Monday, February 2, 2009

Washington Social Diary

The Georgetown waterfront is quiet in the winter. Good for birds and walks.
Surviving the Storm
By Carol Joynt

Because the opera attracts a particularly passionate and knowledgeable audience it’s probably wise right up top to reveal it’s not a subject about which I’m particularly well versed. I’ve been to operas – both at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center – and I’ve enjoyed them, but, truthfully, I liked them better before the subtitles.

Nonetheless, I admire the creative and tactical effort involved in mounting a grand opera, and I respect the challenges that face the front office in keeping their uniquely attuned fan base satisfied and generous. Serious opera lovers are not like everyone else.
Waiting for spring: the route to Agraria included the C&O Canal path that runs through Georgetown. The tourist-friendly canal barge sits in its winter hibernation.
The C&O Canal is frozen, but only the ducks can walk on the ice.
Much like Congress, Washington's ducks go in many directions at once.
Still, in a time when a lot of big money is deflating, and economic fear trumps the open wallet, how do the arts, particularly the high arts, survive the storm? As if reading my mind, a lunch invitation arrived from two of the forces behind the 53-year-old Washington National Opera – Shayne Doty, who is head of Advancement and External Relations, and Michelle Pendoley, the company’s head of Media Relations.

Shayne came to Washington from the Metropolitan Opera several years ago, recruited to be part of a team that is headed by the Spanish tenor Placido Domingo, who manages – somehow – to be an opera star as well as General Director of both the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera. His website is not kidding when it says, “Since Placido Domingo was sixteen years old he has never stopped working.”
The waterfront complex that is home to the Agraria restaurant. In the summer the boardwalk is packed with people. In the winter it is quiet.
A frozen fountain outside the front entrance to Agraria. The view from the front door at Agraria.
Shayne Doty talks about the Washington National Opera.
Michelle Pendoley, Media Relations Manager of the Washington National Opera.
The Washington Opera is dark now, but not idle. They have a mid-winter gala coming up this weekend that is one of their three big social events of the year, the others being the Opera Ball in June and Opening Night in September.

Also, in May they host a “Latin Soul” concert where Domingo and other artists will perform the music of his ancestry and heart: ranchera, zarzuela, bolero, copla and tango.

Everything helps to keep the business side of the opera buoyant. “We’re analytical about the economy,” Doty said. “It’s going to be challenging, but we began to cut our budget over a year ago. We also worked hard to get younger people involved. People we talked to a few years ago are starting to come on the board.”
Inside Agraria on Friday afternoon.
Agraria claims to be a farmer run restaurant. This is their motto.
In particular he cited Mae Haney Grennan, Curt Winsor III, Susan Trees, David L. Mercer, Artemis P. McDonald, and one who was there earlier on, Isabel Ernst. He’s excited about the younger blood, who join a roster that includes Jacqueline Mars, Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, Kenneth R. Feinberg, Jane Cafritz, Jim Kimsey, Evelyn Nef, Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg and John Pohanka, the current chairman.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Pendoley, who has been with the company less than a year. “We laid the groundwork. Historically the arts have always taken a hit in tough economic times, but there’s also opportunity. There will be a lot of arts organizations that simply close. There will be new organizations that spring up. The ones that operate in new ways are the ones who will survive.”
Washington National Opera board member Selwa "Lucky" Roosevelt with Mat Hastings at last June's Opera Ball. Ina Ginsburg, an "honorary trustee" of the board of the Washington National Opera.
We met for lunch at Agraria restaurant. It’s part of a complex on the banks of the Potomac River, which sparkled on a cold but sunny day. Sunlight streamed in the big windows as Doty talked about his background as a professional organist and what attracted him to Washington. The WNO, he said, “is one of the top five opera companies in the country. My role is to figure out the motivations patrons have. Some seek a great musical experience, others want to achieve recognition, others want intellectual stimulation through contact with directors and set designers, others are theater people, others like to get to know the artists.”

Washington patrons are like no others. Doty said “the real opera buffs” in the city are the Supreme Court justices, particularly Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Chief Justice Roberts. Former President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, he said, “were good about coming to the opera,” when they occupied the White House. Less so the President and Mrs. Bush. He hopes President and Mrs. Obama will be in the audience on Opening Night, September 12.
The Kennedy Center's Opera House is home to the Washington National Opera. The season behind, the season ahead for the Washington National Opera.
Some of the stars of the Washington National Opera.
Both Doty and Pendoley marveled at the stamina of 68-year-old Placido Domingo, who spends 3-5 months each year working with the WNO at the Kennedy Center. “It’s remarkable that he’s still singing at the level he’s singing,” said Doty. “He still sings youthful roles.” And, Pendoley added, “takes on new roles.” He’s told them that he, too, never thought he’d sing this long.

The Washington National Opera is non-profit, relying on ticket sales – which run from $25 to $300 a seat – special programs, fundraising, and some Federal and some city money. Looking ahead, Pendoley said, “we’re sold out six ways from Sunday. There’s only so many seats, and once we fill them, we’ve filled them.”
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.