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Killer drone opera lands at Kennedy Center this fall

It’s got tears, drama and F-16s. 'Grounded' is explosive fun for the whole family — brought to you by General Dynamics!

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Are you passionate about opera but unsure about militarism? Do you wish your trip to the theater involved more explosions? Are you looking for a way to combine your love for melodrama and well-planned, precision-targeted aerial assaults?

If so, the Kennedy Center has just the thing for you.

This fall, DC denizens will be treated to the world premiere of “Grounded,” an opera following an Air Force ace named Jess whose unexpected pregnancy forces her to leave behind her beloved F-16 and join the “chair force.”

Throughout the show, the “hot shot” pilot wrestles with the mental impact of firing rockets from a drone in Afghanistan from a trailer in Las Vegas. “As Jess tracks terrorists by day and rocks her daughter to sleep by night, the boundary between her worlds becomes dangerously permeable,” an ad tells us.

The production is brought to you by presenting sponsor General Dynamics, one of the world’s largest weapons companies (and, wouldn’t you know it, the maker of Jess’s favorite plane). Playwright George Brant wrote the libretto, which will be brought to life by mezzo-soprano Emily D’Angelo and Tony-winning composer Jeanine Tesori. 

“Grounded” is an adaptation of a 2013 one-woman play by the same name. Anne Hathaway starred in a 2015 production of the show, earning mixed reviews for her attempt at mimicking a southern accent and an everyman sensibility.

It’s unclear how closely the opera will hew to its predecessor. The original earned some acclaim for showing the dehumanizing effects of working as a drone pilot charged with shooting at people on the other side of the world and hovering above to watch the aftermath. It ended on a rather bleak note, as the now-jaded pilot warns the audience to “know that you are not safe.”

“[Y]ou get a chill hearing those words spoken by Ms. Hathaway in a voice both harsh and deadened, the eager enthusiasm in her character’s eyes having been extinguished by all those days of staring into the gray anonymity of the deserts, where men, women and even children can die at the push of a button thousands of miles away,” wrote critic Charles Isherwood at the time.

With a leading weapons maker involved, it’s a little hard to believe that this new production will end with such a dour take. As RS readers are surely aware of, productions involving arms companies or the Pentagon rarely find much room to critique America’s wars abroad.

But perhaps that doesn’t matter. We in DC know all too well that you can dodge any tough conversation about trade-offs if you’re armed with all the latest high-tech bells and whistles. According to the Kennedy Center’s website, “​​massive LED-screen technology will immerse audiences in the psychological and social implications of war-by-proxy.”

So buckle up, Washington. In just a few months, you can have your own front row seat to the drone war.

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