W(h)ither opera at the Kennedy Center?

Tue Sep 27, 2022 at 3:27 pm
By Charles T. Downey

Has the Kennedy Center forgotten about opera in its Opera House?

In 2011, the Kennedy Center took over the operations of Washington National Opera in a merger that seemed to benefit both sides. WNO’s financial woes, compounded by the financial crisis a few years earlier, no longer included paying to rent the Kennedy Center Opera House. The Kennedy Center, the leading venue for classical music and opera in the Washington area, gained a resident opera company.

A decade later, after two and a half years of the coronavirus pandemic, many opera lovers are questioning whether the merger was such a good idea after all. The Kennedy Center’s entire cultural focus has shifted significantly during the tenure of Deborah F. Rutter, who was appointed president of the Kennedy Center in 2014. As noted at the 2019 opening of The Reach, the venue’s absurdly expensive annex, the Kennedy Center has gradually sidelined the art forms it was established to champion.

Perhaps no facet of Kennedy Center programming reveals this trend more than what has happened to the WNO season since the merger. In the final years of its existence as a debt-ridden independent company, WNO was down to presenting five operas per season. One of the promises of the Kennedy Center merger was to return the company to its pre-crisis standard of mounting as many as eight productions each season.

This idea made perfect sense, as WNO now had a dedicated performance space, the Kennedy Center Opera House, to call its own. The Kennedy Center also expanded the WNO season by clever use of the Terrace Theater as a venue to present new opera, especially with its lauded American Opera Initiative (AOI). 

Since the coronavirus lockdowns, however, the WNO season has shrunk back to its pre-merger season of just five operas, largely due to a significant change in programming priorities at the Kennedy Center.

Broadway musicals have encroached more and more on the Opera House, progressing from a few presented each season to a weighty number of touring and KC productions that are crowding out that space’s traditional tenants, opera and ballet. In the 2021-2022 season, WNO presented only one mainstage production in the Opera House, Bizet’s Carmen, in May. Two other productions were run in repertory in March in the smaller Eisenhower Theater, where the pit was too small even for Mozart’s Così fan tutte, forcing the orchestra to perform onstage.

In the upcoming 2022-2023 season, WNO has been limited essentially to only two months in the Opera House. Verdi’s Il Trovatore and Strauss’s Elektra will run in repertory from mid-October to mid-November, followed by Puccini’s La Bohème in May. A fourth production will run in the Eisenhower Theater in March, with two smaller events, including a new play with music by Carlos Simon and a night of three new short operas from AOI, in the Terrace Theater. Eight visiting ballet and dance companies each receive four- to five-day slots in the Opera House during the season, adding up to about one month of time.

What is going on for the remaining nine months of the year? 

The rest of the season, the Opera House and Eisenhower Theater will be home to Broadway musicals, one after the other. In the Opera House, instead of opera, there are long touring stretches of Hamilton (again), Wicked (again), The Lion King (again), Les Misérables (which had its American premiere at the KC), and Moulin Rouge. There are even more musicals in the Eisenhower Theater, although for shorter runs, including Dear Evan Hansen (again), 1776, and The Play that Goes Wrong, some with music by the KC Opera House Orchestra. The Kennedy Center itself mounts other productions, under the heading of Broadway Center Stage, including Guys and Dolls, Sunset Boulevard, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

By any measurement, that is a slew of musicals. The Kennedy Center was not founded for this purpose: it was not meant to compete with the National Theater or Arena Stage or Signature Theater or Warner Theater, although contemporary music was indeed an acknowledged part of the Kennedy Center’s programming.

After the world premiere of Bernstein’s MASS christened the Kennedy Center Opera House in 1971, the arts center’s opening week included the world premiere of Alberto Ginastera’s opera Beatrix Cenci; the Washington debut of Duke Ellington’s ballet The River; a concert by Eugene Istomin, Isaac Stern, and Leonard Rose; and the first American staging of Handel’s Ariodante, starring Beverly Sills.

Perhaps no event has symbolized the reconfiguration of the Kennedy Center’s priorities more succinctly than the official celebration of the 50th anniversary of its opening night. The National Symphony Orchestra offered a new performance of Bernstein’s sloppy, sprawling MASS earlier this month, delayed by the pandemic for a year after the intended date. This celebration could not happen in the Opera House, where MASS had its premiere, because Hamilton took precedence. A temporary stage space, jutting out into the first section of the house, had to be erected in the Concert Hall for the use of the dancers.

It has been reported that the Kennedy Center paid more than $50 million to present Hamilton in 2018. Yet the benefit of offering such popular shows is also easy to quantify. “With all of the activities and the people who come to see Hamilton, it benefits every aspect,” Jeffrey Finn, the Kennedy Center’s vice president and executive producer of theater, has said. “There are more people in the building, more reservations at the restaurants. There is more activity. It is so thrilling for us at the Center to see a very full grand foyer of patrons very eager to see the show. So, any Broadway hit, I use the phrase, can lift all boats.”

During the pandemic, the Kennedy Center was forced to cut back on musicals, including its second run of Hamilton, like everything else. Now that Covid-19 is in the rearview mirror, leadership is clearly doubling down on these lucrative productions, hoping to revamp the huge financial shortfall of the lockdown period and the resulting staff cuts.

It remains to be seen if the Kennedy Center’s major donors will continue to support the transformation of the arts venue envisioned by Jacqueline Kennedy into a Broadway venture. One can understand how Kennedy Center leadership was seduced by the prospect of filling its halls, restaurants, and other spaces. 

But is it right that it should do so at the expense of its opera company?

6 Responses to “W(h)ither opera at the Kennedy Center?”

  1. Posted Sep 27, 2022 at 7:34 pm by Carl Friedman

    I travel from Baltimore to KC only for opera, never for Broadway shows. I expect to see all three major operas in the upcoming season, and none of the B’way shows.

    If there were more grand opera, I would be there more often.

  2. Posted Sep 28, 2022 at 10:05 am by Jack M. Firestone

    This is a tragic turn of events at the Kennedy Center. I started attending WNO productions in the late 60s when they were still at Lisner Auditorium. I have traveled to attend numerous productions over the intervening years and am moving back to the area in 2024. WNO was going to be my home company. A three-opera season does not qualify as a major company.

    Sad that the KC and Chicago Lyric are turning to more Broadway shows that are replacing real operas. How many multi-purpose opera halls were built for the non-profit companies by their donors that are now forcing those companies out and replacing them with touring Broadway shows?

    This is a sorry trend for opera in America.

  3. Posted Sep 28, 2022 at 10:00 pm by Paul Jackson

    Your article does a nice job of tracking WNO’s demise during the late 2000’s / early 2010’s into financial ruin, when the KC stepped in and effectively bailed out the company. (Chapeau bas, by the way, to Placido and Christina Scheppelmann for the visionary leadership that turned even the most hardened opera fans into couch potatoes.)

    Given your understanding of that downward spiral, I’m surprised you place all the blame for the current spiral on the KC’s programming priorities vis a vis musicals, rather than the uninspired and uninspiring programming and casting by the leadership at the opera company–aka history repeating itself.

    Maybe Ms. Rutter hates opera and hates opera fans (I doubt it), but I’m pretty sure that if she thought Washington wanted more than 3 1/2 opera productions a year, she’d mount them. Who cares if there are ulterior motives like restaurant sales?

    The bottom line is: if people don’t want to see operas at the Kennedy Center, the KC shouldn’t program them. Or it should clean house and bring in artistic leadership that flouts typical Washington tradition and actually wants to a) lead a company and b) bring back its audience.

  4. Posted Sep 30, 2022 at 7:49 am by John Driscoll

    I’m hoping this is a strategy to put the Kennedy Center back on a more sound financial footing, and that they will gradually increase the number of opera productions. It will likely prove too tempting to have more musicals and fewer operas or other classical performances in the long run.

    I was at the NSO last night and saw a terrific performance of John Adams’s violin concerto by Leila Josefowicz. The hall was less than half full.

    By contrast, Hamilton in the Opera House was apparently sold out. I’m grateful that there are smaller companies like UrbanArias and the IN Series that put on inventive productions at a high level of artistry, and that Opera Philadelphia, which can do somewhat larger productions, is not far away.

    But, as you say, WNO is really the only local company that can put on full-scale productions. It’s a loss when they are unwilling or unable to do so.

  5. Posted Oct 04, 2022 at 8:58 pm by S Alba

    Thank you for writing this article and giving voice to fans who have interests beyond B-way’s popular music, or standup comedies. I hope the Kennedy Center reads this and reflects on its original vision- to preserve performing art forms.

    The Opera House is for operas and the Eisenhower Theater is for musical theater. Opera, classical music in general and dance have not been as easy to preserve as popular music and dance. I applaud every effort the Kennedy Center, WNO, NSO, their musicians, staff and donors make to do so.

    At the same time, I question the necessity of preserving popular art forms. There is a Don Quixote sculpture at the Kennedy Center. If everyone chooses the easier route and preserves popular art forms, if the Kennedy Center doesn’t choose to fight the difficult fight, who will?

  6. Posted Mar 01, 2023 at 4:30 pm by H. Klein

    Amen to Mr. Jackson’s comment. Not sure who is remotely satisfied with the WNO’s productions, artistic vision, singing, and playing. Why bother?

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