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Washington’s Opera Taps a Champion of New Work From St. Louis


Timothy O’Leary, the new director of the Washington National Opera.

Ken Howard

Timothy O’Leary, a young American impresario who made new works and community engagement central to his success at the helm of Opera Theater of Saint Louis, will become the next general director of the Washington National Opera, the company announced Friday.

Mr. O’Leary, 42, said that he looked forward to making sure that his company lived up to its middle name — pointedly pronouncing it Washington National Opera — and to capitalizing on being in what he called “a golden age” of new American works.

“There are more new American operas being programmed throughout the whole country, by companies large and small, than ever before,” he said in a telephone interview. “Whereas 20 years ago that kind of project was regarded as something opera companies did out of a sense of duty, these are now often the sellout shows of opera seasons, and provide companies with many of their most meaningful opportunities to engage with the culture at large.”

In St. Louis Mr. O’Leary staged a series of world premieres of American operas, including “Champion,” a boxing-and-jazz themed opera by Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer; “27,” by Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek; and “Shalimar the Clown” by Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph, based on the Salman Rushdie novel.

He doubled the company’s endowment to $33 million, from $16.5 million when he took over in 2008. And he worked closely with community groups: When St. Louis presented “The Death of Klinghoffer” by John Adams in 2011, it avoided the kind of bitter protests that the work had attracted before, and has attracted since, in part by organizing interfaith dialogues.

In Washington, Mr. O’Leary will work with the company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, who is known for both the opera productions she directs and her community outreach programs. (As the general director of the Glimmerglass Festival, the summer opera festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., she has brought singers to perform at Attica for the past three years.)

One of Mr. O’Leary’s first orders of business will be to help name a new music director to succeed Philippe Auguin, who will leave after this season.

Mr. O’Leary, who is the chairman of the board of Opera America, a national service organization, will begin the position July 1, after wrapping up his final season in St. Louis. His last new work there suggests a certain affinity with his future operatic home: It is a two-act version of “An American Soldier,” about Pvt. Danny Chen, a young Chinese-American from New York City who killed himself in Afghanistan after he was hazed and racially taunted by fellow soldiers. The work is being expanded by its composer, Huang Ruo, and librettist, David Henry Hwang, from an hourlong version they wrote for the Washington National Opera in 2014.

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