Arms manufacturer sponsors new opera about the horrors of drone warfare at the Kennedy Center

A few years ago, my wife directed a fantastic production of Grounded, a one-woman play by George Brant about a fighter pilot who becomes a single mother, and gets re-assigned to a "safer" role as a military drone pilot. While this new mother might be physically safer than she was in the air, the 12-hour days spent in a windowless trailer assassinating strangers on a video screen begin to take a serious toll on her mental health. (The original production at the Public Theatre starred Anne Hathaway, and was directed by Julie Taylor.) It's an incredibly powerful story about the industrialized alienation of wartime labor — which makes it ripe material for a new opera adaptation, coming to the prestigious Kennedy Center this fall. Here's that official blurb:

Mother. Soldier. What if both are at war?

Jess is a hot shot F-16 fighter pilot, an elite warrior trained for the sky. When an unexpected pregnancy grounds her, she's reassigned to the "chair force" to control drones in Afghanistan from the comfort of a trailer in Las Vegas. But war "with all the benefits of home" isn't clear-cut. As Jess tracks terrorists by day and rocks her daughter to sleep by night, the boundary between her worlds becomes dangerously permeable.

From Tony Award®–winning composer Jeanine Tesori (WNO's acclaimed Bluein our 2022–2023 season) comes the unmissable world premiere of Grounded. Adapted from the play by George Brant and featuring his libretto, Grounded is a story about what it means to wage war at a distance abetted by technology. Mezzo-soprano Emily D'Angelo stars as a pilot and mother shaken into a downward spiral as her separation between career and home crumbles. In a first for opera stages, massive LED-screen technology will immerse audiences in the psychological and social implications of war-by-proxy. What comes at the cost of technological advancement? What's lost when technology distances us from the horror of war? And what price is inflicted upon the operator of a lone drone in a blue sky?

This new opera was commissioned and developed by Metropolitan Opera, in collaboration with Lincoln Center Theater's New Works Program, with financial sponsorship from General Dynamics, the fifth-largest defense contractor in the world.

That's right, a massive arms manufacturer who recently announced a major investment in "counter-unmanned aerial system" — so arming drones to combat armed drone attacks — is sponsoring an opera about a drone pilot who suffers severe PTSD because of the way she is forced to dehumanize the people she is remotely slaughtering from the safety of a Las Vegas airbase. Let's consider what the New York Times' review had to say about Grounded when it first premiered:

"Grounded" implicitly suggests that engaging in combat from a place of relative safety may take just as harsh a psychological toll as traditional deployment.


The show's final passages veer into rather too portentous and highfalutin territory, as the pilot stares us down and intones darkly, "You who watch me and think you are safe, know this, know that you are not safe. […] And you 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.

Seems like maybe not the best PR move for a corporate sponsorship. I can't decide which is more likely: that this new adaptation will change that chilling ending, or that some fundraising staffer at the Kennedy Center just savvily talked someone at General Dynamics into writing a check without reading the original script first.