John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts

11/09/2022 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 11/10/2022 09:56

WNO Presents Three New Operas in 10th Season of American Opera Initiative

Washington National Opera Presents Three New Operas

American Opera Initiative: Three 20-Minute Operas

AOI Tenth Season

To Feature Three World Premieres

Oshun | Music by B.E. Boykin; Libretto by Jarrod Lee

Bubbie and the Demon | Music by Jens Ibsen; Libretto by Cecelia Raker

What the Spirits Show | Music by Silen Wellington; Libretto by Walken Schweigert

WNO Appoints Kelley Rourke AOI Artistic Advisor

January 21, 2023

Kennedy Center Terrace Theater

(WASHINGTON)-Washington National Opera (WNO) presents the tenth season of its acclaimed American Opera Initiative (AOI) with world premieres of three new operas on January 21, 2023, at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. The three composer-librettist teams-B.E. Boykin and Jarrod Lee, Jens Ibsen and Cecelia Raker, and Silen Wellington and Walken Schweigert-collaborated with distinguished mentors who have each enjoyed professional success in the field to create 20-minute one-act operas. Their mentorship is led by librettist Kelley Rourke, who has served as an AOI mentor for three years and was recently appointed AOI Artistic Advisor. Other mentors include librettist and filmmaker Kimberly Reed, composer Carlos Simon, and WNO Principal Conductor Evan Rogister, who will lead a chamber orchestra of WNO Orchestra members. The concert staging will be directed by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello.

AOI's newly appointed Artistic Advisor Kelley Rourke is a librettist, translator, and dramaturg. Her work has been commissioned and performed by opera companies around the world. She serves as resident dramaturg for The Glimmerglass Festival and was founding editor of Opera America magazine. She holds degrees in piano performance and arts management.

"It has been my privilege to shepherd numerous operas through the creative process during my three seasons with AOI. The program provides an important platform for a new generation of artists to gain experience in opera, and to hear their work performed by world-class artists drawn from the Cafritz Young Artists Program and the Washington National Opera Orchestra." says Kelley Rourke. "Many of the collaborators who were put together by AOI in past seasons have continued making work together, and it's been thrilling to see them take on ever-larger assignments at opera houses across the country."

Several of the creatives who collaborated to produce AOI operas were also part of The Cartography Project, a multi-year commissioning project led by WNO and the NSO that engaged artists from around the nation to map black dignity as a cultural response to extrajudicial violence. WNO continues its commitment to The Cartography Project artists B.E. Boykin, Jens Ibsen, and Carlos Simon.

About the Operas:

Oshun -Music by B.E. Boykin; Libretto by Jarrod Lee

Oshun is a journey of sacrifice, self-love, and redemption displayed in the face of those who would deny it. From Oshun's story we learn that with help from those who love us well, we can believe and manifest our inner strength even in our darkest hour.

Bubbie and the Demon-Music by Jens Ibsen; Libretto by Cecelia Raker

Bubbie has filled the void of COVID isolation by solving as many wordsearches and crosswords as possible, until her latest puzzle turns out to be a curse that conjures a Demon from the netherworld. When Bubbie welcomes him with delight, insisting he must be her long-lost goth-grandson, how far will her well-intentioned neighbor Karen go to convince the old woman that something is horribly wrong? A pandemic-take on a viral internet myth, this short piece weaves together classical music and heavy metal to pose thorny questions about chosen family and what constitutes true evil.

What the Spirits Show-Music by Silen Wellington; Libretto by Walken Schweigert

Calamus is a teenage artist with a fantastical imagination and endless curiosity. Rather than easels or clay, Calamus' canvas is their own body. With the aid of a magic elixir, Calamus shape shifts, expressing their true spirit by bending into different forms and offering the poetry of transformation. But when a tyrannical politician criminalizes such elixirs, Calamus' world is on the brink of destruction, and they will need all their strength to bend the arc back towards justice.

About the American Opera Initiative

The American Opera Initiative is a comprehensive commissioning program founded in January 2012 by Washington National Opera. The Initiative was created to stimulate, enrich, and ensure the future of contemporary American opera by providing talented emerging composers and librettists with mentorship and opportunities to write for the stage.

Since 2012, the American Opera Initiative has commissioned three 20-minute operas each year from composers and librettists selected from across the country. Commissioned works use a chamber ensemble drawn from the WNO orchestra and singers from the Cafritz Young Artists. Each team of composers and librettists workshops their operas throughout the development cycle at the Kennedy Center and has the invaluable experience of witnessing their work performed on a Kennedy Center stage.

A key element of the American Opera Initiative is connecting the young composers and librettists to professional mentors who have successfully brought new American operas to the stage. Mentors have included composers Anthony Davis, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Laura Kaminsky, John Musto, Kevin Puts, and Carlos Simon; librettists Mark Campbell, Kimberly Reed, and Gene Scheer; and conductors John DeMain, George Manahan, Anne Manson, David Neely, and Steven Osgood. These mentors work closely with WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and AOI Artistic Advisor Kelley Rourke, who offer detailed feedback and advice to each team.

Applications for the 2023-2024 American Opera Initiative will be available in November 2022, with a deadline of December 16, 2022. Interested composers and librettists may request an application by e-mailing [email protected].

About the AOI Creative Teams

B.E. Boykin (Brittney Boykin) first pursued her interest in music during her time at Spelman College, attending classes that inspired and challenged her musical imagination and peaked her interest in composition. After graduating with a B.A. in Music, Boykin continued her studies while attending Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, New Jersey, graduating with a M.M. in Sacred Music and receiving the R & R Young Composition Prize. Boykin has been commissioned and collaborated with several organizations, including a number of ACDA divisions, the Minnesota Opera and the Kennedy Center. She obtained her PhD from Georgia State University with an emphasis in Music Education and is currently an Assistant Professor of Music at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Librettist and baritone Jarrod Lee hails from Sylacauga, Alabama and resides in Maryland. As a writer, Jarrod has worked with composer B.E. Boykin on Oshun (Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative) and Two Corners (Finger Lakes Opera, NY); with composer Ronald "Trey" Walton on Voices of Zion and See your Equal, which placed third in the composition category of the George Shirley Vocal Competition; and with composer Timothy Amukele on Journey to You (Alliance for New Music-Theatre) and Spirit Moves (In Series). In addition to original stories, Lee has translated a deconstruction of The Magic Flute called Black Flute with playwright Sybil Roberts (In Series). Jarrod creates works that are rooted in the experience of being Black, Gay and American, adding to the canon of stories written by Black Americans which are rarely seen on the operatic stage. In addition to writing and performing, Lee is the Director of Project Managers with the Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts (CAAPA) and serves on the board of Baltimore Musicales.

Jens Ibsen, composer/tenor, is a multidisciplinary artist whose vocal talents have led him to performances from Dubai to Shanghai, with stops along the way on German television, at Carnegie Hall, and the UN. Ibsen was a principal soloist and the first African-born member of the world-renowned Vienna Boys Choir. He has been commissioned by festivals like the São Paolo Contemporary Composers Festival and the Impulse New Music Festival. Recent commissions have included A Portrait in Greys for the Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir and an upcoming one-act opera for The Kennedy Center. Ibsen performs in New York and San Francisco as a freelance vocalist singing everything from early music to world premieres with ensembles such as The Choir of Trinity Wall Street and OS Ensemble. Ibsen received his M.M. in Music Composition at the Mannes School of Music under Missy Mazzoli while studying voice under Stephen Powell.

Cecelia Raker is a playwright and librettist from Santa Fe, NM. As a queer, observantly Jewish artist, she loves creating characters who don't neatly fit in to their dominant culture's boxes. Current projects include an interactive challah-baking solo performance piece, a YA novel that mashes up Hasidic shtetl life with a shape-shifting fairytale, a play about sisterhood and bog butter, and a binary-busting mermaid adventure for young audiences. Raker and composer Keith Allegretti are one of the first teams to craft a lead role in contemporary opera specifically for trans singers' voices, in their rollicking Gold Rush chamber opera Good Country. Awards and productions include the Kennedy Center's Darrel Ayers TYA Playwriting Awards (1st place 2019 for Webbed Hands, 2nd place 2018 for La Llorona), the 2016 Princess Grace Award (runner up), the 2016 Kilroys List (honorable mention), and a 2017-2018 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship. Her work has been developed and produced with LOLA Austin, The Cohen New Works Festival, Fresh Ink Theatre, Cohesion Theatre, Venus Theatre, Company One, the Great Plains Theater Conference, and a variety of other venues. To survive capitalism, Raker also edits grammar explanations for Bunpo, a language-learning app. She lives in Austin with her partner, their super smiley baby, and a talkative cat. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Harvard University, and a Masters of Fine Arts from Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin.

Silen Wellington (they/he) is a sculptor of sound, artist of people, storyteller, genderqueer shapeshifter, mercurial name collector, and lover, among other things. Avidly interdisciplinary, they make art as an act of service, healing, disruption and magic, weaving together poetry, acoustic sound, electronics, ritual, and performance art. Internationally performed from Invercargill, Aotearoa New Zealand to Hyderabad, India, they have participated in festivals and residencies such as Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, New York Electroacoustic Music Festival, and Connecticut Summerfest. Their work has won competitions & commissions from places such as the Boulder Arts Commission and Colorado's Bohemian Foundation and from ensembles such as Ars Nova Singers, Denver's Playground Ensemble, Resonance Women's Chorus, and Phoenix: Colorado's Transgender Community Choir. They are a 2022 Bouman Fellow with the composer collective Kinds of Kings, 2019 SEAMUS Allen Strange Award recipient, and have a B.M. in Music Composition and a B.A. in Psychology from University of Colorado Boulder. Their work has been performed in gardens whispering delightful fae dances to the trans-ancestors that escape definition, featured boys in dresses next to saxophones, unveiled prescription label collages amid chaotic soundscapes of dysphoria, danced nonbinary shadow puppets behind sheets of rainbow light, and given permission to intramuscular testosterone injections under expansive life-giving harmonics. Silen currently lives on Cheyenne, Arapaho, & Ute land in what is otherwise known as Fort Collins, Colorado. Outside of music, they are published poet and writer and work in peer support advocacy & suicide prevention for LGBTQIA+ youth. Besides writing music and hanging out with Gen Z gender aliens, they enjoy harvesting stories, unhinged-unfettered-unapologetic dance, and falling in love.

Walken Schweigert is a queer/trans actor, musician, composer and director from St. Paul, MN. A Jerome Foundation Fellow, he is a 2009 graduate of the Dell' Arte International School for Physical Theatre, and a 2006 graduate of the Perpich Center for Arts Education (Theatre Major). He has worked with the Taller Xuchialt and Ronda de Barro in Leon, Nicaragua (2005-2007); toured with and been mentored by Stacy Klein and Carlos Uriona of the internationally renowned Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield, MA (2012-2017); and has busked on the streets of 11 countries. He has facilitated Theatre of the Oppressed workshops across the Americas, and co-founded the all-transgender theatrical/dance/circus ensemble entitled the Gay Unicorn Triplettes (2010-2012). A classically-trained violinist, he has been part of over a dozen musical ensembles of varying genres, from klezmer to string metal. Currently, he performs with the poetic-folk band Buffalo Weavers (Saint Paul, MN) and the occult-inspired, baroque-horror, Detroit-based band CRUNE. In 2008 he founded the Unseen Ghost Brigade, an ensemble that toured an original piece of street theatre down the Mississippi River in 2010 on a raft they built themselves. In its next incarnation, the ensemble was renamed Children of the Wild to produce Schweigert's first opera The Wastelands, which premiered in 2016 and toured across the country for three years. In 2017 Children of the Wild became Open Flame Theatre, and moved to Philadelphia Community Farm, in Osceola, WI, where the theatre and Schweigert are in residence indefinitely. Walken was also recently a recipient of a J Fund Award from the American Composers Forum for the composition of his second opera, The Garden, which was scored by CRUNE and produced by Open Flame Theatre and Philadelphia Community Farm, where it premiered in September 2021.


Librettist and filmmaker Kimberly Reed was commissioned by a consortium of opera companies led by Santa Fe Opera to write Hometown to the World, along with composer Laura Kaminsky. Hometown will have its NYC premiere November 2022 at Town Hall. With Mark Campbell she co-wrote the libretti for Today It Rains (Opera Parallèle, 2019), Some Light Emerges (Houston Grand Opera, 2017), and As One (the American Opera Project, 2014), which is the most frequently produced new opera in North America, according to Opera America magazine. Her film projections have been called "worthy of Fellini or Bergman" (SF Classical Voice). Ms. Reed's song cycle Fierce Grace: Jeannette Rankin premiered at the U.S. Library of Congress in 2017. Her nonfiction writing was published in "The Moth," a New York Times best-seller. Kim's documentary film Prodigal Sons won 14 awards and was released in theaters and broadcast worldwide, and her Sundance award-winning 2018 documentary Dark Money was promptly named by Vogue magazine as one of the 66 Best Documentaries of All Time and shortlisted for the Academy Awards. She is a fellow of Yaddo and New York Foundation for the Arts.

Kelley Rourke is a librettist, translator, and dramaturg. Libretti include Lucy, Natural Systems, Stay, and Eat the Document (with composer John Glover); The Beekeeper (with Wang Lu); Wilde Tales and And Still We Dream (with Laura Karpman); The Jungle Book (with Kamala Sankaram); The Emissary (with Kenji Oh); and Odyssey and Robin Hood (with Ben Moore). Her English adaptations of standard and not-so-standard operas have been hailed as "crackingly witty" (The Independent, London) and "remarkably well wedded to the music" (New York Times). Kelley's work has been commissioned and performed by Washington National Opera, English National Opera, Welsh National Opera, Metropolitan Opera, The Glimmerglass Festival, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Chicago Opera Theater, Opera Parallèle, Boston Lyric Opera, Young People's Chorus of NYC, Seattle Opera, Minnesota Opera, Carnegie Hall, Urban Arias, Met LiveArts, Houston Grand Opera's HGOco, San Francisco Conservatory, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Atlanta Opera, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and Nautilus Music-Theater, among others. Kelley has been engaged as a guest lecturer at Boston University, Carnegie Mellon University, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, Walnut Hill School for the Arts, and University of Maryland College Park; and as librettist mentor for Washington National Opera's American Opera Initiative and Seattle Opera's Creation Lab. Kelley is resident dramaturg for The Glimmerglass Festival, and has served as founding editor of Opera America magazine and a contributor to the New Grove Dictionary of American Music. She holds degrees in piano performance and arts management.

Carlos Simon is Composer in Residence at the Kennedy Center. His latest album, My Ancestor's Gift, was released on the Navona Records label in April 2018. Described as an "overall driving force" (Review Graveyard) and featured on Apple Music's "Albums to Watch," My Ancestor's Gift incorporates spoken word and historic recordings to craft a multifaceted program of musical works that are inspired as much by the past as they are the present.

As a part of the Sundance Institute, Simon was named as a Sundance Composer Fellow in 2018, which was held at the historic Skywalker Ranch. His string quartet, Elegy, honoring the lives of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner was recently performed at the Kennedy Center for the Mason Bates Juke Box Series at the Kennedy Center. With support from the US Embassy in Tokyo and US/Japan Foundation, Simon traveled with the Asia/America New Music Institute (AANMI) on a two-week tour of Japan in 2018 performing concerts in some of the most sacred temples and concert spaces in Japan including Suntory Hall in Tokyo, Japan.

Simon earned his doctorate degree at the University of Michigan, where he studied with Michael Daugherty and Evan Chambers. He has also received degrees from Georgia State University and Morehouse College. Additionally, he studied in Baden, Austria at the Hollywood Music Workshop with Conrad Pope and at New York University's Film Scoring Summer Workshop.

Evan Rogister is Principal Conductor of Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra. A dual citizen of the United States and Germany, Rogister enjoys meaningful artistic partnerships on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the summer of 2023, Rogister makes his Glyndebourne Festival debut, conducting the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in a new production of Mozart's Don Giovanni, directed by Mariame Clément. Additional highlights of the 22/23 season include Rogister's debut at the Dresden Semperoper, leading Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, and a new production of Richard Strauss's Elektra at the Kennedy Center, directed by Francesca Zambello. Committed to fostering new work, Rogister leads performances of WNO's American Opera Initiative in 2023, featuring three premieres by emerging composers and librettists.

Rogister made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2017/2018 season, conducting Mozart's The Magic Flute, and he returns to the MET in future seasons.

From 2018 to 2022, Rogister conducted Göteborg Opera's first complete cycle of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. The multiyear collaboration with director Stephen Langridge culminated in a new production of Götterdämmerung in the 21/22 season, timed to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Gothenburg.

Equally at home on the concert stage as in the pit, this fall Rogister conducts subscription concerts with the Essen Philharmoniker. Recent symphonic projects include collaborations with the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, Bergen Philharmonic, l'Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra (Washington D.C.), the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, l'Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, the Malmö Symphony Orchestra, the Bochum Symphoniker, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, the North Carolina Symphony, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to Der Ring des Nibelungen, Rogister has conducted three other works by Wagner, Tannhäuser (Deutsche Oper Berlin), Rienzi (Deutsche Oper Berlin) and Lohengrin (Royal Swedish Opera). Recent operatic highlights include new productions of Puccini's La bohème and Wagner's Lohengrin at the Bolshoi Theatre, a collaboration with Peter Stein on a new production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (Malmö Opera), two new productions of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (Royal Swedish Opera and Spoleto Festival USA), Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg's Erwartung in double bill (Göteborg Opera and Seattle Opera); Szymanowski's King Roger (The Santa Fe Opera), Verdi's Otello (Berlin and Luxembourg), André Previn's Streetcar Named Desire (Chicago Lyric Opera and L.A. Opera) and season opening productions at the Kennedy Center of Verdi's Aida, Bizet's Carmen and ComeHome-a series of concerts marking Washington National Opera's return to live performance at the Kennedy Center.

Rogister's debut recording with Deutsche Grammophon, Follow, Poet, was released in January of 2015. The album features new works by the composer Mohammed Fairouz written for mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey, with Rogister conducting the Ensemble LPR.

AOI Performances

Saturday, January 21, 2023 at 7 p.m.

Saturday, January 21, 2023 at 9 p.m.

Running time: Each opera is approximately 20 minutes; the production lasts about an hour, run without intermission.


The Presenting Sponsor of WNO is General Dynamics.

The Official Airline of the WNO Season is American Airlines.

Major support provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars and Mrs. Eugene B. Casey.


Tickets may be purchased online at, in-person at the Kennedy Center Box Office, or by calling (202) 467-4600.


Jen Luzzo

(201) 572-9364

[email protected]

Paige Wearmouth

(202) 416-8265

[email protected]