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Drone Warfare Comes to Washington’s Opera Stage

Wearing combat boots and a U.S. Air Force flight suit, the mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo took her place onstage one recent morning and began to sing about war.

“I break down the airfields, the refineries, the consulates and factories,” she sang inside a rehearsal studio in Washington. “I return them to desert, to particles.”

D’Angelo was preparing to star in “Grounded,” a new work about drone warfare, composed by Jeanine Tesori and with a libretto by George Brant, that will premiere at Washington National Opera on Saturday, ahead of a run at the Metropolitan Opera in New York next season.

On that morning, she was learning how to move around the set in the role of Jess, an F-16 pilot reassigned to drone duty because of an unexpected pregnancy. Because, as with any opera, rehearsals for “Grounded” have been full of the usual considerations about props, musical cues and choreography.

But this process has also been anguished and emotional. The opera offers an unvarnished look at the psychological toll of drone warfare, and its themes have taken on fresh relevance amid the escalating violence of the Israel-Hamas war.

Tesori, left, and Michael Mayer, the production’s director.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

“For everyone in the room, it has been intense,” D’Angelo said in an interview between rehearsals. “There are moments of beauty and calm and serenity. And then, total chaos.”

Because of its war themes, “Grounded,” adapted from Brant’s play of the same name, has already drawn scrutiny. In the spring, anger erupted after Washington National Opera listed the presenting sponsor of the production as General Dynamics, the military contractor.

Critics accused the opera company of serving as a mouthpiece for the defense industry. The house later clarified, saying that General Dynamics had helped underwrite the entire season, not just “Grounded,” and that the corporation had no say over the programming or its contents.

Tesori said that the scrutiny had been unexpected, but that she was hopeful audiences would look beyond politics. She noted that she and Brant started working on the opera in 2014, long before they knew where it would premiere or who would be among the sponsors.

“Every impulse, every note of this, is done from two writers who are trying to birth this work, and they don’t know what hospital they’re in,” she said. “I think it’s really clear now, and that’s great.”

Ahead of the premiere, Washington National Opera is working to promote discussion about the themes of “Grounded” with service members, veterans and their families, inviting them for talks and performances.

Timothy O’Leary, the company’s general director, said that it was important to provide context to members of the military and the defense industry. “Grounded” raises questions about the morality of remote warfare and explores its toll on the mental health of service members.

“It’s one thing to read about these issues in a newspaper, but to walk in the shoes of somebody on the front lines wrestling with these questions of moral responsibility and life and death — that’s an entirely different experience,” he said. “The stage has always been part of how we understand the costs of war, both to warriors and to the innocent.”

“Grounded” premiered as a one-woman play in 2013 and had an Off Broadway run at the Public Theater in 2015, in a production starring Anne Hathaway. After seeing the play, the Met’s leaders, including Peter Gelb, its general manager, and Paul Cremo, its dramaturg, commissioned the opera adaptation.

A rehearsal for “Grounded,” which will open the Metropolitan Opera’s season next year.

They turned to Tesori, a celebrated composer who has won Tony Awards for the musicals “Kimberly Akimbo” and “Fun Home,” and has written operas like “Blue,” about a Harlem family struck by tragedy.

Gelb described Tesori as “one of the most gifted composers around,” and said he expected “Grounded” would resonate.

“It’s something,” he added, “that people can understand, given the events in which we live today.”

At Washington National Opera, Tesori and Brant have been joined by the theater director Michael Mayer and the conductor Daniela Candillari. Mimi Lien designed a kaleidoscopic set with nearly 400 LED panels that display live video and visual effects.

This version of “Grounded” is Brant’s first libretto. He reworked the play for the opera stage, adding characters such as Jess’s husband, Eric (the tenor Joseph Dennis); a commander (the bass Morris Robinson); a trainer (the tenor Frederick Ballentine); and a male chorus that, at times, is called the Drone Squadron.

“It was important to be sure that these new characters had full dimension and full agency,” Brant said. “And that required new language.”

D’Angelo, and Joseph Dennis, who sings a role created for the opera adaptation of Brant’s play.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

In 2016, Brant and Tesori visited the Met, whose stage was set for Puccini’s “La Bohème,” and had the actress Kelly McAndrew perform excerpts from the play to give a sense of how its material would land in the opera house.

“It was really then that we all started to get excited because we saw the potential, and we saw what this one character looked like in the space of that vast canvas,” Brant said. “She belonged there, and there was a place for her there.”

Tesori spent about 10 months at her home on Long Island working on the score. She was drawn to the idea of writing for a female lead character. “She is the subject, not the object,” Tesori said. “And her launch is not romantic love; it’s something else.”

She was a fan of D’Angelo and wrote the opera with her in mind, attending her voice lessons to get a sense of her sound. Tesori also reviewed testimonials of drone operators and pilots. She came away feeling that the psychological damage of remote warfare was “as great, if not greater, because you can’t see it.”

“I feel ashamed that I didn’t know anything,” she said. “I think maybe because, what do you do with the information once you’ve seen it?”

The Met tends to try out new operas in other cities before putting them on its own stage; it enlisted Washington National Opera for the premiere. (“Grounded” will open the Met’s 2024-25 season, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the company’s music director.)

Preparations for the opera were going smoothly until the spring, when Washington National Opera’s 2023-24 season was announced and questions about the role of General Dynamics — a major sponsor of the opera company since 1997, with a senior vice president on its board — began to spread on social media.

A think tank that advocates military restraint labeled “Grounded” a “killer drone opera.” New York magazine gave the opera a “despicable” rating on its Approval Matrix, describing it as “the drone-bombing opera ‘Grounded,’ sponsored by General Dynamics.” RT, a state-owned Russian news outlet, said the work showed the strength of the American military-industrial complex.

The team of “Grounded” preparing for the premiere this weekend, which follows criticism over the Washington National Opera’s relationship with General Dynamics, the season’s sponsor.Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

The creative team behind “Grounded” grew disturbed by how the opera was being portrayed. It worked behind the scenes to push the Washington National Opera to make it clear that General Dynamics had nothing to do with its work. The company eventually issued a statement that said, “For the sake of clarity, no sponsor or supporter of W.N.O. had any involvement in the creation of ‘Grounded’ or in the contents of its libretto.” But it stopped short of cutting ties with General Dynamics; the company is still listed as a “W.N.O. season sponsor” on promotional materials for “Grounded.”

Brant said that he was not aware that General Dynamics was a supporter of Washington National Opera until criticism began to circulate. He said he was pleased by the opera house’s statement.

“It was important to know that the sponsor had absolutely no involvement,” he said. “I’m happy that it’s been resolved the way that it has.”

Tesori, who was deep in composition when the controversy arose, said she felt that it was important for the company to explain the wall between artists and benefactors. “It had to be clarified,” she said. “It got clarified, and then here we are.”

At the rehearsal in Washington, Tesori, Brant and Mayer worked with the cast to plot stage directions, as well as refine the music and libretto.

Mayer said that the opera had more to say than its commentary on war. It also addresses, he added, the “increasing dehumanization of the population as the screens start to take over all aspects of our lives.”

Mayer said that “Grounded” represents the “increasing dehumanization of the population as the screens start to take over all aspects of our lives.”Credit…Melissa Lyttle for The New York Times

“It brings into focus how precious genuine connection is, and how tenuous it is,” he said. “It reverberates beyond just a story about warfare.”

D’Angelo, who has been preparing for the role of Jess since 2020, said that the opera captured her character’s inner struggle. By day, Jess takes part in drone missions from a trailer in Las Vegas; by night, she returns to her family.

“You can understand this rhythm and how disorienting it must be,” she said. “You get just the tiniest little hint of what a person in her situation, her mental state, must be experiencing.”

As Tesori walked out of the rehearsal room, she said that she felt the work was finally coming to life, but that she did not yet have the words to describe it.

“It’s a feeling of discovery,” she said. “Eventually a piece speaks to you — like a kid, it begins to tell you what it needs.”

“There’s no way of knowing,” she added, “until you’re in the room.”

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