Opera faces a lot of challenges in fostering new work. Struggling companies tend to shy away from the unfamiliar to sell tickets, and audiences often neglect new compositions in favor of classics. A Kennedy Center program is trying to remedy that situation. The American Opera Initiative, now in its second year, debuts three 20-minute operas this month, followed next June by the hourlong premiere of Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s An American Soldier.
“It’s easy for opera to be treated like a museum art form, where we’re only doing works by people who are dead,” program director Michael Heaston says. “We want people to know there are living librettists and composers creating new work and that there’s much more to opera below the surface.”
The trio of short operas taking a bow November 13 are Duffy’s Cut, a tale of three ghosts of Irish railroad workers seeking vengeance (by composer Jennifer Bellor and librettist Elizabeth Reeves); Uncle Alex, which explores an immigrant’s experience at Ellis Island (by Joshua Bornfield and Caitlin Vincent); and Breaking, about a TV reporter eager to win the news cycle (by Michael Gilbertson and Caroline McGraw). “Each says something about the American experience,” Heaston says. “And each deals with social change in an interesting way.”
The initiative benefits from its ties to the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, which gives emerging artists access to composer Jake Heggie, librettist Mark Campbell, and conductor Anne Manson. Heggie’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick has its local premiere with the WNO in February, and the composer will take part in a discussion.
Says Heaston: “We are making a case for continuing the operatic art form, but we’re also hoping to get people interested in being included in the process. The more people feel opera is accessible, the more successful it can be.”
American Opera Initiative. November 13 at the Kennedy Center. Tickets ($15) to the evening of 20-minutes operas are available online.
This article appears in the November 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
Back in June we ran a photo essay looking at some of Washington’s great soul musicians. We’re sad to report that featured artist Al Johnson, lead singer of the Unifics, died earlier this week following complications after surgery. The Newport News native and Howard University graduate found early success with “Court of Love,” recorded by the Unifics and arranged by Donny Hathaway. The song reached number 25 on the Billboard Hot 100 and led to a gig at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre with the then-17-year-old Stevie Wonder.
The Unifics reformed in 2004, and Johnson and the band regularly played shows in Washington and Virginia. A memorial service for Johnson will be held today, November 1, at 7 PM at Union Temple Baptist Church in Southeast DC. Read more about Johnson and some other local soul musicians here.
What do you do if you’re accepted to law school and then get an opportunity to tour as a backup singer for a former high school classmate? If you’re Jessie Ware, you put school on hold for a year, hit the road, land your own record deal, and never look back. The 29-year-old British singer/songwriter, who’s best known for her single “Wildest Moments”—a haunting, bittersweet, bassline-anchored track that’s a universally relatable reflection of a tumultuous romance—got her start as a supporting vocalist for friend and classmate Jack Peñate. (Florence Welch and members of the Maccabees were also classmates—something in the water maybe?) Peñate then connected her with electronic outfit SBTRKT, and their resulting track, 2010’s “Nervous,” snagged Ware a record deal. She’s admitted she wasn’t sure at first what she wanted her album to convey, but her first effort, Devotion, is as self-assured as it is eclectic, spanning sounds from dancey pop to butter-smooth, ’80s-influenced R&B, with some hip-hop thrown in for good measure—“If You’re Never Gonna Move” samples Big Pun, and a “Wildest Moments” remix features a verse from ASAP Rocky.
Despite her quick rise to success, Ware is charmingly humble and frank about the fickleness of fame. She’s currently touring the US, including a stop at Fillmore Silver Spring on Halloween. Before the tour began we chatted with her from London about finding her voice as a songwriter and the real story behind “Wildest Moments”—and broke the news that Drake is performing on the same night as her.
Where am I catching you today?
In my mum’s kitchen. I’m just making dinner for my family, so I’m frying some aubergines.
Your tour kicks off soon—anywhere you’re especially excited to play?
My first show is on the 17th in Dallas. I’m really excited about going to Texas. I’m excited about going to New Orleans, and . . . where else? Oh, Miami, just ’cause I want a bit of sun. I’m quite excited ’cause in Washington we’re playing on Halloween. Now, this could be a terrible idea because people could just be too busy going to their Halloween parties, but I’m hoping we can be, like, the pre-party for them, and I want everyone to dress up at the Silver Spring gig.
Are you going to be wearing a costume?
Yeah, standard! I’ve gotta find it first, but yeah, man. My makeup artist is amazing at fancy face paint, so we’re all gonna dress up.
Any ideas what you’ll be?
Whatever’s left in, like, CVS or something.
I know you’re a Drake fan—he’s actually playing the same night as you, at the Verizon Center.
Shut up! Shut up! Is he? Oh, my god, can you put a call out now and say Jessie would LOVE to meet Drake. Is he playing the same night as me? This is so annoying! I’ve got Drake in bloody Washington and I’ve got Kanye in Chicago. I know who I’d like to see.
You played at Coachella this year—what was the experience like?
It was wicked, man. I had, like, loads of people there; my album wasn’t out yet, and it was packed, and then you get to do it again the week after, which is kinda crazy. It was lovely; I loved it. It’s a funny one, ’cause Coachella was kind of at the beginning of festivals—it’s kind of the first one you do, because it’s the summer, isn’t it—so at that time you’re like, “Yes, oh, my god, loving it, feels really good.” I love festivals anyway; I’ve always been one that goes to them, and me and my friends have always been festival-goers. By September all you want is an intimate gig, but it’s like you always want the one thing when you’re doing the other thing. I definitely am ready to do my own tour now, but as soon as the festivals come around they’re really exciting.
Your first relationship. The devastation of your first real breakup. Those long, hazy nights of feeling invincible with your friends. And the moment you discover that somewhere along the way your friends started growing up—sometimes without you. For a certain kind of twentysomething, English indie folk rockers Noah and the Whale practically wrote the soundtracks to all those life events. Their debut album, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, was a twee celebration of young love, inspired by frontman Charlie Fink’s relationship with then-band member Laura Marling. Their breakup begat 2009’s melancholy The First Days of Spring. And with their fourth album, May’s Heart of Nowhere, they capture that nebulous, bittersweet realization that you’re becoming an adult whether you’re ready for it or not.
Over the years, the band’s roster has changed a few times; the current members are Fink, violinist/keyboard player Tom Hobden, bassist Matt Owens, guitarist Fred Abbott, and drummer Michael Petulla, who joined after 2011’s Last Night on Earth. They’re currently on tour in support of Heart of Nowhere, including a stop at 9:30 Club. We caught up with Hobden to discuss the band’s writing process, their experiences on the festival circuit, and their evolution as musicians and as individuals.
What are you up to today?
I'm in London, still at home; we kick off the tour next week. We’ve got a few little things going on—we’ve had quite a busy summer doing the festival circuit, festivals in the UK and Europe. There have been some really, really good ones, and some quite strange ones I wouldn't have expected to be good but turned out well. We did the Positivus festival in Latvia, and we turned up and realized we were headlining! At Glastonbury we had an amazing set, at 6 PM on Saturday. It was glorious; that was quite a moment for us. We had a really big crowd.
You just finished up a string of shows called Month of Sundays—what’s the idea behind that?
It was a tour focused on four London shows in West End Palace Theatre, so we had it every Sunday. It was really cool, and worked really well actually—I could kick back and watch a movie, and then get up when it was time for the band to come on. It was my ideal gig, really.
You released your fourth album a few months ago—how do you think your sound has progressed since the first album?
It's been interesting. When we were making it we were looking for a sound that best represented what we were doing live at the time, and other albums were quite different-sounding, so it was quite a challenge to figure out how to best perform those songs at our gigs. Now we’ve found a kind of common, binding sound, so we thought, Why not try to translate that to a record? We decided very early on to make a live album. Sometimes so much focus is on production and production value, but all our favorite records have been recorded live. It's quite a fun way to write a song in the first place.
Heart of Nowhere seems to be about that feeling of being in your twenties and thinking life is starting to move really fast.
Absolutely; I think about it all the time. It’s about a kind of common . . . a malaise, a sentiment you have when you get to this age that’s kind of looking for direction. In your teenage years don't have any responsibilities, so you can just do what you want. Some of the tracks focus on losing touch with friends, which is open-ended, whether it's in a touring band or you’re working and don't have enough time to socialize. It was inspired by an actual instance when one of Charlie’s friends got engaged and is about to get married, and that was quite a shock. We live in a world of instant communication, but you can still lose touch with people.
If a band could be said to rise to fame on the strength of one synth riff, the Naked and Famous would be it. The sparkling opening sounds of “Young Blood,” the first single off the band’s debut album, 2010’s Passive Me, Aggressive You, has been featured in countless commercials, movie trailers, and TV shows from Gossip Girl to Covert Affairs. The band formed when vocalist Alisa Xayalith and vocalist/guitarist Thom Powers met in music college in Auckland, New Zealand; they began writing songs together and soon added keyboardist Aaron Short, bassist David Beadle, and drummer Jesse Wood. TNAF’s distinctive blend of youthfully exuberant synth-pop and poetic yet relatable lyrics carries through to their second album, 2013’s In Rolling Waves, along with a slightly darker edge that reflects their time on the road and their maturation both as a band and as individuals.
TNAF tour the US, Europe, and Australia through January, including shows at the 9:30 Club Sunday and tonight. We chatted with David Beadle by phone about the band’s evolving sound, why they decided to relocate to Los Angeles, and his unusual ways of keeping himself amused on the road.
Where am I catching you today?
Man, you know what, I actually don’t know. We were in Houston last night and we’ve got a day off today, thankfully, and we’ll be tomorrow in Atlanta, Georgia. We’ve actually been on the road for five days now—we’ve played five gigs in a row. We did the Craig Ferguson TV show and we’ve done the last three gigs in Texas, which have been amazing; they’ve been really, really good.
Are any of the cities you’re playing new to you?
All the cities we’re going to on our run we’ve actually done before, and it’s good to get back to these towns and play to these audiences again.
Your current tour goes for quite a while—do you enjoy being on the road that much?
Absolutely. Making the music is great, and being able to perform it and play it to an audience is just so much fun. We’ve been off the road . . . we came off the road in March or April 2012, so just getting back on the road again and being able to perform the new record, In Rolling Waves, is so great, and the response we’re getting is really good too. So it’s only been exciting so far.
Have you picked up any packing tips since your last tour?
[laughs] I’m a terrible packer. My one packing piece of advice to myself is—you know those, like, squashed pennies that people have in towns, like you go to an amusement park or a museum? I’m obsessed with collecting squashed pennies, and there’s a certain kind of penny that’s pre-1982, so I’ve been collecting these pennies and I’ve packed them, so now I can get these copper pennies squashed.
Have you played 9:30 Club before?
I think the first gig we did there was the first tour around US as a support tour with the band Foals. Every time we’ve been to DC we’ve played 9:30 Club, and it’s such an amazing venue, really incredible. And we’re in a position now where we’re able to play two gigs there, which is so wonderful for us. I never could have imagined myself in that position. I can’t wait to play that show.
I saw on Twitter that you just had a birthday.
Yes, I had my birthday in Austin, Texas. I turned 25, so I’m feeling very old. [Ed. note: That’s not old.]
Well, happy birthday! How did you celebrate?
We [the band] all hung out together, and had some birthday cake, and me, Jesse, and Aaron—the drummer and the keyboard player—we got obsessed with remote-controlled airplanes. It sounds kind of weird, but we have this crazy hobby of remote-controlled airplanes. And I got this one, and one of the controllers we had just didn’t work, so these guys six months later got me the right controller for this airplane. And I brought it on the road with us, so maybe even today, on our day off, we can play our remote-controlled airplane.
It’s not going to make an appearance onstage, is it?
No, no. Hopefully I’ll have something more exciting to do onstage than fly a remote-controlled airplane.
Since you’ll be in town for two nights, will you get a chance to explore DC at all?
I wish! Man, every time we’re in a city we never really get to see anything, I always try to go for a run in each city I’m in, but that’s the extent of the sightseeing I get to do. We went to Jakarta in Indonesia, and we were there for 19 hours, so even going to a new country we never really have the time to look around. But hopefully if we’re there for two nights I’ll have time to take a run around and have a look.
With 1,000-plus books about him, it’s hard to see how anyone could add to our understanding of George Washington, but Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Roger Reynolds is trying.
In a piece debuting at the Kennedy Center October 3 through 5, Reynolds uses sounds and images to instill a sense of what was going on inside our first President’s head. Instead of exploring history or politics, george WASHINGTON—performed by the National Symphony Orchestra—incorporates sounds associated with Mount Vernon: the grinding of the gristmill, the chirping of native birds, the folk melodies Washington’s granddaughter played on the harpsichord.
Three video screens—divided into panels to replicate the view from the cupola Washington designed atop Mount Vernon—show pastoral scenes of the estate. Three narrators, playing the man at different stages of life, recite passages from diaries and letters.
Reynolds, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, often integrates digital sound, visual arts, and spatial movement with his music. He decided early in his research that he wouldn’t go forward unless he found enough in it to sustain the composition.
He discovered there was far more material than he could use: “I was stunned, and I want other people to have the same experience.” Why the unconventional title? “It’s simply a slight typographical inflection,” Reynolds says. “It separates the individual from the monument.”
george WASHINGTON, October 3 through 5, at the Kennedy Center. Tickets ($10 to $85) available online at kennedy-center.org.
This article appears in the October 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.
The world may not have ended in 2012, but 27-year-old ZZ Ward certainly put out music like it was her last year on earth. The sultry-voiced songstress (born Zsuzsanna Ward), based in LA by way of Pennsylvania and the boonies of Oregon, churned out a mixtape, Eleven Roses, an EP, Criminal, and her first full-length album, Til the Casket Drops, all in the same year. And while her particular blend of old-school blues, soulful pop, and modern hip-hop—which she’s dubbed “dirty shine”—may have just begun to attract the really big crowds, Ward has been performing since the ripe old age of 12, when she joined her first band with her blues singer father.
Ward’s powerful voice and slick blending of genres have earned her some big-name fans including Michael Fitzpatrick of Fitz and the Tantrums, who co-wrote “Save My Life” off her album; and Kendrick Lamar, who agreed to contribute a verse to her song “Cryin’ Wolf” after hearing her sing over one of his tracks on Eleven Roses. Ward takes the stage at 9:30 Club this Saturday, and we caught up with her beforehand to talk about achieving a balance of genres, interacting with fans, and her most surreal experiences as a performer thus far.
Between putting out an EP, an album, and a mixtape and now the tour, you’ve had a hugely busy year. How do you keep from burning out?
I just try to pace myself. I don’t party when I’m on the road, and I try to be a big part of my scheduling so I know what I’m doing and what I’m agreeing to. You learn that over time. If you have a jam-packed day full of stuff, you learn not do anything that’s totally out of your reach. But that’s a cool thing about traveling—you have cool things all around you, a lot of variety.
Your father was a musician when you were growing up—did he have any good tips about life on the road?
He didn’t know anything about touring! He even says now, “I had no idea how much work it was going to be to be a recording artist.” You live out here. The thing is so many people want to do music, it’ll either make or break you. You can handle it or you can’t; you either fight or you don’t fight. I feel blessed every day that I’m on the road and get to do music for a living. I love it. It’s a learning experience every day.
Have you had any surreal experiences as a performer?
There have been a lot of surreal experiences. I was on the Tonight show for the second time recently—it was less surreal than the first time I went on, but still really special. When you’ve wanted to do something your whole life . . . it wasn’t like it was an easy path; if it was easy it wouldn’t be as gratifying. It’s been challenging to go through some things. So that and playing for huge crowds, like 10,000 people.
And what do you still have to check off the list?
I want to travel outside of the States more. I got to go to Europe a few times, but I’d like to go to other countries. It’s the most amazing thing, to be a touring musician and see the world, I think.
Besides the tour, eventually I would like to get more into writing again. It’s hard to do that in balance with touring; you have to go away for a while, and I don’t know when that time is going to come. It might seem like I drop off the face of the earth for a while, but I’m doing a lot of touring now, so I think I’m kind of there right now.
On the stilettoed heels of her Tony Award for Broadway’s Kinky Boots, ’80s legend Cyndi Lauper performs Friday at George Washington University’s alumni weekend.
Lauper’s headlining concert marks a stop on the pop icon’s She’s So Unusual tour, which wrapped up its Australia leg earlier this month. The tour commemorates the 30th anniversary of her debut album. At her Friday show, as she’s done on every stop of the tour, Lauper will sing the entire She’s So Unusual record, including perennial karaoke favorites “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Time After Time.”
Already an Emmy and Grammy winner, Lauper snagged the 2013 Best Original Score Tony for Kinky Boots. The Broadway hit follows a struggling shoe factory that turns to making footwear for drag queens to stay afloat. Harvey Fierstein adapted the book from a 2005 film of the same name and invited Lauper to write the music. In her acceptance speech in June, she gratefully acknowledged Fierstein’s call, saying, “I’m so glad I was done with the dishes and answered the phone.”
Lauper plays the Charles E. Smith Center Friday at 8 PM. Tickets are still available exclusively to GW alums who register in person for Alumni Weekend at the Marvin Center Great Hall starting Friday at 11:30 AM. For more information, visit GW’s website.
Nobody tells you what life after college will be like. You know there aren’t any more required reading lists, term paper all-nighters, or reality-TV-themed frat parties. You can’t play wine pong and be productive the next day—this you know, albeit reluctantly. But no one’s really prepared for the freedom: freedom from a set schedule, from planning out your life in semesters, from a simple understanding of what success looks like.
That freedom hit Nicholas Petricca hard when he graduated from Ohio’s Kenyon College in 2009. His band, Walk the Moon, was writing its first album, and what may or may not lie ahead became a central theme of their eponymous, major-label debut. Fortunately, Walk the Moon set Petricca and bandmates Kevin Ray, Eli Maiman, and Sean Waugaman on a well-lit course through the unchartered territory. The Cincinnati quartet’s first single, “Anna Sun,” spun in heavy rotation on alternative rock stations across the country last year and was touted as the “song of the summer” by MTV and Seventeen magazine. The band also played Lollapalooza’s mainstage and toured with fellow indie rockers Fun through 2012. Ahead of Walk the Moon’s pair of shows at 9:30 Club this weekend, Petricca gave us some insight into what it’s like a year after such riotous success.
You played the 9:30 Club in January. Are you looking forward to coming back to DC?
The 9:30 Club is actually one of my favorite venues in the country. It’s probably in my top three. It’s a great room, and I always love the people who come there. The crowd is always just, I don’t know, ravenous or something.
Your shows are always so energetic. Do you and the band have any pre-show rituals to get pumped up?
We do have a secret huddle that happens, which I can’t really tell you about. We don’t let people film it or anything. Besides that, we try to be pretty serious about warming up vocally, because vocals are a big part of what we do. We even had a band visit to our ENT, our ear, nose, and throat doctor, and he gave us some pointers. It was pretty cute, all four of us in a tiny little doctor’s office.
Your songs have this nostalgia for youth. DC is often characterized as a young person’s city. Do you have a specific type of listener in mind when you write, and have you ever been surprised by the fans who come out to see you?
That’s an interesting question. I guess the listener in mind, sometimes, is me. We wrote the last record right after college, and so a lot of what I was writing about was this enormous experience I just had, and the abyss of the unknown adulthood ahead, you know? So I was kind of writing for the young, reluctant, or adventurous adult. But to answer your second question, we’ve totally been surprised by who comes to concerts. We’ve been really fortunate to find that the age limit has no bounds. But that doesn’t really change the writing. If I was just writing to try to be honest with myself, and it affected people of many different age groups, then it would be silly to try and change that.
You mentioned writing from your college experience. “Anna Sun” is named for one of your former professors. Why did you decide to name it after her?
Like many things in the band, it was kind of by accident. The entire song was written, and it was all about this college thing. But then it had this part in the song that was just like [sings melody of “Anna Sun”]. And we didn’t know what was gonna go there. And my buddy [Nick Lerangis], who was in the band at the time, just started singing her name. She has this beautiful name, and she was one of our favorite personalities on campus. And it just worked perfectly. So the song isn’t about her, but it is about college, and she was one of the more inspiring professors at college and has a very cool name.
Have you told her that the song is named after her?
Yeah, a couple years ago we sent her an e-mail and said, “Hey, professor, we’ve got this song, and we just wanted your blessing.” And she was like, “Oh, that’s great. Would you send me the lyrics?” And we’re like, “Sure, why not?” And she wrote us back, saying, “I love the song, but some of these lyrics are a little too suggestive. Would you please change this and this?” And she gave some suggestions. And we’re like “Okay, professor, we’ll get right on it.” And we just never really did. [laughs]
When the legacy acts at Saturday’s Virgin Mobile FreeFest first hit it big, a considerable swath of the 50,000 people in attendance were still in middle school. MGMT, the Avett Brothers, and Vampire Weekend as the veteran players? Sure, why not? If Merriweather Post Pavilion is going to be jammed with the youngest millennials, best not to bring on any acts whose relevance can only be explained by an older sibling or, Billboard charts forgive, a parent.
Nevertheless, the EDM-heavy lineup, filled with oontz-oontz-ing deejays unfamiliar to people born before 1990, featured a clutch of satisfying performances on an warm afternoon that gave way to a soaked evening. And, yeah, that even included “Blurred Lines” lothario Robin Thicke, who strode onto the festival’s outdoor stage in a crisp, black suit while rain poured down on a throng of fans clogging a debris-soaked mud pit. Did the kids know that Thicke, just a few weeks removed from that Miley Cyrus moment, is 36? If so, they didn’t seem to care, grinding up against strangers while the man himself, backed by his band and a trio of lithe, leather-clad backup dancers—the 2010s version of the Robert Palmer girls—twisted and thrusted their way through songs that aren’t “Blurred Lines.” (He closed with the monster hit of 2013, naturally.)
Swedish duo Icona Pop, authors of the 2012 club jam “I Love It,” made a bolder statement about not being pegged as a one-hit wonder. They screamed at the crowd to party harder even as the skies opened up.
The crowd obliged. And some partied too hard, perhaps the result of snuck-in booze or other supplies. (Admission might have been free, but unless one could reach the tiny deck selling $5 National Bohemian cans, beer started at a not-so-economical $9.) People joked (probably?) about snagging a dose of “molly,” the club drug du jour. The occasional reveler collapsed mid-set. Reports floated of a man who got so blasted, he stripped bare and dashed across FreeFest’s carnival area before being tackled by security.