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.

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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

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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.

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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

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“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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News from Nibelheim: Creating the World of the Ring

Voss-FrancescaZambello-21FINAL_cropMany different inspirations went into the designs for WNO’s production of the Ring. Some of the inspirations used by the set, costume, lighting, and projection designers along with myself are right here in Washington and will be fun to share with you. Why not start with the first image? It’s the perfect, pure creation of the world suggested by Wagner in the opening chords of The Rhinegold.

We thought of the perfection of the natural world captured by the great German American painter Bierstadt.

There are four of his works in the National Gallery. Most importantly, there is Mount Corcoran, which was one of the opening inspirations for the natural world of the Rhine. And do not miss Frederic Church’s evocative Niagara (see below). 

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Lost in the Stars and the Quest for American Opera

By Kim. H. Kowalke, President and CEO of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

Shortly after Kurt Weill arrived in New York in 1935, George and Ira Gershwin invited him to the dress rehearsal of Porgy and Bess. “It’s a great country where such a work can be written — and performed,” Weill told a reporter, in obvious reference to his own situation as a refugee from Nazi Germany, where performances of his works, including The Threepenny Opera, had been banned. Weill opined that “if there will ever be anything like an American opera, it is bound to come out of Broadway. I’m all in favor of the Metropolitan—as a museum, but not to start a movement of an American musical theater.”

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A Story of the Human Heart

By Tazewell Thompson

Director, Lost in the Stars

 

THOMPSON_TazewellWhen I first encountered the novel Cry, the Beloved Country in high school, the searing, emotional force of the book impacted me in very hard, personal, and meaningful ways. The world outside and within my schoolroom window was filled with rage and outrage. It was the height of the tumultuous civil rights movement. I identified very closely with the brutal mistreatment of South African blacks in the novel, as day after day I read about the beatings and horrific attacks, the bombings, the unjustified incarceration of my people, the humiliation of children being denied the schools of their choice, and the assassinations of the ordinary and the extraordinary martyrs. Today I revisit Alan Paton’s novel and the opera it inspired with not so much cleansed eyes and an open heart of forgiveness and understanding — although there is that — but with a deeper sense of how these works magnify how far we, as a race of ever hopeful people, have come. In the years since these works were written, we have seen the election of a black president, the Voting Rights Act, women’s liberation, the freeing of Nelson Mandela, the dissolution of apartheid, and the legalization of gay marriage. The book and the opera have become more significant to me as great testaments of the power of art and its ability to confront injustice.

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WNO Music Director Philippe Auguin on The Ring

Wagner is a big part of your operatic repertoire. What draws you so strongly to his music?
To give a complete answer, it would be necessary to explain what a real conductor (I mean, a conductor as the composer wants him to be) is actually doing during the performance, during the rehearsals, before the rehearsals. To explain, it would need a book.

Instead, let’s use a metaphor: the conductor is a painter who sees clearly the image in his mind before making it visible for the others. Only he sees the work and sees what needs to be done to make, let’s say, the Mona Lisa, visible. This active part of the creation of the conductor grows with the richness, the dimensions, the complexity, and the length of the score, as well as the vastness of the discourse of the composer.

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Librettist Christopher Hampton on Appomattox

Christopher Hampton headshot 2_PC Tom Keller_Appomattox 15-16“Having greatly enjoyed working with Philip Glass on my first libretto (based on J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), I was delighted when he asked me to work on a second, this time an original. However, when he said the subject he had in mind was the final week of the Civil War, I was forced to admit I knew next to nothing about the subject. He seemed pleased. That’s what he wanted, he said, an objective outsider’s view.

Philip’s thought was that the principal protagonists in the war—Grant, Lee and, in the background, President Lincoln—had all behaved in an exceptionally civilised way. He wanted to make an implicit critical contrast between this and the botched and vindictive manner in which these matters have been conducted in our own era. Read more

Composer Philip Glass on Appomattox

Glass_Philip“The history of Appomattox began in 2005 when David Gockley—then head of Houston Grand Opera—invited me and writer Christopher Hampton to prepare the opera in Texas. I was interested in a southern opera company and was very happy to begin a new project with David, who had already produced three of my operas in Houston. As it turned out, the premiere of Appomattox took place with San Francisco Opera in 2007, after David moved to that city to become the company’s general manager.

The first production of Appomattox took the story from the fall of Richmond in 1865 in Act I, to the murder of three civil rights workers in Tennessee in 1965. Christopher Hampton has remained the author of the original libretto and continues as such for today’s new production. Read more

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