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6.10.08

Get Rid of the WNOO

The Washington National Opera, with seven to nine productions a year, will never be a truly great opera house. For that, Washington DC is simply lacking the necessary size, cultural infrastructure, and most importantly: audience. The part of the population that would is interested in Opera is either too transient, too old, or too undemanding.

But the Washington National Opera has realistic aspirations to be one of the five great provincial opera houses in the country – behind Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, ahead of Houston, Seattle, Miami. In order to be that, to stay that, and to challenge the better known houses of cities with a greater opera tradition, it needs two things before all: A greater endowment – and a good orchestra.

A good orchestra is the basis for good opera, and it is the basis of civic pride in an opera house. Fine singers with an occasional vocal star sprinkled in are more easily undermined by a bad orchestra than they are undone by hokey production. Unfortunately the Washington National Opera Orchestra is a bad orchestra, and that’s still putting it mildly.

In fact, the WNOO is an orchestra that aspires to mediocrity – on a good day. The rest of the time they muddle around in various degrees of awfulness, and half the members don’t blush even when they scrape around at about “ghastly”. There is no realistic hope that this orchestra will ever improve to be first rate, or second rate.

The significant strides made under the lax and far-too-kindly leadership of the undoubtedly frustrated Maestro Fricke are not enough by a wide margin to allow for any more optimistic a view.

If you think this is too harsh, ask yourself this question: Would you go to a concert performance of the WNOO playing Brahms’ 3rd Symphony and Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela? You’d have to be crazy or deaf, with top orchestras like the NSO and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra available – and even the National Philharmonic or, gosh,  Alexandria Symphony Orchestra capable of doing a better job at that.

So what’s the answer? Get rid of the WNOO! Not entirely – which would be even more unrealistic than this proposition already is. But remove from them the responsibility to play for opera performances and use them for ballet and musicals, instead. Somewhat downsized, they'd get to play less, and less challenging music for which they’d be good enough, providing for quality live entertainment which is infinitely better than canned music often used in these genres. And let’s be honest: If what you are playing is Minkus or Lloyd Webber, who cares how.

What about the WNO? Why bother to have an orchestra of its own, when the NSO is just a few yards away? The NSO has the quality and potential to be an excellent opera orchestra. It would be strengthened and a better, more flexible orchestra from the extra performances and the new hires which would be necessary to handle the more of musical duties.

(Of course the NSO would never play fewer concerts per season to play opera, instead. But with a bigger staff of permanent players, the NSO could provide players for two performances in one night, at least if it’s not Wagner at both houses that night. It’s the scheduling, stupid!)

Recent concert performances of operas under Slatkin and Conlon have been among the highlights of the seasons and shown great promise. Within just a couple years the NSO could be ready to go, outclassing the then unnecessary WNOO from the first to the last note, and by several leagues.

The NSO players and the unions might complain about extra work – why add additional duties to what is a very comfortable job? But more playing and greater variety in the repertoire would do the NSO good as a symphony orchestra, while the additional work might weed out the few players who really do see making music as little more than a nine-to-five job. It doesn’t seem to hurt the Vienna Philharmonic to play a few opera performances every year (upward of 250) in its State Opera Orchestra guise, nor the Dresden Staatskapelle, or Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra… so 50 performances 50 feet over should be manageable for the NSO (if the anti-arts unions don’t block such a move) and possibly more economically more efficient for the WNO. The winners would be all in Washington who care about music in general and good opera specifically.

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