Flying before the storm

Or riding, I should say, on Amtrak.

I’m headed to New York for a quick visit, meeting with composers, singers, and directors; there are just a few more pieces of the puzzle to put into place, and after this weekend, our plans for Festival 2012 should be solidified.

The weather is not cooperating, though . . . I’m scheduled to return to Washington tomorrow afternoon, which should be JUST when Irene is starting to make her presence known in Virginia. Hopefully Amtrak won’t need to shut the trains down until after I’m safe at home. I may have to stay in New York, though (darn!).

Deciding on productions is a complicated calculus, as anyone who has done it will tell you. For UrbanArias, there are quite a few things to take into account: does it fit our length parameters, do we feel it represents the brand of “Opera. Short. New.”, what is the quality of music and libretto, does the piece need any “tweaks” (oh, how composers love to hear that!), how many singers/actors, how many instrumentalists, does it lend itself to a small production in a black box theater, how much do the rights cost, is it something the DC public will be interested in seeing, how many people would we need to house, can we find the right directors who are willing to work with the same design team on different operas (and vice-versa), etc.

Another big question for most companies in planning something is, “are the right singers available for the roles?” Generally, companies don’t program Salome without knowing that they have a Salome and Jochanaan lined up, for example.

UrbanArias, by virtue of being a start-up, can be fairly nimble, but we do need to plan some things well in advance — we could not have engaged Elizabeth Futral for our stunning performances of Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice at the last minute. A one-person show needs very careful casting in any case, to ensure that the artist is not only capable of singing and acting the piece beautifully, but has the charisma to carry off an evening all alone onstage.

This year, we have a different challenge: one of the pieces I would really like to do has seven singers (!) and a lead role which is a) long (even if the opera is only 85 minutes long, if you’re singing for 70 of those minutes, you need stamina), b) vocally challenging in terms of range (how high and low the notes go) AND tessitura (where the role sits in the singer’s range for the bulk of the show) c) requires an excellent actor d) needs to read as a specific age and physical type, e) requires an excellent musician. That last is not to be discounted . . . as anyone who saw last year’s offerings can attest! We program pieces that can be very demanding on the brain (think of trying to memorize the difficult rhythms of Glory Denied, AND move and act convincingly). This particular opera relies so heavily on the abilities of one person that I’m unwilling to program it without the right singer in the role. Like Salome. This weekend will hopefully answer that question.

Supporting roles are terribly important as well – especially when they are of a vocal and/or physical type that is very specific. To give you an example: unlike more conventional opera companies, our audiences are so close to the performers that turning a young singer into an older one via makeup is pretty unconvincing. If our piece calls for performers in a specific age range, we need to adhere to that pretty closely.

We must also be careful in our first years not to bite off more than we can chew. I think our audiences and the press were really impressed by our maiden voyage last April, and we don’t want to disappoint by trying something too ambitious. That said, I clearly didn’t let that stop me last time . . .

So wish me luck as I complete the casting for next season, and try to get home on time tomorrow!

Bob Wood

p.s. We are very excited to be doing a preview performance at the Harman Center in Washingon, DC on September 10. Details on that in my next post, and via our eblast.

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