Special Reports

Movers & Shakers: Francesca Zambello

December 3, 2013 | By Wynne Delacoma

Francesca Zambello
Artistic and General Director
    Glimmerglass Festival
    Artistic Director
    Washington National Opera

Staging Annie Get Your Gun and Wagner’s Ring of the Niebelungs—just another day (or two) at the office for Francesca Zambello.

Wide-ranging doesn’t begin to describe Zambello’s career, past or present. Born in 1956, she grew up in Europe and attended Moscow University but finished her college work in the U.S., at Colgate University. Early on, she served as an assistant to noted opera director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (d. 1988).

She got her first real taste of running an opera company at the scrappy little Skylight Opera Theater (now called Skylight Music Theater) in Milwaukee from 1984 to 1991. Working for a time as co-artistic director with Stephen Wadsworth, Zambello presided over highly praised seasons that stretched from Baroque rarities (the American premiere of Antonio Cesti’s Orontea) to Gilbert and Sullivan and Ricky Ian Gordon.

That same eclectic spirit permeates her work today. Since arriving at Glimmerglass in 2010, Zambello has enhanced the summer festival’s reputation for inventive repertoire and fresh stage ideas. The 2013 season included Lerner and Loewe’s Camelot and Zambello’s own staging of The Flying Dutchman. She also directed David Lang’s haunting the little match girl passion, which she paired with a dance-infused production of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

Glimmerglass also is a place where singers stretch their horizons. During 2010 and 2011, soprano Deborah Voigt celebrated the centennial of Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West in style, singing Minnie, its stout-hearted heroine, at the Met, San Francisco Opera, and Lyric Opera of Chicago. But in summer 2011 at Glimmerglass, she traded Minnie’s pistol for Annie Oakley’s rifle, starring in Zambello’s production of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun.

On the much larger stage of Washington National Opera. Zambello continues to emphasize innovation. Last year the company announced plans for an American Opera Initiative, by which rising young composers work with such mentors as composer Jake Heggie and librettist Mark Campbell. This fall WNO presents the early results of that program with three 20-minute operas. Its current mainstage season includes Heggie’s acclaimed 2010 opera Moby-Dick.

And, as if running an opera company and a summer music festival didn’t keep her busy enough, Zambello continues to direct away from her home bases. In spring 2012 she helped Lyric Opera of Chicago leap into the world of musical theater with an effervescent production of Show Boat; that same year she mounted the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier
for the San Francisco Opera. Traveling the world to stage operas, running a summer festival, steering a major opera company. Perhaps—like Annie Oakley—Zambello’s just “Doin’ What Comes Naturlly.”

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