On Tuesday Oct. 24, 2023, I had the good fortune to attend the dress rehearsal for the Washington National Opera’s world premiere of “Grounded,” whose music was written by Jeanine Tesori and its libretto by George Brant, who wrote the play the opera is based on. Opera NOVA’s Artistic Director Jose Sacín and several singers who sang in its performances (pictured) were in the all-male chorus. Performances started on Saturday Oct. 28 until Monday Nov. 13 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. It is scheduled to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera next year.
The opera, which is about two-and-a-half hours long plus a 30 minute intermission, is about Jess, a female fighter pilot who gets impregnated by her husband, Eric while on leave and is shipped stateside. When she comes back to the military, the world has changed and fighter technology evolves from piloting a jet onsite to controlling a drone from thousands of miles away in a trailer in Las Vegas. Her work and home lives interfere with one other and cause her to descend into insanity.
When I go to the opera, I want that opera to make me think. What is the opera and its plot saying? What are the internal and external dynamics it is describing? How does it relate to current events and current society? How did opera evolve to get to this point, and what is it evolving into?
“Grounded” is no exception to this.
One topic I thought about while watching this opera is the evolution of military technology. In the first scene, it is set in the skies above Iraq in 1991. We see the continuation of war as it has been fought throughout history. The warrior going to the battlefield, putting his or her life on the line for the country or kingdom. In the next scene, we are in the 2000s, only a decade later chronologically, but in a different eon technologically. Our warrior is back in the military, but now that military is completely different. A new fighter system is rolled out, but instead of a fighter jet controlled by a pilot, it is a drone costing $17 million and controlled by a “video gamer” from thousands of miles away. He or she sits in a chair looking at a screen showing a target that needs to be obliterated at the right moment for 12 hours before being replaced by the next and going home to be with the family. The most dangerous thing this warrior does is commute to and from work.
I have mixed feelings about this new technology. On one hand, it is a massive improvement for our service people. I am old enough to remember those who went to Vietnam young and healthy and returned dead, or with half their bodies missing, or their minds destroyed with mental illness or neurological problems. The new combat, called the “Chair Force” in the opera, eliminates that. On the other hand, it is now much easier to kill a human being. We need to be really careful that the ones we kill are the real targets and not innocents. The potential for misuse and abuse is great.
Grounded also made me think in an artistic way about what is going on in the world. In the first part of the opera after the opening scene, Jess gets impregnated by her future husband while on leave and is shipped stateside by her commander where she gives birth to her daughter Sam. This reminds me of the first scene of Tannhaüser when the title character goes from the glamorous world of Venusberg to the ordinary world of Wartburg. Substitute the skies over Iraq for Venusburg and Wyoming for Wartburg, and you have this part of Grounded. When the opera shifts to the 2000s and the Chair Force, other burgs start to come in. This makes me think about a very profound event that happened in the music world in the early 20th century. It shifted from a paradigm that lasted for many centuries dominated by a sequential progression of different musical styles to one where many different styles occurred in parallel (e.g., Serialism, Twelve Tone, Atonal, Neoclassical).
In opera, this is best illustrated by the first performances of three operas written in very different musical styles around 1925). These were Puccini’s Turandot, the last of the great Italian operas and written in the Romantic style, Leos Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen, an opera written in a somewhat tonal 20th century style, and Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, a severe atonal operatic thriller.
Eventually Jess becomes disenchanted not only with doing the same thing every day but also with killing people so easily. This starts affecting her mental health and dents her car while commuting home from her job. The climax occurs when she has to shoot a high ranking enemy (named Cobra) when he makes a long awaited stop in his car. He gets out, but a little girl (whose name is not revealed in the opera) waiting there comes running up to him. Failing to distinguish between work and home, Jess, thinking the little girl is her daughter Sam refuses to shoot. Another Chair Force fighter (stationed in another trailer not portrayed onstage) is then commanded to shoot, which he does. Jess then sends the drone into a tailspin and crashes and destroys it, costing the Defense Department $17 million. For this she is grounded, court martialed, and sent to prison in an ending that is eerily reminiscent of the title character in Wozzeck. Jess is destroyed by her descent into insanity at the hands of the military.
Finally Grounded made me think about Opera NOVA, the company I work for, and how it has evolved and adapted to the changes of the past several years. The pandemic has hit the arts all over the world hard. Arlington is no exception. Opera NOVA evolved in several ways. First, it performed online concerts, which allowed it to get around many of the protocols put in place to prevent the spread of COVID. They were able to perform opera for housebound audiences who could not safely go to the opera – especially those who were elderly or had other medical conditions that could make COVID fatal or extremely disabling. Online concerts also made it possible for artists to perform at a time where work was not possible, making it possible to have an income and improving their mental health.
In addition, the company held meetings over Zoom. This not only made some semblance of a day-to-day world possible but expanded our potential volunteer base. Opera NOVA was no longer limited to the DC area for its volunteers and was able to recruit them all over the country from New England to the Rockies. Furthermore, company management realized that technologies related to Zoom could be used to simulcast performances such as the Children’s Opera to remote places. One example would be a school near Pierre, SD attended by Native American school children.
In conclusion, Darwin concluded in his Theory of Evolution that those who are able to find and exploit new niches after a traumatic change in the environment will become those who will survive those changes. Those who fail to do so will die. Grounded illustrated this theory and how its characters were successful and unsuccessful in dealing with change. This will be an overriding paradigm in the 21st century. In addition, Opera NOVA President Miriam Miller said that the opera-going public is tiring of seeing the same thirty or forty operas all the time and is expressing a desire to see new operas. Hopefully we in the operatic community both inside and outside of Opera NOVA will be able to do this evolving and adapting to these changes successfully.
David Ryan is the Treasurer and Admin Officer for Opera NOVA