The Kennedy Center

American Opera Initiative

Program Information

Francesca Zambello, Artistic Director

Robert Ainsley, Program Director

For more information about the American Opera Initiative, please contact

Collage of headshots with Washington National Opera logo and American Opera Initiative 2019

AOI Three New 20-Minute Operas 2019-20

(clockwise from left-center)

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.


Anne Manson, Conductor Mentor
Kelley Rourke, Librettist Mentor
Laura Kaminsky, Composer Mentor

Program Description

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.

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 Walking, Moby Dick, Three Decembers), and librettist Gene Scheer (Moby Dick, Cold Mountain, An American Tragedy).


Proving Up, 2018

The Dictator's Wife, 2017


Proving Up workshop
Spring 2017

Proving Up workshop
Spring 2017

Proving Up workshop
Spring 2017

Composer Missy Mazzoli; Librettist Royce Vavrek; Roger Weitz, Opera Omaha; Ken Weiss, WNO


20-Minute Operas, 2016

Composer John Musto, AOI 20 Composer Matthew Peterson, Conductor Steven Osgood, Librettist Gene Scheer

20-Minute Operas, 2015

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon, Conductor John DeMain, Librettist Mark Campbell