When the Washington National Opera announced that it would open its coming season with the premiere of “Grounded,” a new opera exploring the psychological toll of drone warfare, its star composer, Jeanine Tesori, got less attention than its listed sponsor: General Dynamics, the military contractor.
Anger erupted online, with critics accusing Washington National Opera of serving as a mouthpiece for the defense industry. A think tank that advocates military restraint labeled it a “killer drone opera.” New York magazine gave the opera a “despicable” rating on its Approval Matrix, describing it as “the drone-bombing opera ‘Grounded,’ sponsored by General Dynamics.” RT, a state-owned Russian news outlet, said the work showed the strength of the American military-industrial complex.
The creative team behind “Grounded,” an adaptation of an acclaimed Off Broadway play, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which commissioned the opera, grew disturbed by how the new opera was being portrayed. They worked behind the scenes to push the Washington National Opera to make it clear that General Dynamics, which has been a major sponsor of the opera company since 1997, had nothing to do with the creation of the opera.
“I felt action was needed to guarantee that the audience would see ‘Grounded’ knowing that it is solely the work of its creators,” Tesori, a major Broadway composer who has expanded into opera, said in a statement to The New York Times. She added that she had only recently become aware of the philanthropic support of General Dynamics.
On Tuesday, after days of negotiations, Washington National Opera posted a statement seeking some distance from its benefactor.
“For the sake of clarity,” the statement said, “no sponsor or supporter of W.N.O. had any involvement in the creation of ‘Grounded’ or in the contents of its libretto.”
The company changed its website, whose “Grounded” page had described General Dynamics as its “presenting sponsor,” to clarify that the company is a “W.N.O. season sponsor.” It also rewrote its promotional text for the opera, removing some militaristic language, including a line that had described its protagonist as a “hot shot F-16 fighter pilot, an elite warrior trained for the sky” and a line noting that “war ‘with all the benefits of home’ isn’t clear-cut.” The new description cut a reference to the “horror of war.”
The episode highlights the difficulties that cultural institutions sometimes face in protecting the integrity of their art while cultivating rich donors. The Kennedy Center, the parent organization of Washington National Opera, has in recent years faced pressure to cut ties with some benefactors, including tobacco companies.
General Dynamics has long been a sponsor of Washington National Opera, providing more than $500,000 to the company each year in recent years. Gregory S. Gallopoulos, a senior vice president at General Dynamics, is a member of the opera company’s board.
Timothy O’Leary, the general director of Washington National Opera, said in an interview that General Dynamics had no input on “Grounded,” or any other works.
“No sponsor has any say in our artistic decisions, or ever could,” he said. “Any sponsor who tried to interfere in that way is not a sponsor from whom we would accept support.”
The “Grounded” opera, adapted from a play by George Brant, was announced by the Met in 2017, part of an effort by the company to promote contemporary opera. The Met agreed to co-produce the opera with Washington National Opera ahead of its planned Met premiere in 2025.
The New York Times described the play it is based on as a “haunting portrait of a woman serving in the United States Armed Forces coming under pressure as the human cost of war, for combatants as well as civilians, slowly eats away at her well-armored psyche.”
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, described the work as an “antiwar opera” and said that it provided a nuanced portrayal of the costs of war. He said he had advised his counterparts in Washington to take swift action once concerns started spreading on social media about the opera’s support from General Dynamics.
“If this misperception was not corrected, it would be very bad for the work,” he said in an interview. “The work would be somehow tainted before anybody ever got a chance to see it.”
General Dynamics on Tuesday declined to comment on the controversy, but said in a statement, “We are proud to support the arts.”
Phebe N. Novakovic, the chairman and chief executive of General Dynamics since 2013, is an opera buff who grew up listening to recordings on a Victrola record player with her Serbian grandmother. Shortly after she rose to the top of the company, General Dynamics became a full-season sponsor of Washington National Opera.
When asked in a 2016 interview why the company was such a big supporter of the opera, Novakovic cited her grandmother’s influence.
“I have honored both her memory and my love of that form of human expression through supporting the opera,” she said at the Economic Club of Washington. “We get folks from all over our company coming to the opera.”