s collection of essays offers several essays concerning The Marriage of Figaro, including “From Beaumarchais to Da Ponte: The Metamorphosis of Figaro,” “Setting the Stage for Figaro,” and “Constructing Le nozze di Figaro.”

The Operas of Mozart
William Mann gives each of Mozart’s operas a separate chapter in which he considers composition process, source material, and musical analysis, as well as biographical details.

Mozart in Vienna, 1781-1791
Herbert Braunbehrens’s account of Mozart’s final years considers the intellectual, political, economic, and cultural landscape in which the composer lived and worked.

A Timeless Mirror: Finding Ourselves within “The Marriage of Figaro”

WNO_16-17_MarriageofFigaro_620x349_v2From the playbill for The Marriage of Figaro

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg


Spoiler alert: No one dies in The Marriage of Figaro.

In an art form teeming with over-the-top offenders, the characters in The Marriage of Figaro seem slightly tame—more Downton Abbey than True Crime. But the lack of superheroes and supervillains is precisely what makes Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy of manners so compelling. The emotional life of the household first imagined by the playwright Beaumarchais raises our ire, splits our sides, breaks our hearts, and sends us out of the theater with recognition of—and hope for—our shared humanity.

Read more

Revolutionary Writers: Beaumarchais and Da Ponte

D'après Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait de Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (BMCF)

D’après Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait de Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (BMCF)

From the playbill for The Marriage of Figaro

by Kelley Rourke, WNO Dramaturg


“Because you are a great lord, you believe that you are a great genius! You took the trouble to be born, no more. You remain an ordinary enough man!”

The social architecture of the 18th century put many obstacles in the path of an ambitious young man like Pierre Augustin Caron (1732–1799); at the same time, it served as the scaffolding for his climb. The playwright who gave us Figaro, the ultimate jack-of-all-trades, lived a life bursting with adventures and accomplishments, as did the Italian poet who would adapt his Le Mariage de Figaro into one of our most beloved operas.

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Ermonela Jaho | Meet the Artists

Soprano. Cio-Cio-San in Madame Butterfly.

Ermonela Jaho headshot 1

Ermonela was born in Albania, and is a graduate of Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.

This performance marks the talent’s WNO debut, although she has already wowed audiences around the world in the role of Cio-Cio-San—from London to Paris to Berlin.

A notable moment: Ermonela worked very hard to become an internationally acclaimed soprano. After entering a conservatory at 17, she was invited to study in Italy. At the end of her two-month study trip, Ermonela was determined to stay in Italy because it “is the home of bel canto,” and because Albania restricted her access to foreign operas. To continue pursuing her art—and to afford her new life in Italy—she became an au pair and lived in a hostel run by nuns.

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Arthur Woodley | Meet the Artists

Bass. Emile in Champion.


Arthur was born in New York City and raised in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

He originated the role of Emile Griffith in the premiere of Champion at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis to critical acclaim.

Fun fact! Arthur traveled the world as a student of opera. After spending two years at New York City Community College, he moved to Bologna, Italy to study at Giovanni Battista Martini Conservatory. There, he sang in an Italian rock band on the side! After leaving Italy, Arthur returned to New York City to finish his studies at Mannes College of Music.

Arthur’s most notable roles include Porgy in Porgy and Bess, Varlaam in Boris Godunov, Bartolo in The Marriage of Figaro, Banquo in Macbeth, Rocco in Fidelio, and Dick Hallorann in the world premiere of The Shining, based on the novel by Stephen King.

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Aubrey Allicock | Meet the Artists

Bass-baritone. Young Emile in Champion.


Aubrey grew up in Tuscon, Arizona and originally discovered singing at church. After high school, he attended Grand Canyon University for his undergraduate degree, Indiana University for graduate school, and was a member of The Juilliard School‘s Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program.

This performance is Aubrey’s WNO debut.

Aubrey spent over seasons with the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. His first part—while a member of the Gerdine Young Artist program—was as a customs official in La bohème. With each season, his roles grew and ranged from Zaretsky in Eugene Onegin to the Mad Hatter in the U.S. premiere of Alice in Wonderland.

Fun fact! In 2013, Aubrey originated the role of Young Emile at his beloved Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. The bass-baritone deeply connected with his character, saying, “I feel like the role was written for me.”

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Dimitri Pittas | Meet the Artists

Tenor. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.

Dimitri Pittas headshot

A native of Queens, New York, Dimitri is a graduate of The Metropolitan Opera‘s Lindemann Young Artist Development program.

This production marks Dimitri’s WNO debut as well as his debut in the role of Pinkerton.

Some of Dimitri’s most notable roles include Rodolfo in La bohème, Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, Macduff in Macbeth, the title role in Don Carlo, and Nemorino in The Elixir of Love.

Fun fact! The life of an opera singer is unlike any other. It’s unpredictable and nonstop and exciting—and this story from Dimitri encapsulates it perfectly. This year, while preparing to travel to Virginia from South Carolina for Passover, Dimitri received a call asking him to replace an ill tenor in an Opera Philadelphia production of The Elixir of Love. Always ready for the stage, Dimitri was forced to forgo his family trip and travel to Philadelphia instead. With only days to rehearse before the premiere, Dimitri saved the day. 

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Brian Jagde | Meet the Artists

Tenor. Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly.

Brian Jagde headshot 1 by Ken Howard

Brian is a graduate of The Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music as well as the Adler Fellowship Program at San Francisco Opera.

While Brian has graced many stages—from the Royal Opera House to the Teatro San Carlo—this production marks his WNO debut.

Fun fact! Brian studied computer science and business in college for two years before deciding that singing was “the coolest thing I’ve ever done.” He was then accepted into music school as a tenor, but because of the colors of his voice and the training methods used by his instructors, it was decided he was a baritone. He studied and performed for ten years as a baritone before meeting with a tenor teacher. There Brian was told—officially—that he is, in fact, a tenor. 

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