A new opera about drone strikes is coming to the Kennedy Center
'Grounded' follows an F-16 pilot reassigned to operating a drone over Afghanistan.
Since armed drones became a regular tool in the United States’ arsenal, movies and television shows have been trying to incorporate them and weigh in on the morals of a drone war. Now it’s opera’s time. And a new opera about drone strikes is coming to Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center.
The Kennedy Center and the Washington National Opera announced their 2023-2024 season this month, and the opening production is the world premiere of Grounded. The opera, composed by Jeanine Tesori with a libretto by George Brant, is adapted from Brant’s 2013 play of the same name. It premieres Oct. 28, starring Emily D’Angelo. The opera is in English and will have projected lyrics.
Grounded follows Jess, an Air Force F-16 pilot who finds herself, as the title suggests, grounded after becoming pregnant. She gets reassigned from flying missions in Iraq to the Air Force’s drone program, hunting high-value targets while working in an air conditioned space back in the United States. The play, essentially a one-woman monologue, follows her as she deals with motherhood, the ethics of drone strikes and her desire to be back in the skies.
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It will not have the action beats of Tom Cruise trying to shoot down a MQ-9 Reaper in Mission: Impossible III or the bureaucratic squabbles over ordering strikes like in 2015’s Eye in the Sky. It’s also a different period in the drone war. When Brant’s play premiered in 2013, early in the second Obama administration, the use of drones was expanding. Obama utilized them far more than his predecessor in the War on Terror, ultimately overseeing 563 total strikes in his two terms, according to Airwars. His successor Donald Trump went further, with drone attacks increasing by the hundreds in his four years in office (exact data on civilian deaths in that period are unclear as the Trump administration stopped reporting on those casualties). Although President Joe Biden has not kept up the same pace as Trump, since he took office there have been strikes in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and elsewhere.
The opera version of Grounded was commissioned and co-produced by the Metropolitan Opera, with its world premiere at the Kennedy Center to be followed up with a 2025 run at the Lincoln Center in New York City.
Past productions of the play — including a 2015 staging in New York City starring Anne Hathaway — used projections to help immerse the audience in the pilot’s new world of targeted drone strikes. For the Kennedy Center production the show will use an array of LED screens to provide backdrops and visualize what Jess sees while operating drones. It’s not clear how different the story is in its new operatic form or how it will change when done in song.
It’s worth noting that the production is sponsored by General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the United States and the maker of the F-16, which plays a role in Grounded.
Grounded premieres Oct. 28 and runs through Nov. 13 at the Kennedy Center.
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