In a U.S. Senate committee room where agricultural, nutritional and forestry topics are ordinarily on the table, the subject was musical yesterday as a Congressional gathering marked the official name-change of the Washington Opera to the Washington National Opera. The renaming fulfills an act of Congress passed in June 2000 that designated the 48-year-old company as the National Opera.
The involvement of legislators demonstrates "that we value music and we value Washington National Opera as an inherent part of our nation's fabric," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. He was joined yesterday by supporters of the 2000 Congressional declaration, including Democratic senators Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Patrick Leahy of Vermont and former Republican Rep. William Goodling of Pennsylvania.
That act of Congress was made to "help raise the profile of opera in the United States, an art form that has great fans on the Hill," said Michael Sonnen- reich, president of the Washington National Opera.
"There were those among the Washington Opera's supporters who felt we weren't yet ready to fully take on the 'National' title [in 2000]," Sonnenreich said. "They felt we needed to have radio and television broadcasts to reach out nationally, a young artists program, international tours and more. Since then, we've had a tour to Japan, our performances are broadcast on NPR, PBS and the BBC, our young artists will be performing at military bases. We are very much a national company - which is not to take anything away from the Metropolitan Opera or the Baltimore Opera."
Company artistic director Placido Domingo said "European opera companies located in their national capitals often have that fact reflected in their titles." While those companies usually enjoy government funding, Washington National Opera will get no financial benefit from the congressional recognition. "But if the name helps us in our educational efforts and our support for American operas, it will be great," Domingo said.
Kennedy, who received a richly harmonized, belated "Happy Birthday" sung by 10 of the company's young artists, noted that "You see Democrats and Republicans all smiling here. Only the Washington National Opera could do that."