Napolitano Goes from Oil Spills to the Opera

The Homeland Security chief knows how to relax.

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By Paul Bedard, Washington Whispers

She's got one of the toughest—and so far most thankless—jobs in President Obama's cabinet. So after hunting down squirrelly home-grown terrorists, figuring out ways to sop up the disastrous Gulf oil spill, and shrugging off harsh political and media criticism, how does Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano relax? With a night at the opera in the president's seats, of course. A well-known fan of the stage, she hasn't let her rigorous day job stop her from enjoying her passion for music and song when she gets a break. [See the members of Obama's inner circle.]

Napolitano was a VIP guest at the Washington National Opera Ball at the Russian Federation Embassy last Friday, a luxurious event that featured Fabergé egg cakes, 30,000 pounds worth of ice sculptures, and Russian ballerinas and singers—bringing in some $1.5 million for the opera. The Homeland boss says she's been to all the company's performances this season, including last Saturday's Hamlet at the Kennedy Center. It's one of the best insider perks of a top-level Washingtonian. Top Obama aides have dibs on the center's Presidential Box tickets that the first family doesn't use, which is pretty often.

Napolitano's favorite opera from the season was WNO's performance of Gershwin's American folk opera Porgy and Bess. "That one was fun because you know all the songs," she says. Another was the Mariinsky Opera and Orchestra's epic rendition of Prokofiev's War and Peace. "It's not one you often see performed. And, well, they burned Moscow," she tells our Jessica Rettig.

As guv, Napolitano was a frequent patron of Arizona Opera performances in Phoenix, becoming close friends with the opera's artistic director Joel Revzen and his wife Cindy. She attended parties at the couple's home where the duo (he's a pianist, she's a trained opera singer) often would perform for their guests. In 2005, Napolitano even accompanied a group to the White Nights Festival at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, for a gala performance of Leonard Bernstein songs conducted by Revzen. And shortly after taking her post in Obama's cabinet, Napolitano was named honorary trustee at the Arizona Opera.

Colin Columna, spokesman for the Arizona Opera, says Napolitano is a true opera lover. "She likes the new and the old. But of course she does, she's a centrist."

And it's not just opera. Napolitano, who had dreams of being a band director, is also a fan of German romantic songs from Strauss and Brahms.

Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.

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