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Zambello is replacing Domingo at Washington Opera

WASHINGTON — The Washington National Opera announced Wednesday that it has appointed Francesca Zambello as the company’s artistic adviser as famed tenor Placido Domingo steps down after 15 years with the opera.

The appointment comes as the company merges with the Kennedy Center to provide stability after years of financial struggles. Zambello previously worked with Kennedy Center President Michael Kaiser at London’s Royal Opera House.

“I think that opera has the chance to attract people in ways that we don’t always think about, quite honestly,” she said in an interview. “I’m all about creating productions that are accessible to the audience, that are entertaining, that are storytelling.”

Zambello is a respected director in both opera and musical theater. She is directing a new production of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle for the San Francisco Opera. The production originated with the Washington National Opera, but it was unable to finish all four episodes because of financial troubles.

Kaiser and Zambello agreed they would like to stage a complete “Ring” cycle in Washington after the opera spent considerable time and money developing it as the “American Ring” in 2006, drawing on themes and settings from U.S. history to explore Wagner’s epic of greed, ambition and betrayal.

After the “Ring” productions in June, Zambello will step down as artistic adviser of the San Francisco Opera to focus her efforts on Washington and as director of the Glimmerglass Opera, a summer festival in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The New York-based director will be part of a team that will direct the opera’s programming as it transitions from Domingo, who joined the company as artistic director in 1996. Early in her career, Zambello worked under the late director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.

Kaiser said Zambello is the leading woman among opera directors. He declined to specify the term of her contract in Washington but said she will have an ongoing role. Naming an artistic adviser made sense while the company is in transition, Kaiser said.

“She’s got a lot of vision in opera, and we think she’s going to bring some really good programming ideas, casting ideas, ideas for the productions that should be used,” he said.

Zambello also recently directed Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid” as a stage adaptation of the Disney movie. It closed in 2009 before a national tour.

She said she wants to broaden the opera’s programming to reach the widest possible audience, including tourists visiting Washington’s cultural attractions. She also is eager to take operas beyond the grand Kennedy Center Opera House with productions in smaller theaters as well.

The 55-year-old Washington opera has always been “revered” under Martin Feinstein and Domingo, Zambello said, adding that she looks forward to ongoing collaborations with Domingo.

Much of the opera’s resources are being used to pay off its debts before it merges with the Kennedy Center on July 1. Tax records from 2009 show the company carried a debt of about $11.6 million, and its endowment stood at $30.6 million. Its budget has been balanced in recent years after cuts in programming and staff.

Other operas have struggled through the recession. The New York City Opera just announced it is leaving its longtime home at Lincoln Center to cut costs. The Baltimore Opera closed its doors in 2009.

Change can help energize a theater, Zambello said.

“I think that this new arrangement will really, really help the company,” she said, “in making it just explode more in the city’s cultural scene.”