by Washington National Opera Artistic Director Francesca Zambello
At Washington National Opera we have had a pretty good track record for gender parity in leadership roles on the creative teams — meaning the directors, designers, and conductors as well as the composers and librettists when developing new works.
When we are shaping a production team, we try to think of who the best creative person is to conduct, direct, or design a certain opera. I don’t think about it like, “should it be a man, a woman, a person of color, gay, straight, or whatever,” instead, I think, “who will tell the story in the most powerful way, who will conduct it with the most interesting interpretation, and who will find a way to visually best express it?”
Maybe it is subconscious in our planning, but it seems that every season we achieve equal gender representation on all the creative teams. This is, unfortunately, not the norm in most opera companies. Most productions have been conducted, directed, and designed by men since the time of Monteverdi over 400 years ago. It was only in recent history that Margaret Webster was the first woman to direct at the Met in 1950 and Sarah Caldwell was the first woman to conduct there in 1976. I still think these dates are astounding (and depressing) when you consider most opera plots are about women, so why shouldn’t women be telling the stories? Statistics also show us that more women go to opera — and more women are responsible for buying the tickets!
So, this time around, we have two women at the helm as director and conductor as we meet our heroine, the enchantress of Handel’s opera, Alcina. For this new production, I turned to the noted conductor of Mozart and baroque repertoire, Jane Glover, to help us with this project since WNO rarely performs baroque** operas. She brings decades of scholarly knowledge and conducting experience to the production in her WNO debut. This intimacy with the repertory will also be passed onto many of our Young Artists since we have decided to perform one evening with them in the leading roles. This gives them the unique opportunity to study this repertory with a master and for you to come back a second time and see another cast of our home team!
Creating the staging and honing the dramatic intentions is the work of Anne Bogart, theater magician and superb interpreter of complex stories — from the Greeks to original contemporary works. Her unique mix of physical direction and visceral characterizations set in a stark landscape will distinguish this production from anything else in our season.
And what a cast! Ironically, it’s a superb mix of women playing women, and women pretending to be men, and women actually playing men, all with sorceress Angela Meade in the title role. Alcina is an enchantress who uses her magic powers to turn the souls of her past lovers into stone. It sounds bleak, but the exploration of the human heart with a touch of magic makes this opera and way it will be interpreted very powerful. I am thrilled to have Anne, Jane, and Angela in charge of bringing the story of this spell weaver to the stage.
* The baroque period runs roughly from 1600–1750 and features star composers Bach and Handel. It is one of the richest and most diverse periods of music.