American Opera Initiative

Washington National Opera

Program Name

Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director
Robert Ainsley, Program Director

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.

About the Program

Each season of the American Opera Initiative commissions three 20-minute operas and an hour-long opera, using a chamber ensemble drawn from the WNO orchestra and the singers of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. Commissioned works are based on American themes and stories. 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 during the January AOI Festival. Performances are followed by a Q&A session with the artists and the creative team.

Participants are chosen from around the country, in collaboration with the Kennedy Center Conservatory Project. The Conservatory Project is an initiative of the Performing Arts of Everyone’s Millennium Stage, designed to present the best young musical artists in classical, jazz, musical theater, dance, and opera from our nation's leading undergraduate and graduate conservatories, colleges and universities.

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. Past mentors have included conductors Anne Manson, Steven Osgood, and John DeMain, composers Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon, John Musto, and Kevin Puts, and librettists Mark Campbell and Gene Scheer. These mentors work closely with WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello and AOI Director Robert Ainsley throughout the creative process, offering detailed feedback and advice to each team.

Mentors for the 2018-2019 season are conductor Steven Osgood (General and Artistic Director, Chautauqua opera; Artistic Director, Composers and the Voice), composer Jake Heggie (Dead Man WalkingMoby DickThree Decembers), and librettist Gene Scheer (Moby DickCold MountainAn American Tragedy).

AOI 20-Minute Operas 2019-2020

Woman of Letters

Liliya Ugay, Composer

Sokunthary Svay, Librettist

Sam is a first generation immigrant who works as a university janitor at a local university in Manhattan. He brings home books for his daughter, Sonya, which help educate her and give way to daydreams of far-off places in their cramped Bronx apartment. She learns she has received a scholarship to study in England. Will her immigrant father, a survivor of war and his wife's death, be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to let his daughter, his only family, go? Will Sonya finally be allowed to see the world she's only read about in her father's books?


Michael Lanci, Composer

Kim Davies, Librettist

They're the perfect American family: Mother, a TV star... Father, a business tycoon... their kids on track to go to the best colleges. But one night Mother and Father come home and have to explain to their kids that there's been a little misunderstanding, maybe a little money laundering, maybe an indictment. And suddenly their plans aren't quite so on-track after all...

Night Trip

Carlos Simon, Composer

Sandra Seaton, Librettist

On a July evening in 1958, Wesley and Mack, black WW II veterans, arrive at their sister's apartment in Chicago to pick up their niece. Conchetta has been waiting all summer to see her relatives—her grandmother, her aunts, her “play aunts.” The 16 year old's vision of small town life in Tennessee stands in sharp contrast to the world of steel and concrete she is about to leave. On her journey, she comes face to face with a new reality, one that her uncles, who have survived the brutality of war, refuse to accept. In Night Trip, a young girl's dreams collide with harsh truths that will change the way she sees her world.

Application Information

Applications for the 2019-2020 AOI 20 Program are now closed.

2020-2021 Program Deadlines
Subject to change

December 20, 2019 Composer applications due
January 3, 2020 Librettist applications due
February 3, 2020 Teams selected and notified
February 24, 2020 Libretto initial outlines due
March 13, 2020 Libretto outlines approved
April 6, 2020 First draft of libretto due
April 27, 2020 Revised libretto approved
July 24, 2020 First draft of piano vocal score due
August 31, 2020 Revised/workshop piano vocal score due
September 23-26, 2020 Piano workshop in Washington, DC
November 13, 2020 Final scores and parts delivered to WNO
January 4-16, 2021 Final rehearsals/world premiere performances

Application Instructions
To apply, follow these steps:

Step 1: Send an email to to request an application, contact information, and Dropbox link.

Step 2: Once you receive the application form and Dropbox link, send another email with the following:

  • Completed application form
  • Up-to-date Résumé/CV
  • Upload 3-5 compositions (with accompanying audio/MIDI and full scores) or written excerpts to Dropbox. More specific information on acceptable and appropriate materials for both composers and librettists will be sent in response to the initial e-mail.

For more information about the program, email

All materials for composers must be submitted by December 20, 2019.

All materials for librettists must be submitted by January 3, 2020.

All applicants will receive an e-mail confirmation of receipt of their application.

Kennedy Center Education

Major support for educational programs at the Kennedy Center is provided by David M. Rubenstein through the Rubenstein Arts Access Program.

Generous support is also provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

The content of these programs may have been developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education but does not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education. You should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Gifts and grants to educational programs at the Kennedy Center are provided by A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation; Sandra K. & Clement C. Alpert; Annenberg Foundation; Bank of America; Bender Foundation, Inc.; The Honorable Stuart Bernstein and Wilma E. Bernstein.

Michael F. and Noémi K. Neidorff and The Centene Charitable Foundation; CMA Foundation; DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities; Dr. Gerald and Paula McNichols Foundation; Estée Lauder; Exelon; Ford Foundation; The Gessner Family Foundation; GRoW @ Annenberg and Gregory Annenberg Weingarten and Family; Harman Family Foundation; The Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust; Herb Alpert Foundation; The Isadore and Bertha Gudelsky Family Foundation, Inc.; iTheatrics; The J. Willard and Alice S. Marriott Foundation; Jim and Heather Johnson; The Karel Komárek Family Foundation; the Kimsey Endowment; The Kiplinger Foundation; The King-White Family Foundation and Dr. J. Douglas White; Natalie and Herb Kohler and Kohler Co.; Laird Norton Family Foundation; Macy's; The Markow Totevy Foundation; Dr. Gary Mather and Ms. Christina Co Mather; Linda and Tobia Mercuro; Little Kids Rock; The Meredith Foundation; The Millennium Stage Endowment Fund; The Morningstar Foundation; 

The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; Myra and Leura Younker Endowment Fund; NAMM Foundation; National Endowment for the Arts; Newman's Own Foundation; Nordstrom; Oath Foundation; Park Foundation, Inc.; Paul M. Angell Family Foundation; The Irene Pollin Audience Development and Community Engagement Initiatives; Prince Charitable Trusts; Rosemary Kennedy Education Fund; Dr. Deborah Rose and Dr. Jan A. J. Stolwijk; Rosenthal Family Foundation; Mr. and Mrs. Albert H. Small; The Stella Boyle Smith Trust; Target; The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates; The Volgenau Foundation; Volkswagen Group of America; Dennis & Phyllis Washington; Wells Fargo; William R. Kenan, Jr. Charitable Trust; and generous contributors to the Abe Fortas Memorial Fund and by a major gift to the fund from the late Carolyn E. Agger, widow of Abe Fortas. Additional support is provided by the National Committee for the Performing Arts.