Washington National Opera appoints Robert Spano as new music director

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The Washington National Opera announced on Tuesday the appointment of conductor Robert Spano as the company’s new music director, filling a post that has remained vacant since 2018. Spano’s initial three-year term will commence in fall 2025, but he adopts the title music director designate immediately. (WNO principal conductor Evan Rogister will continue in his role through his departure at the end of the 2024-2025 season.)

Spano, 62, is a well-established conductor and music director who leads the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra as well as the Aspen Music Festival and School. He spent 20 years (and earned four Grammys) as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, for which he continues to hold the post of music director laureate. As the Rhode Island Philharmonic seeks its next music director, Spano will also serve as its principal conductor.

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The Washington National Opera post will be Spano’s first leading an opera house, though his operatic résumé is rich with highlights such as Nico Muhly’s “Marnie” at the Metropolitan Opera in 2018 (his debut for that company), and two “Ring” cycles at Seattle Opera, in 2005 and 2009. Spano’s particular penchant for the development and performance of new music from living conductors makes him an auspicious choice for WNO.

Spano made his first appearance leading the Washington National Opera Orchestra in 2022, leading the four-part “Written in Stone,” commissioned for the Kennedy Center’s 50th anniversary celebrations. WNO general director Timothy O’Leary says Spano was the “unanimous choice of all of our stakeholders.”

“Part of our mission as a national opera company is about shaping the future of the art form,” O’Leary said in a phone interview. “And [Spano] has really kind of been personified by this gift for leading new works and giving them life.”

In an interview from his home in the mountains of northern Georgia, Spano offered some thoughts on his forthcoming tenure in Washington.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: This is your first time leading an opera house. What does that mean for you at this point in your career?

A: When I was planning my departure, one of the things I was thinking was to have more time in my calendar for opera. Because I’m one of the lucky ones. We all get our labels, and in the course of my life, I was always, I think, regarded as not an operatic conductor, but a symphonic conductor. And, of course, a lot of us are not interested in being one or the other. I was very lucky, because I managed to keep my operatic life alive the whole time with two or three productions a year. But this will be the first time with an opera house. It’s like a miracle.

Q: So why is that? Beyond the fact that it demands a distinct set of skills, why is the distinction between symphonic and operatic conductor so pervasive that it requires luck to overcome?

A: The only explanation I can come up with is our love of labels. You know: She’s a Mozart specialist. He’s a new music specialist. He’s a symphonic conductor. She’s an operatic conductor. You kind of have to work your way through other people’s labels for what you do.

Q: The first time that you “met” the WNO orchestra was when you came to conduct “Written in Stone.” How did they strike you?

A: Oh, they were terrific. I think one of the things I found most impressive about them was their willingness and engagement with new works. Not every orchestra is so agreeable to the task. And it is a different thing to engage new work, because you kind of have to find out what it is as you live through it especially, you know, for world premieres like that. And their engagement with it was really terrific. It’s, for me, having done so much new music in my life, I find that doing old music conforms to new music and vice versa. You know, again, another label issue, but they were just great at kind of diving in and making these things come to life.

Q: What are the outlines of your job, and to what extent does the music director participate in the programing of WNO productions?

A: I’m answerable to [artistic director] Francesca Zambello. The direct responsibility I have would be the care of the orchestra. I’ve known Francesca forever; I love working with her. So of course we’re going to talk about everything, but the ultimate programmatic decisions and casting decisions are certainly her domain. But I love that collaborative role. I think it’s very healthy, when push comes to shove, to have certain authorities invested in an individual.

Q: What are your thoughts on what it will take to bring opera to more people and to give it a fresh burst of energy when the art form seems to be struggling?

A: I think everybody’s grappling with this in the performing world, because people just aren’t going out the way they did pre-pandemic. A lot of us are comparing notes. But I do have a lot of confidence that we collectively want this in our lives. There’s never been a time historically where it didn’t matter. I’ve been hearing about “the death of classical music” since I was a kid. I think this is a time to persist and to persist. Not in a rigid way, but to persist in trusting that what we’re doing is valuable to all of us. Maybe it’s from living in Atlanta so long, but I have a Phoenix attitude.

correction

A previous version of this article listed the incorrect years for Robert Spano’s debut with the Metropolitan Opera and for his first appearance leading the Washington National Opera Orchestra. The article has been corrected.



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