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Behind the Scenes: Washington National Opera

Kennedy Center’s senior press representative Michael Solomon has a capital time at work.
by Fred Cohn. 

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Solomon at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to George Lucas, 2015, with C-3PO and R2-D2
© Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center

MICHAEL SOLOMON, the senior press representative at Washington National Opera, caught the opera bug early, as an eighth-grader in Tyler, Texas. “It’s difficult to be an eighth-grade opera fan in east Texas, as you can imagine,” he says. But the glimpse of opera he’d seen in the movie Moonstruck sent him to the local library, where he took out a CD of Manon Lescaut. “I read in the liner notes that the last act took place in nearby Louisiana and thought, ‘Oh, surely I can relate!’” Even though Puccini’s Louisiana turned out to be unrecognizable, the piece enthralled him. “I think my parents were wondering what exactly was going on when their son was running around the house imitating Montserrat Caballé singing ‘Sola, perduta, abbandonata,’” he says.

It wasn’t just opera that marked Solomon as an outsider: his family was one of the few Jewish households in town. But a visiting soloist at his temple’s High Holy Days services intensified his love of the human voice. “We had a very small temple, and you could literally feel her emotion coming toward you,” he says. The experience had an effect on the young man that surely nobody at his shul could have anticipated: “I look back on it and think, ‘That’s why I love Wagner.’” 

In 1992, Solomon enrolled at American University, and he has lived in Washington, D.C., ever since. The summer of his freshman year he did an internship at The Chronicle of Higher Education/The Chronicle of Philanthropy. The organization had no media department, but Solomon started offering suggestions gleaned from a college course in public relations. He built a role for himself as director of communications and ended up staying with the organization for eighteen years. “I was the intern who never left,” he says.

Solomon bought his first Washington National Opera subscription with money his relatives had given him for graduation. It took him a long time to combine his passion for opera with his expertise in communications. But a job as WNO’s PR director opened up in 2007, and Solomon jumped at the chance to apply. His first round of interviews was so successful that the company flew him out to meet with Plácido Domingo, then WNO’s general director. “I was in awe,” Solomon recalls. “He called me ‘Mr. Solomon.’”  But the company was then in financial straits, and before Solomon could get an offer, the position was eliminated.

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Solomon at WNO with Ruth Bader Ginsburg and artistic director Francesca Zambello, 2017
© Scott Suchman/The Kennedy Center

He had better luck the next time a similar job came up, and he started in his current post as WNO’s senior press representative in 2011. The Kennedy Center had recently taken over the company’s operations, and Solomon officially joined the parent organization; WNO is his chief “client.” His first official duty was to work the red carpet for the Kennedy Center Honors. “I prayed to God I wouldn’t trip Meryl Streep,” he says. 

WNO’s location in the nation’s capital presents Solomon with some unique duties, such as working with the Italian embassy on a series of events celebrating a production of Nabucco, and bringing the Irish ambassador backstage at a Cenerentola performance to meet native daughter Tara Erraught. But the company’s most lasting ties to officialdom have come from opera maven Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who cheerfully submits to interviews and photo shoots to publicize WNO. 

“I always make sure she has cashews and sparkling water on hand,” says Solomon. “It’s great to have such an advocate in Washington. She speaks softly, but when it comes to advocating for opera, she has the loudest voice of anyone in America.”

After the Supreme Court justice’s guest appearance as the Duchess of Krakenthorp in the company’s 2016 Daughter of the Regiment, Solomon had to drop off photos at her apartment for approval. “I yelled down the hall, ‘If anyone needs me, I’m running to Justice Ginsburg’s apartment for a minute,’” he says. “Everybody laughed, but it reminded me how lucky I am. What a great job I have!” spacer 

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