“Free Palestine!” cried voices from the audience shortly after the curtain went up on Act II of the Washington National Opera’s world premiere of Jeanine Tesori’s Grounded, which explores the psychological dilemmas of a female fighter pilot called Jess. A daring F-16 flyer in the Iraq War, Jess is removed by an unexpected pregnancy from the cockpit to an air force ground station near Las Vegas, where she pilots MQ-9 Reaper combat drones for twelve hours a day.
Jess’s posting allows her to return home to her family every night, but the proximity of deadly military work to everyday household life wears down her ability to keep the two spheres separate. Eventually, she confuses Afghanistan’s desert landscape with Nevada’s while executing a vital mission to take out a high-ranking enemy commander, and she conflates the target’s daughter thousands of miles away with her own daughter at home. Jess disobeys her orders, aborts the mission, crashes the drone, and ends the opera facing a court martial for having made what she believes to be the morally right decision. The irony is all the more plangent, for just after Jess succumbs to her moral crisis, a backup drone completes the mission and kills the enemy commander and his daughter.
Grounded has been in the works for nearly a decade as a commission for New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where it will open the 2024–25 season. Tesori’s task was to expand the 2013 one-woman play of the same title by George Brant—here the librettist—from a personal drama into a family one. Space had to be found as well for Jess’s military colleagues. The moral climax is belated, coming only well into the second act after about two hours of music, and it does not quite ring true. A female air force officer seated next to me at the premiere had herself piloted drones in combat zones and told me that she knew of no case in which any of her comrades had ever disobeyed an order or even felt tempted to do so. She further assured me that thorough military training and detailed psychological screening would prevent such an occurrence. My air force seatmate and I agreed that the opera may have been more compelling had Jess obeyed her orders and then suffered the palpable consequences of guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder that plague so many of our servicemen.
Tesori’s opera will face a challenge holding the stage. For a contemporary work to reach the upper echelon of pieces that remain in regular performance, it needs some hold beyond that of trendy vexations or the ephemera of our fleeting news cycle. Indeed, the plot of Grounded is already rather dated, just as the plot of Blue (2019), Tesori’s earlier opera about police and race relations, no longer claims the same relevance it did in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. As WNO’s program admits, pregnant air force pilots are now permitted to fly all types of manned aircraft, subject to medical clearance and unit commander permission (the only exception is for planes equipped with ejector seats when the pregnancy has advanced to the third trimester). And drone usage has also been severely curtailed in almost all cases to “direct action” in active combat zones. Jess’s scenario—which might have added to the fierce drone debates a decade past when Brant wrote the play, or to the earlier debate about women in combat—is virtually impossible now.
Adding to the evening’s unreal dimension, WNO accepted financial support this year from General Dynamics, the massive defense contractor, which once manufactured the F-16 and also owned the company that produces the Reaper drone, still in active use and on order for future deliveries. Initially listed as a “presenting sponsor” of the production, General Dynamics’ status was quickly changed to “season sponsor,” and WNO published a disclaimer stating that no sponsor played any creative role in the opera or its contents (in what is perhaps an oversight, however, the printed tickets still list the company as “presenting sponsor”).
Opera is, however, a matter of imagination, and Michael Mayer’s production is a lavish affair. The sets by Mimi Lien, who designed the physical sets of the Bayreuth Festival’s “augmented reality” production of Parsifal earlier this year, are dominated by more than three hundred LED screens. They create the deep-blue skies where Jess finds freedom and fulfillment as a pilot, the barren deserts where she wages war, and, finally, her grim command console at the ground station. Able to clearly display precise images and any color imaginable, the visuals are among the most advanced possible onstage today (though time may render them as obsolete as the plot already is).
Emily D’Angelo, a gifted Canadian mezzo-soprano of not quite thirty who specializes in early music, made a stunning WNO debut as Jess. Her upper register soared like the jet her character initially flies, but she also could descend to the prosaic domestic existence to which fate consigns the pilot. The F-16-flying version of Jess has choicer lines than her suburban-mother incarnation, whose profanity-laced diatribes offer depressing commentary on work–life balance, shopping-mall surveillance systems, and other banalities before her final crack-up. The talented tenor Joseph Dennis sang a fine company debut as Jess’s devoted but weak husband, Eric. For an opera about the competing priorities of career and family, however, his character reveals little about the family ranch he had to give up to support Jess’s air force career. The solid bass Morris Robinson sang authoritatively as the Commander, Jess’s superior. The tenor Frederick Ballentine stole the scene as the Trainer, who explains the drone’s specifications to Jess and her fellow ground pilots. Illustrating Jess’s descent involved the insertion of an alter ego of her character, named “Also Jess” in the cast list. The soprano Teresa Perrotta sang the part well despite the awkwardness of the tactic. Willa Cook, of the WNO Children’s Chorus, was a welcome addition as Eric and Jess’s daughter, Sam.
Tesori’s score is heavy on horns and percussion. The opera’s idiom flows from the late romanticism of classic American war-film scores to a more recognizably contemporary style of ambient scenic illustration derived from jazz and folk tunes. As in most new works, memorable melodies are few and tunefulness is at a minimum. And Brant’s stab at a libretto—his only work in the genre—is often too verbose to serve the music well. Despite these challenges, Daniela Candillari led the score with energy and verve in her own WNO debut.