Drone War Opera Goes Boom

REVIEW: 'Grounded' bombards the senses, but almost lets the terrorist get away

Scene from ‘Grounded’ in the Kennedy Center Opera House. (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)
November 4, 2023

"Going to see an opera about drones," is a strange thing to have to tell someone when they ask if you have weekend plans. Your companion might be pleasantly surprised you cared enough to invent an incredible excuse for not wanting to hang out. But you are actually planning to see Grounded, the drone opera that opened last week at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the weapons manufacturer General Dynamics.

It is a sign of the increasingly dystopian and impossible-to-satirize times in which we live. A story about flying robot killing machines administered by gamers in the Las Vegas suburbs, told through an artistic medium once considered the highest form of popular culture, now considered a weird hobby for rich nerds like Frasier Crane who own more than one tuxedo, buy art at silent auctions, and know who Frasier Crane is.

Instead of schmoozing with aristocratic patrons, today's opera directors must debase themselves on stage by thanking Chevron and the corporation that built the F-16 fighter jet. The association with General Dynamics incited angsty complaints from theater types earlier this year, as well as a scathing pre-review of the "killer drone opera" from the terrorist sympathizers at the Quincy Institute. General Dynamics was downgraded from "presenting sponsor" to "season sponsor." Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, which originally commissioned Grounded, sought to reassure the pre-critics by insisting the opera was "antiwar."

Scene from ‘Grounded’ in the Kennedy Center Opera House. (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)

We'll have to take his word for it, because your humble opera reviewer (and several others who presumably know what they're talking about) thought Grounded was an incoherent and emotionally shallow mess that "missed its target" or "never took off" and so on. Adapted from a decade-old one-woman play partly inspired by a photograph of a pregnant fighter pilot, Grounded tells the story of Jess, a girlboss F-16 ace with a passion for incinerating terrorists from the sky.

"Boom goes Basra! Boom goes Baghdad!" her squadron sings. Jess is forced into early retirement after getting pregnant from a one-night stand with a rancher named Eric, then returns to combat eight years later as a "Chair Force" pilot operating Reaper drones in the Nevada desert with a teenaged gamer bro.

Jess is played by Emily D'Angelo, a mezzo-soprano who is presumably very talented. (Very loud, anyway.) Her performance is accompanied by a massive (and glaringly bright) screen of LED panels that propel her transition from "the blue" she sees from her F-16 cockpit to "the grey" of her drone panel. Her commander's promise of "war with all the benefits of home" turns out to be more complicated, and Jess is gradually consumed by paranoia and PTSD as her life careens from the extraordinary (hovering over dying soldiers) to the mundane (enjoying a Cinnabon at the mall with her daughter). Eventually she starts singing duets with her fractured self, Also Jess.

Scene from ‘Grounded’ in the Kennedy Center Opera House. (Scott Suchman/Kennedy Center)

Your humble reviewer did not expect to have an opinion about the choreography in Grounded, which at times seemed egregiously sloppy, given the military subject matter. The male chorus, in their flight suits and military fatigues, often bumbled about the stage out-of-sync like children playing dress up. One can appreciate what the directors were going for by having multiple male voices—representing the chain of command in Jess's headset on the drone base—piped in over loudspeakers, but at times the effect was akin to a shouting match between cable news talking heads. Neither pleasant nor intelligible.

The opera's climax is especially cacophonous. Jess has been trailing the "number two" terrorist who is apparently just driving around in the desert because he knows a Reaper drone is following him but can't fire unless he gets out of the car and is positively identified. Jess is starting to lose it. She hallucinates. She empathizes with the terrorist. She intentionally crashes a very expensive taxpayer-funded war machine and suffers the consequences. One presumes we are supposed to feel bad for her. Fortunately, another drone team is standing by to eliminate the terrorist, who may or may not have tried to use his own daughter as a human shield. Good riddance.

If you're not one of those rich nerds who love opera, there is no good reason to see Grounded, which clocks in at just under two-and-a-half hours. That goes without saying. It is by far the worst opera your humble reviewer has ever seen. (Worst of two. The other was Madam Butterfly, sung in Italian with Ukrainian subtitles.) As far as opera lovers are concerned, one presumes most of them will pretend to like Grounded, at least it until someone breaks the ice by saying it's bad so they can all agree without fear of committing a thought crime.

Yet the team behind Grounded deserve credit for trying, for pretending to care about the military, and for examining the ways in which technology has radically transformed almost every aspect of our lives, including how we wage war. Like Jess, we are glued to our screens, increasingly detached, distracted, and mentally unwell as a result.