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Opera’s new artistic director focuses on homegrown repertoire



Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello, Gay News, Washington Blade
Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello, Gay News, Washington Blade

Francesca Zambello, Washington National Opera’s new artistic director, is seen here in a photo from 2007 when she directed the company’s Americanized version of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre. (Photo courtesy Washington National Opera)

Opera in the Outfield
Gates open at 5 p.m., opera begins at 7 p.m.
Nationals Park
1500 South Capitol St., SE

Washington opera audiences have always known that former artistic director Placido Domingo’s tenure with the company provided an incredible boost to the capital’s cultural scene. The tenor’s long performance career speaks for itself, never mind his respectable dabbling in conducting and even stabs at baritone roles at an advanced age; add to that his steerage of Washington National Opera onto an increasingly international platform and it was easy to wonder who could possibly fill the role after his departure.

Longtime opera and theater director Francesca Zambello, a lesbian, assumed the artistic directorship on the first of this year and she comes with a strong pedigree of her own. From the Metropolitan Opera to Milan’s famed La Scala and Russia’s Bolshoi, Zambello has made a serious stamp in the opera world over decades of work that has garnered her high accolades, including the French government’s Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres and the Russian Federation’s medal for service to culture.

Now, traveling back and forth between the New York City home she shares with her wife and their 4-year-old son, and her new residence in Georgetown, she says she’s ready to take Washington National Opera in a direction befitting its name and status in the American cultural landscape.

“We’re taking ‘national’ seriously,” Zambello says. “Focusing more on American artists, more new works and contemporary operas. That’s a big change for the company.”

The past few years have seen simultaneously exciting and predictable seasons at Washington National Opera. Big name artists — Renee Fleming, Patricia Racette, the up-and-coming Vittorio Grigolo — were often saddled with productions that hewed closely to creaky, early 20th-century performance idioms.

“We’re responding to the time and the place,” Zambello says of the company now. “Why shouldn’t we be unique and speak to D.C.? We should relate to who we are and where we are.”

Although Zambello’s directing history with Washington National Opera encompasses repertoire classics like Wagner’s famed Ring operas, her first offering as artistic director is this spring’s “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein operatic musical now playing the Kennedy Center and being simulcast live at Nationals stadium Saturday.

“There are a lot of great issues to explore with ‘Show Boat’ — racism, misogyny, civil rights,” she says, explaining that bringing this production to the D.C. audience is a way to honor the locale, something she plans to continue during her first full season, which begins next September with “Tristan und Isolde.”


YET, IT’S THE FOCUS on newer works and the development of an American repertoire that stands out in Zambello’s vision for the company. Old-school audience members can look forward to the season opener as well as Zambello’s own version of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” and a “L’Elisir D’Amore” later in the year. But those curious about opera’s evolution with an American voice will be frothing at the mouth over the Washington-premiere of Jake Heggie’s well-acclaimed “Moby Dick.”

“I’ve decided that every new work that we do must relate to something that is American — story, subject matter, composer, librettist. I think [“Moby Dick”] is a good way to lead us to the more serious issues. In the future, we’re going to see operas that touch on themes like capital punishment, the civil war, terrorism, themes in our lives that we can relate to.”

As part of Washington National Opera’s new direction, next year will also be a sea change for the boys’ club feeling that historically pervades the opera world. While women are objects of adulation when they’re on stage swooning with consumption or jumping to their deaths, it’s rare to see women leading the players and companies. The 2013-14 season in Washington features women conductors, plus the premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s family opera “The Lion, the Unicorn and Me.”

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Zambello says, adding that she did suffer at the hands of misogynist colleagues. “People don’t want to hire you. They say you’re this or you’re that — if a guy did that, they wouldn’t say that. There’s still not a lot of women running any big company; this would be about the biggest right now.”

“She has a very clear view of what she wants,” says Michael Todd Simpson, who plays the male lead Gaylord Ravenal in “Show Boat.” He first started working with Zambello as a last-minute replacement for the baritone role Escamillo in her production of “Carmen” in Sydney, Australia — a role he played again under her watchful eye three more times from China to upstate New York.

He describes what the initial audition process was like. “Francesca said, ‘Well, the first thing you need to do is lose some weight,’” he says, laughing. “She is bold like that. She has a clear vision for every aspect of the show. She’s one of those directors that knows what works and what doesn’t.”

Simpson says that for “Show Boat” Zambello auditioned everyone, right down to the chorus roles to make sure they had what it takes to bring her vision to life.

“When you have that level of detail across the board, when you walk on stage, you feel like you’re actually in the scene,” he says.

Zambello promises that Washington audiences, both hardcore opera aficionados and newbies to the art, can expect to see a range of offerings, yet all will spotlight a “contemporary approach.” Her “Show Boat,” with a large cast, vivid staging and strong dance numbers, is a primary example of what she means and perhaps envisions for the effect opera can have on audiences.

“[Show Boat] spoke to people about political and social issues,” she says of the work’s groundbreaking history in American theater. “It provided entertainment, it was something for everyone. Being here in Washington gives us a raison d’etre to really respond to the best of America.”



New book goes behind the scenes of ‘A League of Their Own’

‘No Crying in Baseball’ offers tears, laughs, and more



(Book cover image courtesy of Hachette Books)

‘No Crying in Baseball: The Inside Story of ‘A League of Their Own’
By Erin Carlson
c.2023, Hachette Books
$29/320 pages

You don’t usually think of Madonna as complaining of being “dirty all day” from playing baseball. But that’s what the legendary diva did during the shooting of “A League of Their Own,” the 1992 movie, beloved by queers.

“No Crying in Baseball,” the fascinating story behind “A League of Their Own,” has arrived in time for the World Series. Nothing could be more welcome after Amazon has cancelled season 2 of its reboot (with the same name) of this classic film.

In this era, people don’t agree on much. Yet, “A League of Their Own” is loved by everyone from eight-year-old kids to 80-year-old grandparents.

The movie has strikes, home runs and outs for sports fans; period ambience for history buffs; and tears, laughs and a washed-up, drunk, but lovable coach for dramady fans.

The same is true for “No Crying in Baseball.” This “making of” story will appeal to history, sports and Hollywood aficionados. Like “All About Eve” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “A League of Their Own” is Holy queer Writ.

Carlson, a culture and entertainment journalist who lives in San Francisco, is skilled at distilling Hollywood history into an informative, compelling narrative. As with her previous books, “I’ll Have What She’s Having: How Nora Ephron’s three Iconic Films Saved the Romantic Comedy” and “Queen Meryl: The Iconic Roles, Heroic Deeds, and Legendary Life of Meryl Streep,” “No Crying in Baseball,” isn’t too “educational.” It’s filled with gossip to enliven coffee dates and cocktail parties.

“A League of Their Own” is based on the true story of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). From 1943 to 1954, more than 600 women played in the league in the Midwest. The league’s players were all white because the racism of the time prohibited Black women from playing. In the film, the characters are fictional. But the team the main characters play for – the Rockford Peaches – was real.

While many male Major and Minor League Baseball players were fighting in World War II, chewing gum magnate Philip K. Wrigley, who owned the Chicago Cubs, founded the league. He started the AAGPBL, “To keep spectators in the bleachers,” Carlson reports, “and a storied American sport–more important: his business afloat.” 

In 1943, the Office of War Information warned that the baseball season could be “scrapped” “due to a lack of men,” Carlson adds.

“A League of Their Own” was an ensemble of women’s performances (including Rosie O’Donnell as Doris, Megan Cavanagh as Marla, Madonna as Mae, Lori Petty as Kit and Geena Davis as Dottie) that would become legendary.

Girls and women  still dress up as Rockford Peaches on Halloween.

Tom Hanks’s indelible portrayal of coach Jimmy Dugan, Gary Marshall’s depiction of (fictional) league owner Walter Harvey and Jon Lovitz’s portrayal of Ernie have also become part of film history.

Filming “A League of Their Own,” Carlson vividly makes clear, was a gargantuan effort.  There were “actresses who can’t play baseball” and “baseball players who can’t act,” Penny Marshall said.

The stadium in Evansville, Ind., was rebuilt to look like it was in the 1940s “when the players and extras were in costume,” Carlson writes, “it was easy to lose track of what year it was.”

“No Crying in Baseball” isn’t written for a queer audience. But, Carlson doesn’t pull any punches. 

Many of the real-life AAGPBL players who O’Donnell met had same-sex partners, O’Donnell told Carlson.

“When Penny, angling for a broad box-office hit chose to ignore the AAGPGL’s queer history,” Carlson writes, “she perpetuated a cycle of silence that muzzled athletes and actresses alike from coming out on the wider stage.”

“It was, as they say, a different time,” she adds.

Fortunately, Carlson’s book isn’t preachy. Marshall nicknames O’Donnell and Madonna (who become buddies) “Ro” and “Mo.” Kodak is so grateful for the one million feet of film that Marshall shot that it brings in a high school marching band. Along with a lobster lunch. One day, an assistant director “streaked the set to lighten the mood,” Carlson writes.

“No Crying in Baseball,” is slow-going at first. Marshall, who died in 2018, became famous as Laverne in “Laverne & Shirley.” It’s interesting to read about her. But Carlson devotes so much time to Marshall’s bio that you wonder when she’ll get to “A League of Their Own.”

Thankfully, after a couple of innings, the intriguing story of one of the best movies ever is told.

You’ll turn the pages of “No Crying in Baseball” even if you don’t know a center fielder from a short stop.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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Rupert Murdoch’s powers on full display in ‘Ink’

Media baron helped pave the way for Brexit, Prime Minister Thatcher



Cody Nickell (Larry Lamb) and Andrew Rein (Rupert Murdoch) in ‘Ink’ at Round House Theatre. (Photo by Margot Schulman Photography)

Through Sept. 24
Round House Theatre
4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD 20814

Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s loathsome traits are many, but his skills to succeed are undeniably numerous. 

In the first scenes of John Graham’s West End and Broadway hit drama “Ink,” an exciting year-long detail from the life of a burgeoning media baron, Murdoch’s powers of persuasion are on full display.

It’s 1969 London. Over dinner with editor Larry Lamb, a young Murdoch shares his plan to buy the Sun and rebrand the dying broadsheet, replacing the Daily Mirror as Britain’s best-selling tabloid. What’s more, he wants to do it in just one year with Lamb at the helm. 

Initially reluctant, Lamb becomes seduced by the idea of running a paper, something that’s always eluded him throughout his career, and something Murdoch, the outsider Australian, understands. Murdoch taunts him, “Not you. Not Larry Lamb, the Yorkshire-born son of a blacksmith, not the guy who didn’t get a degree from Oxford or Cambridge, who didn’t get a degree from anywhere. Not you.”

Still, Lamb, played convincingly by Cody Nickell in Round House Theatre’s stellar season-opener, a co-production with Olney Theatre Center, remains unsure. But Murdoch (a delightfully brash Andrew Rein) is undeterred, and seals the deal with a generous salary. 

Superbly staged by director Jason Loweth, “Ink” is riveting. Its exchanges between Lamb and Murdoch are a strikingly intimate glimpse into ambition involving an ostensibly average editor and a striving money man who doesn’t like people.  

Once on board, Lamb is trolling Fleet Street in search of his launch team, played marvelously by some mostly familiar actors. He makes his most important hire — news editor Brian McConnell (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) — in a steam bath. The remainder of the Sun’s new masthead falls handily into place: Joyce Hopkirk (Kate Eastwood Norris) the women’s page editor whose forward thinking is marred by her casual racism; Zion Jang plays Beverley Goodway, an awkwardly amusing young photographer; persnickety deputy editor Bernard Shrimsley (Michael Glenn) who learns to love ugly things; and an old school sports editor who proves surprisingly versatile, played by Ryan Rillette, Round House’s artistic director. 

At Lamb’s suggestion, the team brainstorms about what interests Sun readers. They decide on celebrities, pets, sports, free stuff, and —rather revolutionarily for the time —TV.  Murdoch is happy to let readers’ taste dictate content and the “Why” of the sacred “five Ws” of journalism is out the window. 

Murdoch is portrayed as a not wholly unlikable misanthrope. He dislikes his editors and pressman alike. He particularly hates unions. His advice to Lamb is not to get too chummy with his subordinates. Regarding the competition, Murdoch doesn’t just want to outperform them, he wants to grind them to dust. 

Loewith leads an inspired design team. Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s imposing, inky grey edifice made from modular walls is ideally suited for Mike Tutaj’s projections of headlines, printed pages, and Rein’s outsized face as Murdoch. Sound designer and composer Matthew M. Nielson ably supplies bar noises and the nonstop, pre-digital newspaper clatter of presses, linotypes, and typewriters.

From a convenient second tiered balcony, the Daily Mirror’s establishment power trio Hugh Cudlipp (Craig Wallace), Chris Lee Howard (Chris Geneback) and Sir Percy (Walter Riddle) overlook all that lies below, discussing new tactics and (mostly failed) strategies to remain on top.   

Increasingly comfortable in the role of ruthless, sleazy editor, Lamb is unstoppable.

Obsessed with overtaking the Daily Mirror’s circulation, he opts for some sketchy reportage surrounding the kidnapping and presumed murder of Muriel McKay, the wife of Murdoch’s deputy Sir Alick (Todd Scofield). The kidnappers mistook Muriel for Murdoch’s then-wife Anna (Sophia Early). Next, in a move beyond the pale, Lamb introduces “Page 3,” a feature spotlighting a topless female model. Awesta Zarif plays Stephanie, a smart young model. She asks Lamb if he would run a semi-nude pic of his similarly aged daughter? His reaction is uncomfortable but undaunted. 

For Murdoch’s purposes, history proves he chose well in Lamb. By year’s end, the Sun is Britain’s most widely read tabloid. Together they give the people what they didn’t know they wanted, proving the pro-Labour Daily Mirror’s hold on the working class is baseless and paving the way for things like Brexit and a Prime Minister Thatcher. 

“Ink” at Round House closes soon. See it if you can.

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Out & About

CAMP Rehoboth’s final concert of the season is almost here

Chorus performs ‘Music of the Night’



CAMP Rehoboth Chorus is ready to close out another season.

CAMP Rehoboth Chorus will perform “Music of the Night” on Friday, Sept. 29 and Saturday, Sept. 30 at 7 p.m. and on Sunday, Oct. 1 at 3 p.m. at Epworth United Methodist Church. 

The chorus will sing more than 36 song selections, including “Fly Me to the Moon,” “I Could’ve Danced All Night” and “In the Still of the Nite.”

Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased on CAMP Rehoboth’s website.

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