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Robert Spano to Lead Washington National Opera as Music Director

The conductor Robert Spano, who won acclaim as a champion of contemporary music during his two decades at the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, will serve as Washington National Opera’s next music director, the company announced on Tuesday.

Spano, 62, will become music director designate effectively immediately and begin a three-year term with the company in 2025, succeeding Philippe Auguin, who stepped down in 2018 after his contract was not renewed.

Spano, who serves as music director of the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra in Texas, said in an interview that he had been eager to do more opera since leaving his post as music director in Atlanta in 2021. He said that he wanted to “carry opera into the future” and that he planned to promote contemporary works, as he did in Atlanta.

“New work and masterpieces — they go hand in hand,” he said. “I’ve lived my life in music feeling like the works of living composers inform our understanding of the works of the past. They keep reinvigorating our understanding of these masterpieces.”

Timothy O’Leary, the general director of Washington National Opera, said in an interview that he was impressed by Spano’s experience and fresh perspective on opera.

“He’s got this track record of conducting the major standard works in the opera repertoire,” he said, “but he’s also really identified with championing new music and the next generation of creators.”

The search for music director began in 2018 but dragged on partly because of the pandemic. In the interim, the company has relied on Evan Rogister, its principal conductor. He will step down at the end of the 2024-25 season, the company said on Tuesday, shortly before Spano’s term begins.

Spano rose to the top of the list in Washington after making his company debut in 2022 in “Written in Stone,” a commissioning project that featured short operas by contemporary composers, including Carlos Simon, Huang Ruo, Kamala Sankaram and Jason Moran.

O’Leary said the company felt an “instant bond” with Spano during those rehearsals and performances.

“Part of why it was such a success,” O’Leary added, “was because of his incredible capabilities as a conductor, a technician but also an interpreter of new material.”

While Spano has never led a major opera company, he has won praise for his work as a guest conductor. In 2018, he made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, leading a production of Nico Muhly’s “Marnie.”

The critic Anthony Tommasini, writing in The New York Times, said that Muhly’s score “could not have had a better advocate than the conductor Robert Spano, making an absurdly belated Met debut at 57.”

“He highlighted intriguing details, brought out myriad colorings, kept the pacing sure and never covered the singers,” Tommasini wrote. “Where has he been?”

Spano will open the season at Washington National Opera this fall, leading Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” The production is directed by the company’s artistic director, Francesca Zambello, and features the soprano Sinead Campbell Wallace, the tenor Jamez McCorkle, the bass-baritone Derek Welton and the bass David Leigh.

Spano said he was optimistic about the future of opera, despite recent challenges. Many companies, including the Washington one, have struggled to get audiences to return since the pandemic.

His hope, he said, is “that we’re making great opera happen that attracts people to want to experience it, by that recognition that we’re in a living tradition, and not a dead one.”


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