COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Before every opera performance at the Glimmerglass Festival, Francesca Zambello, its artistic and general director, cruises around its bucolic campus in a golf cart that she calls “Grane” after Brünnhilde’s trusty steed. Zambello greets audience members, gives welcome lifts to some older patrons, and gets out regularly to mingle. That a leader should be the festival’s public face is something Zambello takes seriously.
On a recent steamy Friday afternoon, she was an especially enthusiastic greeter. A performance of “The Jungle Book,” a youth opera she had commissioned, was about to begin at the Alice Busch Opera Theater, and lots of children, including very young ones, were in the crowd. “Hi,” she said to two little girls holding hands. “Is this your first opera?” When the girls nodded yes, Zambello, like a den mother, said: “That’s so exciting. I bet you’ll love it!”
After 12 ambitious, innovative years running Glimmerglass, Zambello, 65, is stepping down after this year’s six-week summer festival, which ends on Aug. 21. She will turn her focus to the Washington National Opera, where she has been artistic director since 2012. Proud of her tenure at Glimmerglass, and for leaving the company, in “a very healthy financial position, far different than I found,” she said in a recent interview, she felt the time was right to move on.
She has accomplished what she set out to do. “Creating a ‘festival’ environment and focusing on our brand of theater as a bridge to diverse communities,” she wrote in an email, as well as “addressing complex issues through storytelling and music making.”
Commissioning youth operas was just one initiative that Zambello brought to Glimmerglass, one that allowed her to give composers and librettists a chance. And it was essential to her, she said, that “young people should see works by living composers; they should know that music is alive.”
She also expanded the young artists program, created an artist residency (this year, it’s Kamala Sankaram, the composer of “Jungle Book”), and commissioned works for almost every festival — 11 in all, including one-acts and, a high point, “Blue” (2019), a timely opera with a score by Jeanine Tesori, and a libretto by Tazewell Thompson. A gripping, timely work about a Black policeman and his wife trying to raise a rebellious teenage son in Harlem, “Blue” has gone on to national stages. It plays in Toledo, Ohio, this month and next spring at Zambello’s Washington company and the English National Opera in London.
From the start, Zambello set a goal that “a third of the company should be nonwhite,” she said. This was a public manifestation of her efforts at diversity, and for the most part, she delivered.
And while most performing arts institutions talk up their community outreach programs, few have made more efforts than Glimmerglass under Zambello, including bringing opera to Attica, the maximum-security prison in western New York.
These initiatives helped Zambello with her mission — to transform the Glimmerglass Opera, as it was known when she arrived, into the Glimmerglass Festival. Many opera companies and orchestras present summer seasons called festivals that are essentially more of the same. Under Zambello, Glimmerglass has been a true festival, with mostly new productions of works, new and old, with ancillary concerts and talks. All of these often touch on larger themes and issues, a way, she said, to make the festival “more socially responsible,” particularly “during the second half of my tenure.”
Last summer, with the pandemic lingering, Zambello presented Glimmerglass on the Grass, with inventively staged, trimmed-down productions performed on a makeshift platform outdoors with amplification. This summer, opera has returned to the main stage — an intimate 918-seat theater — but, to be cautious, no ancillary events were scheduled.
This year’s six productions touched to various degrees, Zambello said, on “serious questions around faith, around resistance, around freedom and community.” Especially, to my delight and surprise, “The Jungle Book.”
In this version, directed by Zambello and Brenna Corner, Mowgli, the feral boy raised by a pack of wolves, is a girl (the sweet-voiced, impish Lily Grady). In the opening scene, Raksha, the matriarch of the pack (Kendra Faith Beasley), gathers her underlings and tells them: “To get along in the jungle, you have to know who you are.”
Sankaram’s music is an enchanting blend of Indian styles, especially from the Carnatic tradition, with Western harmonies, cyclic rhythms, inventive instrumental colors and tender, snappy vocal writing. I hope the young girls and boys in attendance noted that the composer, librettist (Kelley Rourke), conductor (Kamna Gupta), and directors of this enchanting production were all women.
Sankaram’s range came through in a production of “Taking Up Serpents,” a 2018 one-act opera, with a libretto by Jerre Dye, on a double bill with a Glimmerglass commission and premiere, “Holy Ground,” with music by Damien Geter and a libretto by Lila Palmer. “Taking Up Serpents” is a dark, intense story of a young woman, Kayla (Mary-Hollis Hundley), who has taken a job at a drugstore in an Alabama gulf town to get away from her parents, who lead a rural church that believes in speaking in tongues and practices rituals with snakes.
Sankaram and Dye dig below the parents’ seeming fanaticism to explore the spiritual yearnings that drive them and that, in some way, speak to the confused Kayla. “Holy Ground” explores spirituality quite differently. With a fanciful, skillfully written score, the piece presents a beguiling present-day story of a group of hapless archangels having trouble recruiting a young woman to bear God in human form. (Again? Did the first time not take hold?)
Within the context of this summer’s offerings, even a work as familiar as Bizet’s “Carmen” came across with extra bite: a tale of exploited female factory workers and a dark portrait of a “community,” Carmen (Briana Hunter) falls in with a group of bandits. Denyce Graves, a renowned interpreter of the title role, directed the psychologically penetrating production. Zambello’s imprint on the festival had never seen clearer.
But back in 2010, when her appointment was announced, she might not have seemed a logical choice for the job. For nearly 30 years, Paul Kellogg (who died last year) had brought gracious leadership skills and a “superb aesthetic,” as Zambello said, to Glimmerglass. When he stepped down in 2006, amid staff turmoil, it went into a four-year transitional period under Michael MacLeod. It was ready for an artistic jolt.
Zambello had earned international acclaim as an opera director at major houses in Paris, Milan, London, Moscow and more. She had taken her share of knocks for staging concepts that critics felt did not work, especially in the early years. Her 1992 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, “Lucia di Lammermoor,” was deemed by many a symbolism-strewn fiasco. She came back to the Met in 2003 with a visually stunning and emotionally involving production of Berlioz’s epic “Les Troyens.”
But she had never run a company.
“I had hit 30 years of being an itinerant director,” she said. “I wanted to have an anchor.”
Sherwin M. Goldman, then the president of the Glimmerglass board (and still a member), said the board took a leap in going with Zambello.
“I was not overwhelmed by her taste, to be quite frank,” Goldman said in an interview. “It was more her intelligence than her talent that intrigued me.” Zambello, who was born in New York and grew up in Europe, speaks five languages and talks with sweeping confidence about all facets of theater and the arts.
What finally convinced Goldman, he said, was Zambello’s readiness “to fight for what she believed in.” And she was no pushover. “Every day was a fight with Francesca,” he said. “That’s the way she communicated.”
At the time, Glimmerglass’s endowment had gone down, and there was a stubborn deficit, Zambello recalled. Along with tireless fund-raising skills, she articulated a bold vision that moved the festival into its next chapter. Her commitment to diversity was clear by her second season, in 2012, when artists from the Cape Town Opera were on the summer roster along with a number of Black American singers. That summer, years before the current discussions about race-conscious casting in opera and theater, Zambello’s festival explored dimensions of this complex issue.
There was a poignant production (by Thompson) of Kurt Weill’s musical “Lost in the Stars,” based on Alan Paton’s novel “Cry, the Beloved Country,” about a Black priest in South Africa struggling to serve his rural congregation. The festival was able to cast with affecting sensitivity to the racial identities of the characters; Eric Owens excelled in the lead role of Stephen Kumalo.
There was also a contemporary production of Verdi’s “Aida” directed by Zambello with a Black soprano (Michelle Johnson) in the title role of an Ethiopian princess held captive in Egypt, and, daringly for the time, a Black tenor (Noah Stewart) as Radamès, the leader of the Egyptian forces who is in love with her. The production was asking you to see beyond assumptions about the racial identities of the lovers.
Verdi’s opera “is not about race,” Zambello said. “It’s almost a civil argument between Ethiopia and Egypt. It’s not even like there is a fixed border; these are like two tribes.”
Then there was a lively staging, by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man.” With so many Black singers to call upon, the town of River City, Iowa, and its small-minded, gossipy citizenry, came across here as a racially mixed community.
“The Music Man” was an early entry into Zambello’s series of classic American musicals, presented in fresh productions, with full orchestras (a rarity on Broadway), singers who combine operatic training and musical theater savvy, and, for the most part, no amplification.
This summer Zambello directed “The Sound of Music,” starring Mikaela Bennett in a radiant, endearing performance as Maria. In this vibrant staging, with adorable child performers as the von Trapp children, the musical’s themes of faith, community and resistance to tyranny, which often seem smothered in sentimentality, felt real and timeless.
Zambello’s successor will be Robert Ainsley, who has been the director of the Washington National Opera’s young artists program and its American opera initiative. “Rob will bring his own sensitivity to programming,” Zambello said, adding, “I know he is committed to continuing to provide a range of ways for people to come together around song and story.”
For her part, Zambello is gratified to have overseen the return of live opera to Glimmerglass. Nothing, she said, can replace a “group of strangers, responding together, magnifying each other’s sense of tension, shock, wonder and delight.”