Sunday evening’s Washington National Opera Gala was as much a celebration of iconic American musician Leonard Bernstein, whose music was featured exclusively, as it was the National Opera. Even for those familiar with the maestro, any event celebrating his life can bring new light to the astounding diversity of his life and career. For those less familiar, his obituary in the New York Times is an excellent read, memorializing Bernstein as “one of the most prodigally talented and successful musicians in American History.” An understatement, if anything.
Prior to the Gala’s opening number, WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello took to the stage to welcome guests and make the unfortunate announcement that Tituss Burgess, one of the evening’s headliners, was ill and unable to perform.
…a fun and playful evening…
The program commenced with the WNO Orchestra performing selections from Bernstein’s “On the Town” as an accompaniment to a slideshow highlighting his life and works. Images of rehearsals with the New York Philharmonic, candid moments with political and musical elites, and on-set moments from the production of “West Side Story” were coupled with playbills and stills from his lesser-known works such as the musicals “Peter Pan” and “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” The orchestra, as always, presented itself as one of the institutions best and most consistent assets, here under the direction of John DeMain.
Following a short small-ensemble work, host Nathan Gunn made opening remarks regarding the WNO, as well as Mr. Bernstein, before moving into a solo performance as Captain Hook from “Peter Pan.” Gunn seemed up to the part of host, but as a performer never quite came off as completely un-stiff.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard then made her first of two touching solo performances for the evening – here the moving “Take Care of this House” from “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” and later “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”
Patti LuPone then took the stage to a vociferous welcome and, after a few quips, broke into a one-person duet, singing the roles of both Anita and Maria in “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story.”LuPone’s, timing and delivery were an evening highlight and garnered ample amused praise from the audience.
Next was perhaps the vocal-highlight of the gala with soprano Kathryn Lewek delivering “Glitter and Be Gay” from “Candide” in spades. Her scintillating upper register was laser focused, yet effortless enough to nimbly dance around the aria’s lighthearted character. Wisely, her dynamic performance was followed by a full-ensemble rendition of “Tonight” from “West Side Story.”
As the Gala ebbed toward its end, Francesca Zambello again took to the microphone, followed by Board Chairman David Rubenstein and Jamie Bernstein, daughter of the famed composer-conductor. They spoke to the vitality of the WNO as an institution, particularly as a bastion for new American operas, touting twenty-four new additions to the Kennedy Center’s repertoire in just the last six years.
Jamie Bernstein spoke particularly of her father’s connection to The Kennedy Center and its namesake President. Bernstein served as music director for his Inaugural Ball and, in the wake of his tragic death, composed his monumental “Mass” as tribute and means to dedicate the memorial.
Two selections, again from “On the Town” and “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue” closed out the evening. Patti LuPone was joined by a small choir for an a capella rendition of “We’ll Catch Up Some Other Time” that was endearing and subtle. Finally, the evening ended a bit poignantly, but not all that dramatically, with “Make Us Proud.”
In this new format for what used to be the annual Opera Ball, the Washington National Opera has created an event that has potential to celebrate not just their own institution, but also the overall mission of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Time will tell if a fun and playful evening is as easy to organize in the future without such an accessible central character as Bernstein.
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Patti LuPone, Tituss Burgess & More in the 2018 WNO Opera Gala Concert was one night only, Sunday, May 20, 2018. For more information on WNO, click here. This event is part of the worldwide celebration, Leonard Bernstein at 100.