The Kennedy Center

American Opera Initiative

Collage of headshots with Washington National Opera logo and American Opera Initiative 2018

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, and John Musto, 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 2017-2018 season include conductor George Manahan (American Composers’ Orchestra, Portland Opera), and the team behind the 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Silent Night, composer Kevin Puts (Elizabeth Cree, The Manchurian Candidate), and librettist Mark Campbell (The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, The Shining).


The Dictator’s Wife, 2017

Better Gods, 2016


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