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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.”

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‘Hadestown’ comes to the Kennedy Center

Levi Kreis discusses return to live theater



Levi Kreis is an out actor who plays Hermes in the national tour of ‘Hadestown’ soon opening at the Kennedy Center. (Photo courtesy of Levi Kreis)

Through Oct. 31
The Kennedy Center
$45.00 – $175.00
For Covid-19 safety regulations go to

Early in September at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre, out singer/actor Levi Kreis was in the audience for the long-awaited Broadway reopening of “Hadestown,” Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing musical reimagining of the Orpheus myth in which the legendary Greek hero descends into the underworld to rescue his lover Eurydice. 

After almost 18 months of pandemic-induced closure, the Tony Award-winning folk opera was back and the house was full. In a recent phone interview, Kreis describes the evening as “love-filled, and electrifying and emotional after such a difficult time.” Now, Kreis is onstage in the national tour of “Hadestown,” currently launching at the Kennedy Center. As Hermes, the shape-shifting god of oratory, Kreis is both narrator and chaperone to the story’s young lovers. 

A Tennessee native, Kreis, 39, has triumphantly survived turbulent times including a harrowingly prolonged coming out experience that included six years of conversion therapy, education disruptions, and music contract losses. He officially came out through his acclaimed album “One of the Ones” (2006), which features a collection of piano vocals about past boyfriends. And four years later, he splendidly won a Tony Award for originating the role of rock and roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis in the rockabilly musical “Million Dollar Quartet.” 

Throughout much of the pandemic, Kreis leaned into his own music and found ways to reconnect with his largely gay fan base. But he’s happy to now be touring, noting that all the “Hadestown” cast have been hungering to perform before a real live audience.

When not on the road, he’s based in New York City with his husband, classical-crossover recording artist Jason Antone. 

WASHINGTON BLADE: Hermes is the same role for which André De Shields—the brilliant African American actor, also gay, and some decades your elder won a Tony and has resumed playing on Broadway, right?

LEVI KREIS: That’s right. It’s really a testament to the creative team. Rather than laying us over what Broadway created. They’re creating a tour that’s uniquely different; still true to the beauty of the story but with a different flavor. 

BLADE: What attracted you to the part?

KREIS: First, I fell in love with the show. My own musical sensibilities understand the origins of where this music comes from. It’s very bluesy and gospel. Southern and rootsy. And that’s everything I’ve created in my career as a singer/songwriter.

BLADE: With your life experience, do you feel called to mentor?

KREIS: The biggest effort I’ve given to this narrative is being a pioneer of the out-music movement starting in 2005 which was a moment when gay artists were not signed to major labels. I want through eight major labels—when they found out I was gay things always went south. 

It’s been amazing to be a voice in LGBTQ media when no one was speaking about these things. It’s popular now, but back when it mattered it was a lot harder to start my career as an openly gay artist and speak about these issues rather than keep quiet, cash in, and only then come out. 

BLADE: Where did that nerve come from?

KREIS: Less about nerve and more about being beaten down. How many things have to happen before you give up and decide to be honest?  

BLADE: For many theatergoers, “Hadestown” will be their return to live theater. Other than it being visionary and remarkably entertaining, why would you recommend it? 

KREIS: We need encouragement right now. But we also need art that facilitates a lot of important conversation about what’s happening in the world. This has both elements.  

“Hadestown” is not a piece of art that you easily forget. You’re going to walk out of the theater with a story that sticks with you. You’ll realized that your own voice matters. There’s a part in the show, Orpheus’ song, when the gods encourage him to get the balance of the world back again by telling him that his voice matters. 

BLADE: Is it timely?

KREIS: Art is here to change the world. And this piece of art hits the nail right on the head. I’m a purist when it comes to art and song. There’s a reason why we do it. people are listening now in a way they haven’t listened before. To miss that is to miss the role of society, I think. 

BLADE: And going forward? 

KREIS: It’s going to be interesting. We could double down on super commercialized theater or we may decide to really go the other direction and reclaim innovation. That remains to be seen. 

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Book details fight to repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

Clinton-era policy was horrific for LGB servicemembers



‘Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’
By C. Dixon Osburn
c.2021, self-published $35 hardcover, paperback $25, Kindle $12.99 / 450 pages

When Senior Airman Brandi Grijalva was stationed at Tyndall Air Force Base, she talked with a chaplain’s assistant about some problems she had at home. The chaplain’s assistant said what she told him would be confidential. But when she revealed that she was a lesbian, the chaplain’s assistant no longer kept her conversation with him confidential. Grijalva, after being investigated was discharged.

Craig Haack was a corporal in the Marines serving in Okinawa, Japan. Haack, who had made it through boot camp, felt confident. Until investigators barged into his barracks. Looking for evidence “of homosexual conduct,” they ransacked everything from his computers to his platform shoes. Haack was too stunned to respond when asked if he was gay.

In 1996, Lt. Col. Steve Loomis’ house was burned down by an Army private. The Army discharged the private who torched Loomis’ house. You’d think the Army would have supported Loomis. But you’d be wrong. The army discharged Loomis for conduct unbecoming an officer because a fire marshal found a homemade sex tape in the ashes.

These are just a few of the enraging, poignant, at times absurd (platform shoes?), all-too-true stories told in “Mission Possible: The Story of Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by C. Dixon Osburn.

As a rule, I don’t review self-published books. But “Mission Possible” is the stunning exception that proves that rules, on occasion, are made to be broken.

“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) was the official U.S. policy on gay, lesbian and bisexual people serving in the military. Former President Bill Clinton announced the policy on July 19, 1993. It took effect on Feb. 28, 1994.

Sexual orientation was covered by DADT. Gender identity was covered by separate Department of Defense regulations.

Congress voted to repeal DADT in December 2010 (the House on Dec. 15, 2010, and the Senate on Dec. 18, 2010). On Dec. 22, 2010, Former President Barack Obama signed the repeal into law. 

DADT banned gay, lesbian and bisexual people who were out from serving in the U.S. military. Under DADT, it was not permitted to ask if servicemembers were LGB. But, LGB servicemembers couldn’t be out. They couldn’t talk about their partners, carry photos of their girlfriends or boyfriends or list their same-sex partner as their emergency contract.

It took nearly a year for the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to go into effect. On Sept. 20, 2011, Obama, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “certified to Congress that implementing repeal of the policy {DADT} would have no effect on military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion or recruiting and retention,” Osburn writes.

Before DADT, out LGBT people weren’t permitted to serve in the military. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was intended to be a compromise—a policy that would be less onerous on LGB people, but that would pass muster with people who believed that gay servicemembers would destroy military readiness, morale and unit cohesion.

Like many in the queer community, I knew that DADT was a horror-show from the get-go. Over the 17 years that DADT was in effect, an estimated 14,000 LGB servicemembers were discharged because of their sexual orientation, according to the Veterans Administration.

But, I had no idea how horrific “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was until I read “Mission Possible.”              

In “Mission Possible,” Osburn, who with Michelle Benecke, co-founded the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network (SLDN), pulls off a nearly impossible hat trick.

In a clear, vivid, often spellbinding narrative, Osburn tells the complex history of the DADT-repeal effort as well as the stories of servicemembers who were pelted with gay slurs, assaulted and murdered under DADT.

Hats off to SLDN, now known as the Modern Military Association of America, for its heroic work to repeal DADT! (Other LGBTQ+ organizations worked on the repeal effort, but SLDN did the lion’s share of the work.)

You wouldn’t think a 450-pager about repealing a policy would keep you up all night reading. But, “Mission Possible” will keep you wide-awake. You won’t need the espresso.

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Arts & Entertainment

NSYNC star Lance Bass & husband Michael Turchin welcome twins

Singer, husband, and popular West Hollywood nightclub owner, now adds the job of ‘Dad’ to his resume



Lance Bass and Michael Turchin via Instagram

WEST HOLLYWOOD – Former boy-band NSYNC star and co-owner of the popular LGBTQ+ nightspot Rocco’s, Lance Bass, announced that he and husband Michael Turchin are the proud parents of twins, Violet Betty and Alexander James.

In his announcement on Instagram, Bass wrote; ‘The baby dragons have arrived!! ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️ I can not express how much love I feel right now. Thank you for all the kind wishes. It meant a lot. Now, how do you change a diaper??! Ahhhhhhhh!”

The babies were carried via surrogate, the singer noted saying that Alexander, born one minute before his sister on Wednesday, weighed 4 lbs., 14 oz. Violet weighed 4 lbs., 11 oz. Bass said in his Instagram post.

His husband also announced the news on his Instagram account. “Introducing the newest members of the Turchin-Bass household: Violet Betty and Alexander James!!!! They’re pure perfection and yes that includes the dozens of poops we’ve already dealt with. Our hearts our full!!! Thank you everyone for the well wishes 🥰🥰🥰”

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