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Opera Philadelphia’s 2020-2021 Season Launches in September with Fourth Annual Festival O, Featuring New Commission from Jennifer Higdon, New Production Starring Sondra Radvanovsky, and More

Opera is a living, breathing artform at Opera Philadelphia, which continues to prove itself a hotbed of operatic innovation” (New York Times). The company launches the 2020–2021 season with the fourth iteration of the trailblazing Festival O, “one of the most enjoyable additions to the fall calendar in years” (Washington Post), and the only American festival nominated for a 2020 International Opera Award. O20 comprises a wide variety of operatic happenings at multiple venues across the city this September. With the world premiere of a new commission, a major new production of one of opera’s great classics, and a host of A-list artists making their company and role debuts, the company’s new season underscores its status not only as “one of North America’s premiere generators of valid new operas” (Opera News) but also as “one of American opera’s success stories” (New York Times).

Festival O20 opens with the world premiere of Woman with Eyes Closed, a new Opera Philadelphia commission from Pulitzer Prize-winner and three-time Grammy-winner Jennifer Higdon and librettist Jerre Dye, written for and starring contralto Meredith Arwady in a sensitive staging by German director Christian Räth at the intimate Perelman Theater. Next, preeminent Verdi soprano Sondra Radvanovsky makes her role debut as Lady Macbeth in a contemporary new treatment of Verdi’s Macbeth from award-winning Scottish director Paul Curran at the Academy of Music, with esteemed Jack Mulroney Music Director Corrado Rovaris on the podium. Jamaican bass-baritone Sir Willard White, one of the best-loved and most versatile opera stars of the past 40 years, makes his company debut in Hans Werner Henze’s El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave), performed in the expansive Annenberg Court of the Barnes Foundation, home to O17’s The Wake World and O18’s Glass Handel. Highlighting his residency as O20’s Festival Artist, American tenor Lawrence Brownlee – Opera Philadelphia’s Artistic Advisor – sings bel canto favorites with fellow tenor Michael Spyres in the gala kickoff Festival O20 Celebration. Four recitals showcase singers from Philadelphia’s two prestigious operatic training grounds – the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts – on both weekends of Festival O20. Additionally, many of O20’s stars will join guest opera and cabaret singers to offer a taste of their more outrageous sides in the return of “Late Night Snacks,” the hit pop-up cabaret series produced in partnership with The Bearded Ladies and FringeArts.

The season continues in 2021 with two presentations at the Academy of Music. Six-time Grammy-winning conductor Robert Spano and mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell make company debuts with two January concert performances of Stravinsky’s neoclassical opera-oratorio, Oedipus Rex, with tenor William Burden in the title role. And the season draws to a close with a spring presentation of Puccini’s beloved Tosca, showcasing the company and role debuts of soprano Ana María Martínez, tenor Piero Pretti, and baritone Quinn Kelsey, who anchor a stellar cast under the baton of Corrado Rovaris.

David B. Devan, General Director & President of Opera Philadelphia, says:

“I am proud of the wide artistic palette of the 2020-2021 season, with its balance of new, contemporary works and honoring the canon. I’m always thrilled when we bring a new opera into the world, and Woman with Eyes Closed is extra special because Jennifer Higdon is our own – Philadelphia’s own. That we’ve been able to provide an artist of her standing and experience with a voyage of discovery is very exciting.”

Devan is especially proud of the singers who have been assembled to sing company and role debuts in the 2020-2021 season. He continues:

“We’ve really hit our stride in casting, creating opportunities for emerging artists as well as established artists to sing a role for the first time. What I love about new roles are that they are a dynamic interplay between the artist and audience discovering something together.”

Festival O20 packages and full-season subscriptions are now on sale at, or by calling 215-732-8400 (Monday through Friday, from 9am to 5pm). Single tickets will go on sale on Monday, June 1, at or by calling 215-732-8400.

About the Festival O20 productions (Sep 2020)

Woman with Eyes Closed (world premiere)

Music by Jennifer Higdon; libretto by Jerre Dye

Commissioned and produced by Opera Philadelphia

Sep 17, 19, 22, 24 & 26

Perelman Theater

Performed in English with English supertitles

O20 launches with the world premiere production of Woman with Eyes Closed, a new Opera Philadelphia commission from Pulitzer Prize laureate, three-time Grammy-winner and Philadelphia resident Jennifer Higdon, whose first opera, Cold Mountain, won a 2016 International Opera Award after its acclaimed East Coast premiere at Opera Philadelphia. Her second opera, Woman with Eyes Closed, was inspired by the real-life 2012 theft of seven masterpieces from Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum. At first, the mother of the prime suspect confessed to incinerating these priceless artworks to protect her son, but she subsequently denied it. Never recovered, their fate remains shrouded in mystery.

Higdon initially found herself drawn to the story’s unsolved puzzle, and then to one of the missing works itself: Lucian Freud’s 2002 painting Woman with Eyes Closed. The composer’s emotional response was shared both by librettist Jerre Dye, whose past commissions include works for Washington National Opera and Seattle Opera, and by German director Christian Räth, a “real genius” (Musical America) whose productions have graced stages from the Vienna State Opera to the Metropolitan Opera.

Committed to capturing the unsolved mystery at the story’s heart, the creative team devised multiple endings; each audience will see the plot play out in one of three different ways. And by casting the thief’s mother as their protagonist, and having her see in Freud’s painting an irresistible resemblance to her own dead mother, the team found in their story a way to explore the power of art. As Higdon explains: “It’s about the characters. And also transformation. How the experience of art, or in this case the theft of art, can transform someone.

Dye adds:

“This was my challenge as the librettist: so, art lands in the hands of someone who has no understanding of art and no relationship with art. What does it take for that art to create an emotional reaction in her heart and mind?”

Higdon created the central role of Mona, mother of the thief, expressly for Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals-winner Meredith Arwady, “a young contralto with deep notes that feel like a force of nature” (LA Times). In Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere production, Arwady will be joined by tenor Kevin Ray, also seen this season at LA Opera and the Met, who plays the part of her son, thief Tomas. Making her company debut, British-Singaporean mezzo-soprano Fleur Barron, “a knockout performer” (The Times of London), sings the Museum Curator. And rounding out the cast as the police inspector is Chinese bass Wei Wu, who makes his Opera Philadelphia debut this spring in Madame Butterfly, and was last seen in Santa Fe Opera’s Grammy-winning recording and world premiere production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, in which he “almost stole the show” (Washington Post). Click here to see Higdon, Dye and Räth discuss Woman with Eyes Closed over drinks, in the latest installment of “An Opera Walks Into a Bar.”

Macbeth (new production)

Music by Giuseppe Verdi; libretto by Francesco Maria Piave and Andrea Maffei

Sep 18, 20, 23, 25 & 27

Academy of Music

Performed in Italian with English supertitles

Festival O20 brings a major new Opera Philadelphia production of Macbeth to the Academy of Music. Verdi’s adaptation of the Shakespearean tragedy illustrates the timeless corrosiveness of power in a new staging that Helpmann Award-winning Scottish director Paul Curran calls “a dark journey into the dark recesses of the mind.” The former Artistic Director of the Norwegian National Opera, Curran’s recent highlights include La donna del lago at the Metropolitan Opera, The Tsar’s Bride at London’s Royal Opera House, and a “vibrant new production” (Opera News) of Carmen at Opera Philadelphia in the 2017-18 season.

Curran’s contemporary production showcases Sondra Radvanovsky, “one of the Metropolitan Opera’s top Verdi sopranos” (New York Times). After dazzling Philadelphia audiences as the O17 Festival Artist, Radvanovsky returns to make her eagerly anticipated role debut as Lady Macbeth. She gives four performances of the role (Sep 18, 20, 23 & 27), and “rising star” Polish soprano Ewa Płonka (OperaWire) makes her company debut with a fifth (Sep 25). They partner with Italian baritone Roberto Frontali, celebrated for his headlining appearances at the Metropolitan Opera and La Scala, in his company debut in the title role. Also making company debuts are Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions Grand Finals-winning tenor Richard Trey Smagur as Macduff and tenor Rafael Moras, praised for his “incisive and energetic singing” (Opera News), as Malcolm. Completing the cast of principals is bass Patrick Guetti, a “standout whose sound [is] warm and rich” (Washington Post), who returns to Philadelphia as Banco after appearing in 2018’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Corrado Rovaris, Opera Philadelphia’s Jack Mulroney Music Director, leads from the pit.

El Cimarrón (new production)

Music by Hans Werner Henze; libretto by Hans Magnus Enzensberger

Based on the autobiography of Esteban Montejo as related to Miguel Barnet

Sep 19, 21 & 24

The Barnes Foundation

With the grandeur of an epic poem, Hans Werner Henze’s 75-minute drama, El Cimarrón (The Runaway Slave), tells the story of Esteban Montejo, a Cuban born into slavery in 1860 who, as a young man, escaped bondage on a sugar plantation, survived in the jungle, fought for Cuban independence from Spain, and lived to describe it all before dying at the age of 113. The work is a tour-de-force for four musicians – baritone, flute, guitar and percussion – all of whom are also called upon to play percussion throughout.

Bass-baritone Sir Willard White makes his highly anticipated Opera Philadelphia debut as Montejo. Born in Jamaica, White commenced his musical training at the Jamaican School of Music before studying at the Juilliard School in New York. Since making his operatic debut with New York City Opera in 1974, he has sung regularly at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, English National Opera and San Francisco Opera; the opera houses of Munich, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Geneva, Hamburg, Los Angeles, Madrid and Paris; and the Glyndebourne, Aix-en-Provence and Salzburg festivals. As The Guardian puts it, “Pity anyone who appears on the same platform as baritone Willard White. He has so much presence he can eclipse an entire symphony orchestra and chorus with a mere twitch of an eyebrow.”

Lawrence Brownlee

Festival Artist

In recital with Michael Spyres: Sep 16

The Barnes Foundation

Additional programming to be announced

American tenor Lawrence Brownlee is not only “one of the world’s leading bel canto stars” (The Guardian), but “one of the most in-demand opera singers in the world today” (NPR). After headlining Opera Philadelphia’s world premiere production of Charlie Parker’s YARDBIRD in 2015, he was appointed in 2017 as Artistic Advisor to the company, in which capacity he strives to expand its repertoire, diversity efforts and community initiatives. He starred in Cycles of My Being – a new song cycle about the male African American experience, created by MacArthur Fellows Tyshawn Sorey (now Opera Philadelphia’s Composer-in-Residence) and Terrance Hayes – which was commissioned and premiered by Opera Philadelphia in collaboration with Lyric Opera of Chicago and Carnegie Hall.

Now Opera Philadelphia is thrilled to present the Grammy-nominated tenor as the O20 Festival Artist. In addition to a slate of masterclasses and special events to be announced on June 1, Brownlee will give a gala duo recital of bel canto favorites at the Barnes Foundation with fellow tenor Michael Spyres. Under the leadership of Opera Philadelphia’s Corrado Rovaris, the pair recently recorded a program of Rossini’s operatic duets entitled Amici e Rivali, which is due for release this fall on the Warner Classics Erato label. When the two tenors performed bel canto duets at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw last season, Bachtrack marveled: “What a bountiful programme, and what a pair of dynamite performers! … They were both sensational.”

“Curtis in Concert”

Co-presented with the Curtis Institute of Music

Sep 18 & 25

Field Concert Hall, Curtis Institute of Music

“Afternoons at AVA”

Co-presented with the Academy of Vocal Arts

Sep 19 & 26

Helen Corning Warden Theater, Academy of Vocal Arts

Hear today’s leading singers alongside the opera stars of tomorrow, when singers trained at Philadelphia’s two acclaimed vocal training institutions, the Curtis Institute of Music and the Academy of Vocal Arts, perform in recital at their historic and intimate concert halls. Internationally renowned soprano Joyce El-Khoury, last seen at Opera Philadelphia as Liù in Turandot, returns to the Academy of Vocal Arts to perform in Saturday afternoon recitals with current students, while soprano Ashley Milanese, who appeared as Frasquita in 2018’s Carmen, returns to Curtis for Friday afternoon concerts with the young voices of Curtis Opera Theatre. Additional singers and repertoire to be announced.

“Late Night Snacks”

Presented in partnership with The Bearded Ladies Cabaret and FringeArts

Part of Festival O20 and the 2020 Fringe Festival

Cabaret Series

Sep 12-Oct 4

Pop-up location to be announced

Festival attendees can also savor a range of “Late Night Snacks,” as some of O20’s most distinguished opera stars unleash their more fabulous alter egos in a series of informal, inclusive cabaret nights. Also featuring drag and cabaret artists, dancers and others, these will take part at a pop-up location to be revealed later this year. Operatic luminaries who let down their hair in the series’ inaugural season included mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe and countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who premiered their “bold, sometimes bawdy” shows (Opera News) in Philadelphia before bringing them to New York for reprises at Lincoln Center and the Guggenheim, respectively, this past January. As Phindie marveled after Blythe’s appearance as Blythely Oratonio in “Late Night Snacks” last year, “Festival O … is designed to build new audiences for the art form. … It’s hard to imagine a show that would do that better than this one.”

About the winter and spring productions (Jan, April & May 2021)

Oedipus Rex (concert performances)

Music by Igor Stravinsky

Jan 29 & 31

Academy of Music

Performed in Latin with English supertitles

It was Stravinsky who launched music’s neoclassical movement, and according to no less a figure than Leonard Bernstein, Oedipus Rex was the most “awesome product” of the Russian composer’s neoclassical years. A Handelian opera-oratorio for orchestra, narrator, soloists and male chorus, its Latin libretto was translated from Jean Cocteau’s French interpretation of Sophocles’s archetypal Greek tragedy. Despite its Classical inspiration, however, there is a continuity between the dramatic grandeur of the work and Stravinsky’s later religious ones. And although Oedipus Rex is seldom performed, its drama, wit and consummate artistry does full justice to the composer’s formidable legacy.

Making his long-awaited company debut, Maestro Robert Spano, longtime Music Director of both the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Aspen Music Festival and School, leads the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus in two dramatic concert performances of Stravinsky’s masterwork on the Academy of Music stage. Joining Maestro Spano as soloists are tenor William Burden, who brings “emotional intensity” and “elegant singing” (New York Times) to the title role, and bass-baritone Mark S. Doss, who lends his “resonant and well-shaded baritone” (OperaWire) to that of Creon. Mezzo-soprano Rehanna Thelwell, whose “rich, deep and striking vocal presence” makes her “a singer to watch” (South Florida Classical Review), makes her company debut as Jocasta. Each concert opens with Les noces, Stravinsky’s exhilarating 1923 dance cantata about a 19th-century Russian folk wedding.


Music by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica

Production from Teatro Regio di Parma

April 30; May 2, 5, 7 & 9

Academy of Music

Performed in Italian with English supertitles

Opera Philadelphia’s season draws to a close with Puccini’s great verismo melodrama Tosca. As befits one of the most iconic and enduringly popular operas of all time, the production features a first-rate international cast, many of its members in momentous debuts. Grammy-winning Puerto Rican soprano and “legendary artist” Ana María Martínez (OperaWire) makes her company and title role debuts as Puccini’s troubled heroine. She sings opposite Italian tenor Piero Pretti, who makes his company debut as Tosca’s doomed lover, the painter Cavaradossi, after headlining productions at the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Opéra National de Paris and more. Beverly Sills Artist Award-winning baritone Quinn Kelsey lends his “richly modulated voice, musical intelligence and dramatic physicality” (Globe and Mail, Canada) to his company and role debuts as the treacherous Baron Scarpia, with the “luminous tone and theatrical presence” (San Francisco Classical Voice) of bass-baritone Michael Sumuel in his house and role debuts as the escaped political prisoner Angelotti. Bass-baritone Ben Wager, a graduate of Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts, who made his company debut as Collatinus in Opera Philadelphia’s The Rape of Lucretia, completes the cast as the church sacristan. Music Director Corrado Rovaris once again conducts.

About Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia, the only American finalist for both the 2016 International Opera Award for Best Opera Company and the 2020 International Opera Award for Best Festival, is “the very model of a modern opera company” (Washington Post). Committed to embracing innovation and developing opera for the 21st century, the company has commissioned and co-commissioned a number of important new operas, including Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell’s Silent Night, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music; Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s Cold Mountain, winner of the 2016 International Opera Award for Best World Premiere; Missy Mazzoli and Royce Vavrek’s Breaking the Waves, winner of the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA)’s 2017 Best New Opera Award; Daniel Bernard Roumain and Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s We Shall Not Be Moved, named one of the New York Times’s “Best Classical Music Performances of 2017”; and David Hertzberg’s The Wake World, winner of MCANA’s 2018 Best New Opera Award. Philip Venables and Ted Huffman’s Denis & Katya, which premiered to critical acclaim at O19, was awarded the 2019 FEDORA-GENERALI Prize for Opera and nominated for the 2020 International Opera Award for Best World Premiere, further cementing Opera Philadelphia’s status as “a hotbed of operatic innovation” (New York Times) that represents “one of North America’s premiere generators of valid new operas” (Opera News). For more information, visit

To download high-resolution photos, click here.

Media Contacts

Opera Philadelphia: Frank Luzi, [email protected], (215) 893-5902
21C Media Group: Glenn Petry, [email protected], (212) 625-2038

© 21C Media Group, February 2020

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