News & Politics

A New Opera Examines the Perils of Modern Warfare

Jeanine Tesori's 'Grounded' premieres at the Kennedy Center October 28.

Mezzo-­soprano Emily D’Angelo.

Shortly after the play Grounded premiered in New York in 2014, its writer, George Brant, received a curious email from the Metropolitan Opera’s dramaturg, Paul Cremo, who had attended the production. That work was a one-­woman dive into the psychological toll of drone war­fare, but “he said he heard an aria pulsing throughout it,” recalls Brant. For some reason, Cremo thought it would make for a great opera.

Nearly a decade later, Cremo’s vision is finally arriving at the Kennedy Center, where the operatic version of Grounded premieres October 28. Much like Brant’s play, Grounded follows the life of an F-16 fighter pilot (played by mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo, above) whose pregnancy relegates her to “the chair force,” where she targets enemies with drones from inside a trailer thousands of miles away. Despite the distance, her mental state spirals, “pushing people to think about the psychological cost of drone warfare and what this means in today’s world,” says Francesca Zambello, artistic director of the Washington National Opera.

This isn’t the first time the WNO has tackled such unexpected 21st-century story ­lines. “When I first began, it was part of my mission to bring in more contemporary opera that dealt with important, modern themes,” says Zambello. The WNO has now commissioned operas about police brutality, immigration, and racism.

Though he’d never worked on an opera before, Brant was brought on as the librettist. The music, meanwhile, is by Broadway composer Jeanine Tesori, whose work includes Fun Home; Caroline, or Change; and Kimberly Akimbo, the winner of this year’s Tony for Best Musical. Brant was initially daunted by his task, but he soon realized that the music carries the story in an opera much more than the words do. “Seeing what [Tesori] has done, I’m quite jealous of how quickly music can cut to the heart of the matter,” says Brant. “As playwrights, it can take us a while to get an audience to care about a character, but with music they respond emotionally within seconds.”

That type of investment is important to Brant, who believes that the subject of drone warfare is just as relevant today as it was a decade ago when he was working on his play. Back then, “it still felt science-­fictiony in nature,” he says. “Now there’s more of a shared knowledge that it’s reality. Hopefully, this can make people question it.”

This article appears in the November 2023 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Ruf
Assistant Editor