Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
The Washington National Opera is headed to Nationals Park – via simulcast. For a sixth year, “Opera in the Outfield,” will broadcast a live performance – this year, of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” – on the big screen at Washington’s ball park. Kojo talks with the opera’s artistic director about the free event and other efforts to make opera accessible to a wider and more diverse audience.
- Francesca Zambello Director, Washington National Opera and the Glimmerglass Opera
Opera In The Outfield
Catch a glimpse of last year’s simulcast of “Don Giovani”
Never heard of “The Magic Flute?” Here’s a trailer for WNO’s upcoming series of performances
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 and American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, we'll explore how a man learned to recognize the benefits of uncertainty after a season spent on his family farm. But first, there are sounds that you'll typically hear at a ballpark -- the crack of the bat, the organ playing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" and the shouts of peanut vendors moving up and down the aisles. But this Saturday at National Stadium, you can expect to hear something entirely different.
MR. KOJO NNAMDINo, that wasn't me. That's because the National -- the Washington National Opera will be at Nationals Park via simulcast for the sixth year of Opera in the Outfield. The free event will feature a live broadcast of the opera's new production of Mozart's "Magic Flute." It's part of the organization's broader effort to breakaway from opera's elitist reputation and redefine it as an art form that everyone can enjoy. Joining me now to discuss this is the company's artistic director, Francesca Zambello. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. FRANCESCA ZAMBELLOThank you so much for having me today.
NNAMDIIf you're interested in joining the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Have you gone to simulcast of opera performances like the Opera in the Outfield at Nationals Park? What was it like to experience opera outside the theater? 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Francesca Zambello, when we think of the opera experience, we might think of an elegant theater, red velvet seats, live orchestra. But how exactly does Opera in the Outfield transport that experience to a baseball stadium?
ZAMBELLOIt is another kind of live experience, I think equally exciting because you're sharing with the possible 10,000 other people around you. The experience works like this. We are live simulcast from the Kennedy Center on Saturday night, May 3rd, 7:00 pm. We shoot it and it goes out live immediately to Nationals Stadium on a huge jumbotron screen. People can bring picnics. They can sit in the outfield area.
ZAMBELLOThey can sit in the bleachers and enjoy the opera, "The Magic Flute," which will be sung in English and it also has titles underneath it, so you understand every word.
NNAMDIAnd it'll be a significant relief from the damp, wet, cold weather we've been having lately because it's expected to be good weather on Saturday.
ZAMBELLOWe're planning on good weather. We've spoken to the operatic gods and they've assured us that there will be no rain and temperatures are supposed to be in the high 60s. And it's an amazing, wonderful, communal experience to see and hear live opera and share it with everyone else around you. And the price point couldn't be better because it's free.
NNAMDIYeah, I love free. What originally prompted the Washington National Opera to take its performance to the outfield? And why have you continued the event over the years?
ZAMBELLOWell, first of all, we were very fortunate to have the generous assistance from the Mars Family Foundation to support Opera in the Outfield. And for us, it is our goal at the Washington National Opera to produce as much opera as possible that is as accessible to as many different kinds of people as possible. We are interested in presenting opera for new audiences, for families, for children.
ZAMBELLOWe do the classics like "The Magic Flute." We also do a lot of new operas and a lot of family friendly pieces and things that are really geared to people who are experiencing opera for the first time. And this is part of our mission. And Opera in the Outfield helps enable this.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, our guest is Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera. We're discussing Opera in the Outfield scheduled for Nationals Stadium this Saturday. The Nationals won't actually be playing baseball during the performance, but do you see any connection between the American pastime and opera?
ZAMBELLOAbsolutely. I think that they both are incredible live spectators sports. Opera, historically, has always had a very vocal audience. People cheer, they bravo, they clap, they boo. Not unlike if somebody hits a homerun or if somebody, you know, does something terrible in baseball, they get booed. It happens at opera as well. So I think that spectator sport joins people together and also the live experience.
ZAMBELLOI think that so many people are shut-up, hunched over at computer screen to come out and have this kind of huge experience with so many other people and hear this amazingly beautiful music. And it's a visually spectacular production designed by the Japanese American artist Jun Kaneko and it's not just seeing the show, it's everything that goes with it. The gates open on Saturday at 5 o'clock. We have a lot of pre-game activities.
ZAMBELLOThere's events for families, kids. There's just a lot to do. Parking is cheap. Parking is $10 at the Nationals lots B and C. And of course the Metro is right there. So I think that it's -- that's a lot like baseball. The concession stands are open, so can have a hotdog and a beer or you can bring your own picnic.
NNAMDIAnd of course, there used to be a time when not only was there booing and clapping in opera, but gambling used to be allowed in the theater.
ZAMBELLOOh, absolutely. And if I had my way, I'd bring it back. Historically in the 19th century, gambling used to help pay for the performances. People could gamble, they could eat. They also -- the reason that there are boxes in theaters is people used to go back in those boxes and do some other things if the part of the show was a little bit boring. I'm all for bring it all back. And I think, you know, we're bringing back a part of it here by really creating a casual atmosphere.
ZAMBELLOYou bring your picnic blankets. You wear your jeans and your sweatshirt, whatever you need that night. You bring your picnic hamper. You bring your bring. Whatever you want to bring and you sit there and kick back and enjoy the show.
NNAMDIWhat other ways are there for making opera more accessible to a wider audience?
ZAMBELLOWell, at the Washington National Opera, the ways that we are doing it are we are programming every year a holiday show that is geared to families and children at extremely reasonable prices. We are presenting certain operas in English, sung in English. Every opera also has super titles, which is like in a foreign film where even if they're singing in Italian, you can understand exactly what they are doing.
ZAMBELLOWe also have things like free lectures before every performance now, questions and answers periods with the artist afterwards. We have an amazing group of what we call our young artists. These are 12 singers who are our own kind of baseball team, our own Nationals home team. Some of them are starring in this. They also are doing a performance themselves on May 16th called the Emerging Artist Performance where all tickets are $25 or less.
ZAMBELLOThese are all the things that we are doing just in our standard rep, and then we also are doing a lot of commissions of new operas that are 20 minutes long. We have evenings of 20-minute operas, evenings of one-hour operas. Ways to introduce people to the experience and to visit the great national monument of the Kennedy Center.
NNAMDIWell, you know, one of the things about opera fans and fans of classical music is that they are often, well, obsessive about audio quality. How do you handle that at a baseball stadium?
ZAMBELLOWell, we are very grateful that we have an amazing collaboration with various oral and video people to give us the best sound quality and the best visual quality. You are really seeing people up close and 20 feet tall. Last year when I was there, when we live simulcast "Showboat," the sound quality is amazing. You can really understand it everywhere. We are fortunate to have speakers placed all over the place.
ZAMBELLOSo I think that it is not just a great oral experience, also the visual. This production is colorful and bright and vivid and has lots of magic in it like the titles suggests. There are serpents and animals, and several of the characters are birds. And so it is really a visual feast and also recommended for kids.
NNAMDII think the audio quality is what Andrea in Tacoma Park, MD has a question or comment about. Andrea, you're on the air, go ahead please.
ANDREAHello. Thanks for taking my call. And before I ask my question, I just want you to know, I'm a huge fan. I'm a designer that works all by myself at home, so I consider you one of my officemates. But anyway, I actually trained as an opera singer. I don't do it anymore and we love to go to the opera. And my husband and I were so excited with the idea of sitting outside, see the opera. We went to see "Traviata" the first year you did it.
ANDREAAnd it was just a beautiful day, but we had to leave at intermission because it was so painfully loud. We were sitting there with our fingers in our ears. It just -- we, you know, with our fingers in our ears, we were understanding the singers just fine. And we spoke to people at the Washington Opera tables on the way out and I'm just wondering does anyone else has ever said that to you?
ZAMBELLOWell, I think that you said something that tip me off right away was you went the first year. We're in season six. And trust me, we've gotten a lot better by now. And I think that the sound quality is definitely a much more a working level. And as I said, visually, you won't be disappointed. But please come and join us this year and give it another try. I think you won't be disappointed.
NNAMDISpeaking of sound, I think I'd like to hear some more. What we heard at the start of the show was your production of Mozart's "Magic Flute" which will be featured at Nationals Park this Saturday. Lets listen to a part of different scene.
NNAMDIFrom "The Magic Flute," which will be featured this Saturday at Nationals Park. We're talking with Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera. And your work for the Washington National Opera and for that matter for other opera organizations, you've been known for creating productions that appeal beyond the traditional opera crowd, like an opera that was later made into a 3-D movie. To what extent are you seeing new generations get interested in opera?
ZAMBELLOI think that we are definitely seeing new generations getting interested in opera. I think it's important to produce content that's appropriate for not just new audiences that are kids but also people who are in their 20s and 30s. I also believe very much that the generation of people who are working at home now, who are working on the internet, who are at a certain point in their life, let's say in their 50s and older where they have more free time, more discretionary income.
ZAMBELLOI'm interested in kind of a trifecta of new audiences -- children, which I believe education is a huge part of that and we are very committed to that at the Washington National Opera. We not only do shows for kids, but we've also developed our own children's chorus. And then for that new -- the people who are discovering it for the first time, let's say, who are young professionals.
ZAMBELLOWe have an amazing group called Bravo that meets, sells tickets, has functions, parties who come to the opera beforehand. And then for let's say people who are discovering it later in their life because they just didn't have time for it before, we are offering lots of educational opportunities, lectures, classes, talks. And, again, ticket pricing I think is very important. And our pricing has a very wide range. It is totally affordable. We also don't have a dress code. You can wear what you want to the Kennedy Center.
NNAMDIDoes that turn away some of your more traditional opera goers?
ZAMBELLOWell, the more traditional opera goers, I don't -- I mean I care about them, certainly, but I'm also like opera started out 400 years ago as being an art form that had all kinds of people. And when it really reached his zenith in the 19th century, opera was like movies or musicals today. It was the most popular art form. We will never reach that again I'm sure, but I do think that opera is something that can be for everyone.
ZAMBELLOThat experience of live music cannot be duplicated by going to a movie theater or downloading it on iTunes. It's just not the same thing as sharing it all in the temple. And so I think that people coming to the ballpark, they can experience it, hopefully they'll like it and hopefully they'll come see us at the Kennedy Center.
NNAMDIThe Kennedy Center took over the Washington National Opera back in 2011, when it was facing significant financial troubles. How has that affiliation transformed or shaped the organization's work since then?
ZAMBELLOIt has been a marvelous collaboration. We're very proud to be a constituent at the Kennedy Center, along with other august institutions who are part of that, the Kennedy Center. Because I believe very much that we are, as our name suggests, national. It doesn't mean that we're traveling around the country, but rather that we are producing and presenting the best of what is American, in terms of singers, directors, designers, conductors and new operas. The Kennedy Center gives us the opportunity to focus on what's great about art in America.
ZAMBELLOThey also have superb educational outreach, far greater than any other opera company. Over 7 million people a year are touched by the educational arm of the Kennedy Center. And to have that, to be under that umbrella is significant for us. And also, we now can perform in the different venues in the Kennedy Center. We use all of the theaters there so that we can produce opera for the right size, for the right place.
NNAMDIYour organization is a lot like the city of Washington, D.C., in it includes in its title both Washington and national. That's the kind of combination we're used to here in D.C. But how would you describe the opera's commitment to Washington as a city?
ZAMBELLOI think that, for me, part of the thing is to have a real civic pride about what we're doing, which is why we have enlarged our young artist program, the Domingo-Cafritz Program. These are singers who are here year round. It's a group of 12 people who are recent graduates of various conservatories, who form the core of our performing company.
ZAMBELLOThey work with the star, guest stars who come in. And they perform, not just in all our main stage shows, but in our outreach performances. And I think they really integrate into the community. I mean, you'll see them performing in -- everywhere from shopping malls to different kinds of functions in the city, not just at the Kennedy Center.
ZAMBELLOI also think that what we produce -- as the artistic director, I think a lot about it and how it relates to where we are. A lot of our new opera's, for example, have a political spin to them. They touch on relevant, contemporary issues and things that are really for this culture here.
NNAMDIYes, that's what we do. Politics is what we do.
ZAMBELLORight. And I think that opera and theater can certainly be political. It's not to say that everything we do is, but I do think that, for example, in June, we have a world premiere coming up of a new opera called, "An American Soldier," that is about the military and racial discrimination. In the fall we have a new opera about a young girl who was autistic and how music cures her. I think that a lot of our new works can have a much more of a contemporary, and often political, spin to them.
NNAMDIIn 2011, you told the Washington Post that you wanted to bring a new image to the Washington National Opera. What plans do you have for the opera in the coming months, coming years, maybe?
ZAMBELLOWell, we have definitely changed a lot, just in terms of when I talk about some of the things I've just said. The performing in English, more contemporary opera, more American artists building our own performing company. We have just announced next season. Next season we will be doing "Three Classic Chestnuts," a new production of "La Boheme," "The Flying Dutchman," and "Cinderella." And then also we're doing a lot of new and contemporary music.
ZAMBELLOWe're doing, for the first time ever, an opera in Spanish. Hopefully, we will reach a whole new Latino and Latina community. It's called, "Florencia on the Amazon," sung in Spanish by Mexican composer Daniel Catan, based on the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We also will be doing a wonderful holiday new opera based on "The Little Prince," the Saint-Exupery classic.
ZAMBELLOFor the first time ever, Washington National Opera will be presenting the opera "Dialogues of the Carmelites," written in the 20th century by Francis Poulenc, as well as some of these other -- the 20-minute pieces, which we're just figuring out what they are now, and the new one-hour commission. So there's a lot of music going on from September to May. That's my goal, is that we have something being performed every single month.
NNAMDIFrancesca Zambello previously served as artistic director of the Washington National Opera -- artistic advisor of the Washington National Opera. She is now its artistic director. Here to talk about things in general, having to do with opera, but in particular about this Saturday, at Nationalist Park, when you will be able to see -- free of charge -- "Magic Flute." Thank you so much for joining us.
ZAMBELLOThank you for having me.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how a man learned to recognize the benefits of uncertainty after a season spent on his family farm. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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