The nation’s capital has been an austere place for more than a year now. The pandemic turned its official quarters into a ghost town.
Last summer’s racial unrest disrupted much of what was left. DC’s vibrant social life ended. After the events of January 6, the government areas became an armed camp, complete with a protective “green zone.”
Even as other locales shed their pandemic restrictions, Washington’s municipal government held firm. Dancing was banned until May 20, while large gatherings remained severely limited.
The iconic Kennedy Center received healthy doses of federal aid, but remained a silent behemoth. A spirit of renewal came this past weekend as the Washington National Opera returned there to present its annual gala under the title “Return Victorious!,” a command taken from Verdi’s Aida that is fulfilled triumphantly. Inventively adapted for lingering pandemic times, this year’s gala unfolded with an audience of masked donors and dignitaries seated on stage facing out into the Kennedy Center’s Opera House.
Before them unrolled the first onsite live music the company has presented since March 2020 – an energetic concert starring the celebrated mezzo-soprano Susan Graham and members of the WNO’s young artists program, which was until recently named for Plácido Domingo.
Washington can rely on a devoted audience of arts patrons. Chaired by board member Michele Kang, the event surpassed both its original goal of raising $1 million and its revised goal of $1.25 million to realize just over $1.3 million – continuing pandemic and security concerns notwithstanding. Honoring Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt – a former U.S. chief of protocol – for 28 years of outstanding philanthropic service, the event gave the sense of a torch being passed to a new generation. Much of the WNO’s leadership is now young and dynamic, offering what will undoubtedly be a post-pandemic burst of energy to its art form.
Headlined by Graham – “America’s favorite mezzo,” – the concert was a jolt of champagne as fresh as any served at the reception in the Kennedy Center’s red-carpeted foyer afterward. The themes of her selections resounded with meaning. “Villanelle,” a song from Hector Berlioz’s cycle Les Nuits d’Éte, reminded us of the sensations of summer in a city where the concept of a “summer season” is a relatively recent phenomenon. She proceeded with the famous “Habañera” from Bizet’s Carmen, reminding us that honoree Lucky Roosevelt’s middle name is Carmen, and that the opera was the first she ever attended, at age 11.
Graham’s splendid career was perhaps at its most spectacular in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, in the “trousers” role of Octavian, a delicate youth having an affair with an older woman who then leaves her for an enchanting young beauty. Here she sang the opening dialogue – a vivacious “morning after” flirtation, voicing both Octavian and his older amour, since the habitually cast Renée Fleming “can’t be here.” Graham has left the role behind, but perhaps WNO, which has not performed Rosenkavalier for 26 years, might be persuaded to engage her in a new production.
Another of Graham’s career highlights was the role of Dido, the ill fated Queen of Carthage in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, a retelling of the events of Virgil’s Aeneid, which recounts the legendary founding of Rome by survivors from the Trojan War. Graham triumphed in the role in an esteemed Metropolitan Opera production directed by Washington’s artistic director Francesca Zambello nearly two decades ago. Here, her delivery of the plangent aria “Adieu, cité fière,” raised more comeback hopes.
The concert concluded with three heart-rending selections. Graham accompanied herself at the piano to “La Vie en Rose,” the tune made famous by Edith Piaf. She followed with Kurt Weill’s suddenly very meaningful “This Time Next Year” from his unfinished Huckleberry Finn. Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” reminded the avid and affluent audience of the value of music in a society that is as discordant as most can remember. Perhaps one day we will even see Domingo again.
Paul du Quenoy is President of the Palm Beach Freedom Institute. He holds a Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University. Read more here.
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