“Presenting new works and investing in their creation is an absolute must for the development of humanity” 
-- Daniela Candillari, conductor of the world premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s Grounded with Washington National Opera at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

When fighter pilot Jess becomes a mother, she is assigned to duty as a drone pilot. Now “grounded,” she must grapple with her own battle: the moral implications and psychological effects of virtual warfare. This world premiere by Jeanine Tesori is based on the award-winning play by George Brant and co-produced with the Metropolitan Opera.

Playwright/librettist George Brant and conductor Daniela Candillari were kind enough to chat with WETA Classical about this high-tech production which features an innovative use of LED screens to help transport audiences into the flying sequences. 

George Brant
George Brant, Playwright/Librettist

George Brant: Although I wrote the original play more than 10 years ago, with the rise and expansion of drone warfare in recent years, Grounded’s story is unfortunately far from a museum piece. I think our role in society is to raise questions, and I hope that people leave the opera more aware of what we’re asking of our pilots and the moral implications of drones and our surveillance society.

Nicole Lacroix: How is this story reflected in Jeanine Tesori’s score? And what should the audience listen for? Is there a musical throughline?

Daniela Candillari: Throughout the opera there are certain motifs that characterize a scene, a setting or an emotion. In the very first scene, for instance, we hear the chorus sing a line “You are” in the interval of a major second (from do to ré). Personally, I view this first motif as something that is the seed of the story and of the musical language of this opera. The next time we hear that same motif, this time initially played by woodwinds and strings and then joined by brass, we get introduced to Jess, the main character, and her world, and what defines her up to that point. 

When we meet Eric (Jess’ husband) for the first time, the music suddenly shifts to an almost Copland-like pastoral texture introduced with a single line played by the clarinet. Later it is followed by a figure, which represents the wind, played by woodwinds and strings. That musical moment transports us to an environment surrounded by nature, which also shows us more of Eric’s character.

Daniela Candillari
Daniela Candillari, conductor

There is also an exciting percussion interlude in both acts that is connected to military scenes.

Harp and piano, as well as celeste, always play a line that is incredibly beautiful and punctuates moments of peace.

The chords that are introduced by brass always direct the mood in which conversations between Jess and the Commander are set.

Throughout the opera there are various different musical styles represented—blues, classical, groove are just some of them—but the main thing is that music offers a framework in which the story and the drama live.

NL: Fortunately, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra is extraordinarily versatile. In fact, they are the only house orchestra in the country that plays for opera, dance and musicals.

DC: An opera company is defined by the strength of its orchestra and it’s been an absolute pleasure working with the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra on our production of “Grounded”. It’s an orchestra that is very comfortable playing many different styles and genres. The musicians are very flexible, while maintaining their specific sound as an ensemble. I can’t wait for the audiences to hear them in this new work.

NL: Speaking of collaborations, George Brant, I was curious to hear how a playwright/librettist and a composer work together to create a new opera. Your one-woman play became a full-scale opera, allowing for many different voices.  How arduous was the process?

GB: It’s been quite a journey—I wrote fifteen or more drafts of the libretto, carving away at the play to get at what was essential and what sang, bouncing ideas around with Jeanine the entire time. Jeanine encouraged me to overwrite, and she chose the language that she responded to musically.

NL: What are the different ways a play and an opera impact the audience? How does the music enhance or take away from the play?

GB: In some ways the opera feels like the full flowering of Grounded’s journey. Jeanine has an extraordinary talent at finding the core of the story, preserving that core and then expanding upon it, and adding a musical layer that deepens what was there, transforms it into musical form while retaining its spirit.

NL: Why is it important to present new works?

DC: I believe it is incredibly important to bring new works to the stage. Musical language is always developing as are the themes and stories we are following in our lives. Since I came to the US about 10 years ago, the amount of new works that I have witnessed or have been directly involved with has been incredible. Composers, in opera together with librettists, are the voices of our times, who translate our collective emotions and experiences into a medium that is very immediate. Very often we approach the works of the past as something that has existed and we might forget that at the time when those pieces were premiered, they were a complete novelty to the audiences. Presenting new works and investing in their creation is an absolute must for the development of humanity....One single measure of music can have a different meaning to every person who hears it, but it is through sharing that experience we find out that we actually have a lot more in common than perhaps we initially thought.

NL: And celebrating our humanity is in essence, the point of Grounded.

GB: It is probably more than a bit ironic that we are producing such a highly technical production while arguing for maintaining our humanity in the face of technology. But like any tool, technology can be used for good or ill.  I certainly am grateful for my laptop and my script-writing program, but preserving our humanity in our stories—the unpredictable, the surprising, the heart—is something I don’t think is easily mechanized.

NL: Exploring “the heart and the humanity” is something that George Brant will continue doing.

GB: I have a commission from the Met to work on an opera about Russia’s kidnapping of Ukrainian children with composer Maxim Kolomietts.

Grounded premieres at the Kennedy Center Opera House Saturday, October 28 and runs through November 13, 2023.

Music by Jeanine Tesori
Libretto based on the stage play by George Brant
Directed by Michael Mayer
Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra
Daniela Candillari conductor

Jess: Emily D’Angelo
Commander: Morris Robinson 
Eric: Joseph Dennis
Trainer: Frederick Ballentine

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