On a recent summer evening in Northern Virginia, music was in the air.
On stage at the Filene Center amphitheater, soprano Christine Goerke belted out an Italian aria backed by the National Symphony Orchestra. But the most noteworthy sound wasn’t heard until the music stopped.
The roar of applause meant that the audience had finally returned.
“We have not, as a society, been held away from live performance for this long in any of our lifetimes,” said Arvind Manocha, CEO of the Wolf Trap Foundation, the organization responsible for programming the Filene Center.
“To not be able to give life and to put on the concerts, it was painful,” he told correspondent Conor Knighton. “We get into this business because we feel a sense of responsibility to connect artists with audiences. And I think when you’re working on public land like this, that sense of responsibility is very acute.”
The amphitheater is one of several venues found at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts. Set on 117 rolling acres just 20 minutes away from downtown Washington, D.C., Wolf Trap was created to showcase great performances surrounded by the great outdoors.
“When you’re here at Wolf Trap, the scenery, the pastoral setting, it’s not just a backdrop; it really is an integral part of the Wolf Trap experience,” said Ken Bigley, the acting superintendent of Wolf Trap, the only Park Service site in the country devoted to the performing arts.
“This is a park that truly can be attributed to one individual,” said Bigley. “It was her vision, it was her generosity, it was her passion for the performing arts that made this happen.”
Catherine Filine Shouse was a prominent D.C. philanthropist and women’s rights advocate. Born in Boston in 1896, she was the granddaughter of the creator of the Filene’s department store chain. Shouse purchased Wolf Trap Farm in 1930. Decades later, after Dulles Airport was built nearby, she decided to donate the land to the U.S. government to protect it from future development.
She wanted to create a place where artists and audiences could escape city life.
“By donating this land, it gave a respite from the cacophony around this place. So, it does feel as though it’s its own microcosm of sort of magic!” laughed Christine Goerke. She doesn’t just perform at Wolf Trap; she studied there. Wolf Trap is home to a prestigious opera training development program. There’s also a children’s theater, and a barn that hosts year-round performances.
They’re currently celebrating their 50th anniversary season.
Manocha said, “When you are in a space like this, you want to be able to offer programs that everyone in the community can relate to on some level.”
He and his team work to keep the lineup diverse – everyone from Lenny Kravitz to Josh Groban has played here. A summer evening is just as likely to feature ballet as it is Mary J. Blige.
Six weeks before the 1982 summer season, the Filene Center burnt down. Concerts were held in the meadow while the amphitheater was rebuilt. The show must go on!
Last summer, unable to welcome audiences in person, Wolf Trap staged a series of streaming shows.
To watch the Natyabhoomi School of Dance as part of Wolf Trap Park Pop-Ups, click on the video player below:
While wolves roamed this landscape centuries ago, these days you’re more likely to see dog walkers.
Knighton asked Ken Bigley, “Did you find that more people were coming out to explore the trails during the pandemic?”
“Absolutely,” he replied. “We saw an increase in visitation three-fold, four-fold, a lot more people coming out.”
For these first few shows, Wolf Trap has been spacing groups far apart. By next month, it will be running at full capacity once again.
For a park charged with showcasing the power of the performing arts, welcoming audiences back after such a long absence has been a powerful experience.
Manocha said, “At some point in the future, it’s all gonna become very routine again. But I don’t want to forget this feeling, because this is that moment where everybody really remembers and is faced with just how important art is in their life. And that’s something that we should never forget.”
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Story produced by Aria Shavelson. Editor: Emanuele Secci.