It’s a summer worth celebrating at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Not only is the Northern Virginia destination making its triumphant return as the world emerges from the pandemic, but it is also marking its 50th anniversary as the only public-private partnership between a national park and arts institution. It’s the vision of late philanthropist, activist and landowner Catherine (Kay) Filene Shouse, who donated 100 acres of her farm to the government in 1966 with the goal of creating an expansive outdoor amphitheater where the natural world would organically blend with opera, music and dance — all creative displays of the mind and body. Five years later, that came to fruition with the Filene Center, which debuted on July 1, 1971. Fifty years after that, it will do it again, with a concert — and season — designed to honor the woman who started it all, and the diverse talents who will lead it forward. Here, a look behind the scenes with the folks opening our eyes to the depth of Shouse’s dream and the performers who will break new boundaries onstage.
The Grand Return
Wolf Trap Foundation and the National Park Service are in what president and CEO Arvind Manocha calls the business of permanence.
“We are joined at the hip in a wonderfully productive, unique partnership that ensures music and nature will always be together,” he says. “There can’t be one without the other.”
That permanence was evident even amid the pandemic — and it will be center stage as the Vienna-based venue reemerges in the months ahead. When the world shut down, Wolf Trap adapted. The organization was the only one in the country to host an in-person opera residency last summer. Social distancing, quarantining and other mandates were followed.
It was a testament to Shouse’s love for the genre as well as the staff’s commitment to ensuring audiences can experience it. Then there was the annual community holiday singalong, held virtually, which drew remote audiences by the thousands. Viewers used the de rigueur chat function to share their thoughts. Manocha recalls one comment from a former D.C. resident now living in Arizona.
“‘I never thought I’d do this again, and now I have that opportunity,’” he quotes. “The experience was open to people who don’t live here, and that was lovely.”
Today, Wolf Trap has positioned itself to reopen in a safe, but deeply moving, way.
“The first time you go back to your favorite venue to see a concert or hear music is going to be emotional,” says Manocha, who has been at the helm since 2013 and spearheaded the expansion of the destination’s artists and its early childhood education program. “It’s going to carry forward all summer.”
Some 80 performances would typically take place at the Filene Center during the season, with opera, ballet, country, classic rock, pop and R&B. Manocha compares it to a Spotify playlist: You go from Brandi Carlile to Beethoven. This year, the number is still developing as artists are being booked and availability changes due to fluctuating guidelines.
For attendance, the institution is taking a phased approach with limited capacity and social distancing in the early summer. The center can house 7,028; this year, tickets are being sold in pods of two to eight, with a capacity of 1,596 in June and July. The figure will be updated based on regulations in August and September. But Manocha is enthused.
“Whether it’s 1,500 or 5,000 people, there’s a communal aspect,” he says. “We crave that moment when it’s not just you clapping in your head for something onscreen. It’s actually hearing the applause around you.”
Given the fast pace of updates over the last few months (I spoke to Manocha not 24 hours after the CDC dropped its mask mandate for vaccinated folks), that community could be very different than it is at the time of this article.
“There’s always some new nuance to anticipate,” says Manocha, who notes that he and his team are in touch daily. “There’s an inherent inefficiency over the last year because you’re planning for a number of scenarios at the same time in case one of them comes true.”
“We’ve learned to be flexible, nimble and pivot, and all of the other clichés.”
Other updates include the food and drink options. While Ovations by America Eats will remain closed, concessions will be available. Of course, you can bring your own picnic — a tradition that began with Shouse, when her friends served casual dinners to concert guests.
Ask Manocha when donors and supporters can once again attend the annual ball, usually held in September, and he says they’re still working that out. In the meantime, there is the 50th anniversary concert — not to mention the season ahead — all of which have Shouse’s vision top of mind.
“I think she’d be quite pleased to know that 50 years after she put this ball in motion, a community of people have picked up that ball,” Manocha says. “Even though tastes, music and protocols change, Wolf Trap’s mission hasn’t.”
50 Year Together: A Celebration of Wolf Trap
When the proverbial curtains rise on the golden anniversary concert, it will be a jubilant recognition of Wolf Trap’s legacy, advancements and achievements still to come. Compare the 1971 and 2021 lineups. Back then, the cast was made up of men: Julius Rudel conducting the National Symphony Orchestra with pianist Van Cliburn and NYC bass baritone Norman Treigle. Now? Four female powerhouses will take the spotlight: Grammy Award-winner Cynthia Erivo, soprano Christine Goerke, pianist Joyce Yang and conductor Joann Falletta.
It was by design, and boldly so.
“Shouse was not just a trailblazer and an innovator,” says Lee Anne Myslewski, vice president of Wolf Trap Opera since 2006 and a key figure in the planning of the concert. “She also believed in the building up of women. When we were putting this concept together, we were thinking of ways to honor her memory, and also look forward to the next 50 years to think about how and where things might change.”
And through it all, she and her team found meaningful parallels to the past that highlight Wolf Trap’s history. One example is with Falletta, a juggernaut who became the first woman conductor to lead an American orchestra when she took over the Buffalo Philharmonic some 20 years ago. On July 1, she will lead the NSO, Wolf Trap’s longest-running artistic partner, much like Rudel did 50 years prior.
Then there’s Yang, who won the silver medal at the 12th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2005 — at 19, she was the youngest contestant.
“There’s a beautiful through-line with Cliburn,” says Myslewski of Yang’s connection to the first pianist to play at the center.
The opera component is special for a number of reasons. Treigle’s granddaughter, Emily, is a member of the company this year. Goerke, meanwhile, is an alumni of Wolf Trap Opera’s residency program. She has achieved international acclaim with roles such as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.”
“Having someone of Christine’s caliber join us was really important,” says Myslewski, nodding to Wolf Trap’s long operatic tradition.
Goerke is thrilled for a number of reasons — chief among them is her passion for the organization.
“There’s always something profound and deeply artistic about being in touch with nature at Wolf Trap,” she says.
She’s also thrilled about being a part of the evening’s “girl power” and contributing her voice to the diverse group.
“As a mother of daughters, I find it to be a great time of empowerment for women — and that happens at its best when we draw strength from each other.”
Goerke’s performance will have something for everyone, she says, while also “leaning into things I love that perhaps the audience hasn’t heard me do yet.”
Sure, she’s playing coy, but her approach speaks to the overall depth and breadth of the anniversary concert: old and new, traditional and modern, and forward-looking. That’s also beautifully represented with Erivo, who won the hearts of Broadway fans with her role of Celie in “The Color Purple.”
“She’s breaking so many boundaries,” Myslewski says. “She’s a renowned actress and musical theater performer, but she’s crossed into screenwork and recording. I mean, is there nothing this woman can’t do?”
Selecting from her repertoire is a joy and a challenge, adds Myslewski, noting some of the work Erivo did for “Genius: Aretha,” National Geographic’s biopic, and the original music she wrote for “Harriet.” (That flick was filmed in Virginia, by the way.)
Erivo will be the last to perform, ending the night on a much-anticipated high note. Due to scheduling and Covid guidelines, the women won’t appear at the same time onstage. But it will be a unique way for the audience to experience each artist’s skills and talents — and, perhaps, discover something new.
“These modern women with very progressive perspectives are thriving,” Myslewski says. “They’re not just looking ahead to their own futures, but they’re also keeping in mind the future of our art form.”
Bolstering the anniversary celebration are shows that remind us of what makes Wolf Trap special. Among the most meaningful is a series of free thank you community concerts on June 24 to 27, in gratitude to local healthcare workers and educators. There are performances by Preservation Hall Jazz Band (July 17), mandolinist Chris Thile (July 24 and 25), and singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan (July 28), whose set will include “America, Come,” inspired by suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt.
Another female-driven aspect comes via the four operas. Each has a strong female lead and is noteworthy when compared to classic hero-and-heroine plotlines.
“There are not a lot of stories written for feminists,” Myslewski says. “Some stories I would have a hard time producing because I find them problematic. The music is beautiful — that’s not up for discussion — but the question is: Do I want this story to be a vehicle that I use to tell our story?”
Luckily, Wolf Trap’s casting model allows her to select the singers first and then choose the repertoire for their talents. It also gives her the chance to share alternative perspectives.
“These pieces have real artistic merit and fit our singers so well that it makes it easier to take creative risks,” she says.
One play is “Cendrillon,” composer Pauline Viardot’s lighthearted rendition of Perrault’s “Cinderella” (July 16). “Sāvitri,” shown that same night, hails from a Sanskrit tale about a woman who reasons with Death when the god comes to take her husband away. “The Anonymous Lover” (June 18) is a comedy about a young widow who considers whether or not she wants to get back in the dating game.
“There’s a lot of female agency,” Myslewski says.
Another layer? All of the operas have female directors, who will pull off these works in a nontraditional format due to the pandemic. Rather than fully staged productions, they’ll be performed concert-style. NYC-based Emma Griffin, who is leading “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” on July 2 and 3, is up for the challenge. After all, she knows the work well (she’s directed it a number of times), but says she’ll finally have the opportunity to strip it down and get to the meat of the matter, if you will.
“What will be exciting is rooting the main performers in their characters and the storytelling — which is so vivid and malicious — in a big way,” she says.
Her favorite role is Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop proprietress, played by Megan Grey.
“Lovett’s a great villainous, but you also love her,” Griffin says. “She’s emotional and funny. She’s scheming, terrible and heartbreaking. She’s a very complete human being.”
That humanity — paired with the fantastical tale — is one of the reasons she believes “Sweeney Todd” appeals to contemporary audiences. It “thrills and delights,” she says.
Something else that will thrill and delight is Big Tony and Trouble Funk. The D.C.-based pioneers of go-go (the group originated in the 1970s and is one of the most sampled in hip-hop history) will make their Wolf Trap debut on July 18. It’ll be their first show together since the pandemic began, and they’ll be the first go-go band to perform at the Filene Center.
“What a way to start off the year,” says Tony Wilson Fisher (Big Tony).
Their exhilarating blend of ‘70s funk, ’60s horns, percussion and vocals will have the crowd on its feet and dancing (in socially distant pods, of course). They plan to roll out the hits — think “Drop the Bomb” and “Pump Me Up.”
“We won’t play all of them, but we will play the ones we think you’ll want to hear.”
There will be a few surprises, he says, and you can expect some work off their forthcoming album.
“It’s been so long. I want to make this a special treat.”
It’s certainly a sentiment shared by all of this season’s performers and Wolf Trap staff members as they get back to doing what they do best, in a venue that lets their music and voices reach the stars.
Learn more about Wolf Trap’s upcoming performance schedule at www.wolftrap.org and follow on Instagram @wolf_trap. The latest safety guidelines and updates will always be available on Wolf Trap’s website.
Grammy Award winner Aoife O’Donovan has spent the last year writing this work, using the letters, speeches and lives of Carrie Chapman Catt and Woodrow Wilson to explore women’s fight for the right to vote — a struggle that continues in different forms today. O’Donovan was commissioned by the Orlando Philharmonic to create the five-song piece. The first is her interpretation of Catt and the suffragettes’ march on Tennessee in 1920. And the fifth ends with a question — a direct quote from Catt: “What is the democracy for which the world is battling and for which we offer up our manpower, woman power, money power, our all?”
“Doing this piece outside of D.C. is poignant with the new administration, the first female vice president and a woman of color, nonetheless,” O’Donovan says. “It feels like we’re at a turning point as we acknowledge our painful past and elevate every voice.”
One to Watch
“The Anonymous Lover”
This is an opera before its time — and for a number of reasons, says Lee Anne Myslewski, vice president of Wolf Trap Opera. The 1780 work is by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Black composer who was the son of a slave and a plantation owner.
“He was so beloved by his father that he sent him to Paris to train,” she says.
He was Marie Antoinette’s music teacher and the first violinist and conductor of the best orchestra in Paris.
“When you consider that he had to do it all under the guise of slavery and not being considered an equal person, it makes not just his life but also his work stand out.”
This is the only operatic work of his that has survived, and follows Léontine, a young widow who begins receiving letters and gifts from an unknown man (hence the name) who declares his love for her.
“It’s a debut for us and it really is just a lovely piece that I’m excited for people to experience,” Myslewski says.
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