It was backstage at the Washington National Opera Gala after a star-studded evening. The stars standing outside their dressing rooms receiving backstage guests as they started to accumulate at the bottom of the stairs in their evening wear. That’s where we caught WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello, who had, as she is known to do, watched the entire show from the audience. Quickly we made her acquaintance and she showed excitement about this upcoming interview, but this cocktail hour, followed by celebrity lineup, was no vacation. For her, it’s immediately back to Cooperstown to rejoin the goings-on with her summer project, Glimmerglass Opera Festival where she is also Artist and General Director since 2010.
As the Artistic head of two thriving companies, the work is endless. So where does she begin?
The Director's Chair
“You know the director’s work, so much of it is actually done before day one of rehearsals,” said Zambello, who must show up to Glimmerglass prepped and already having done the research. “Basically I try to understand the world of a piece. The world that the composer and librettist wrote it in; politically historically, socially, you have to know everything about something before you can start to interpret it,” says Zambello. “The more information one amasses, the better you can understand or interpret something. And if it’s a new piece, of course, it’s all about working with the composer and librettist to understand, what were their intentions?"
“They’re the creators and we’re the interpreters. We just have to have the materials to interpret it,” she declared in an obvious testament to her loyalty and integrity. “After I do all the research, I like to focus on the characters. Characters are what make anything interesting. When you have boring characters you have a boring show.”
Cue the Creative Team
After she's done her "homework," a solitary experience in many cases, she starts to amass the team that will bring it all to life.
“Theater is such a collaborative effort... I then try to work with the designers to determine, where are we what are we what kind of world are we in? Is it abstract? Is it real? Is it set in a period? Is it suggestive? Is it fantastical? These are all important questions that you have to address as you’re developing something.”
What the audience sees on one night of a performance is hours of prep, instilling in each character a story about how each one got there. But Zambello's job doesn't stop in the rehearsal room or with the actors and designers or other production team members. Her position with both the WNO and The Glimmerglass Festival demands that she take on another crucial role in the development of opera - the financial aspects.
Zambello noted that while directing is very "stressful," fundraising is even more so. Opera, of course, still struggles with proper financing around the country and even at some of the more renowned companies, such as the WNO, finding the financial backing can be a truly challenging operation.
"I feel the weight of whole seasons and lots of people I’m responsible for," she noted when mentioning finding the balance between her creative and financial duties, though she noted that she relishes the challenge.
"Every day is about raising money somehow, every single day," she explained before noting the perks of taking on this position as well. "I love it because the positive side is you’re, of course, putting together all the programming and making the puzzle. I love that."
Part of piecing together the puzzle year in and year out is the programming of a season, a challenge people often overlook.
“I think of it like a dim sum platter, because the amount of subscribers who say to you 'Why do I have to see xyz again?' versus the number of people who say 'I don’t want to see a modern xyz.' I say it’s part of like the whole experience. Don’t look at a season as an offering to one, look at it as a whole meal. When you go to the restaurant, you don’t just order dessert, you order everything. It’s like cooking, you need variety, every season must have variety," she explained. "I often try to have certain themes or issues that run through a season, especially now in terms of making people realize how art speaks."
Her process comes down to very careful programming choices that appeal to the broadest range possible, but without losing artistic focus.
“I tend to have certain anchors. Certain tent poles, we call them," she said. "And they are really things like your standard piece, your 'Traviata,' also a musical. Once I have that in place, I start to look at things. Different things make you pick different things. Is this performer available and you want to do something with them? We need to do this title. Or we need more diversity in our programming of periods, everything can’t be 20th century!”
Of course, that kind of grind is made worthwhile by the fact that Zambello sees opera as an art form that is still thriving and growing.
"People are coming and the art form is still speaking to new audiences," she stated. "Look at how many composers and librettists want to write new operas.”
She added that there are lots of unsolicited submissions going around the opera world.
“My name is blah blah blah I’m writing an opera about blah blah blah. They’re writing it! They’re not looking for a commission," she added. "In the sense that they’ve already done a lot of the work. So I guess it’s the infusion of younger talent and newer companies producing in a different way that gives me a lot of optimism."
Glimmers of Progress
The Glimmerglass Festival is one of the major summer events in the US, bringing together a wealth of young and experienced talent to showcase some of the greatest operas there are. For Zambello, this bringing together of diverse talent, and nurturing the youth movement is at the heart of the Festival. Moreover, she also looks to find ways to blur the lines between opera and musical theater, creating a more expansive experience of music drama.
“That’s why at Glimmerglass in our young artist program we do this thing where we have about 50 kids and 10 of them are musical theater kids because we have a musical every summer. We put the opera singers in the musical and we put the musical theater kids in the opera and I really notice just an incredible learning curve with people that age,” she explained. “For opera singers, it’s the process that’s different. Opera singers arrive knowing their music, and actors arrive being prepared to learn their music and their lines. That’s a very fundamental difference. Eventually of course once you get actors to behave like singers and singers to behave like actors, it all goes better.”
She went on to narrate a recent experience that amplified this perspective.
“I went to 'Oklahoma!' for awhile, the rehearsal with Molly Smith, who runs the Arena Stage in Washington. I was really proud. There were a lot of opera kids doing improvs. This is so key for them to learn this. For them to think on their feet. Opera kids get so programmed in a way and for them to have that kind of freedom, I think is fantastic!”