Interview with Photo-Op director Alan Paul

UrbanArias’ new production of Photo-Op by Conrad Cummings and James Siena opens this weekend.  Photo-Op is a 60-minute opera about the absurdity of modern presidential politics. All of the obligatory campaign events are included: stump speeches, rope lines, debates, sound bites, and, of course, photo-ops reduced to the absurd – taking familiar “politician-speak” and turning it on its head. Photo-Op is by the same composer as UrbanArias’ hit Positions 1956 – Cummings’ minimalist-influenced score is hard-hitting but harmonious.

Director Alan Paul has joined us for an interview about Photo-Op and his role as director.

From your perspective, what is Photo-Op about?

Photo-Op tells the story of a presidential candidate and his wife on the election trail.  The opera examines the public and personal tolls a campaign takes and the price of running for our country’s highest office.

What are the particular challenges of this piece, dramatically?

The beautiful challenge of directing this piece is that writers have left it so open-ended.  The libretto fits on two pages and the writers do not tell us anything about who the characters are or what their journey is, only that they are a soprano and a baritone.  Having this flexibility has given us the ability to really tailor the story to what elections are like in 2012, even though the candidate is fictional and in no way a representation of Obama or Romney.  It allows us to examine our own frustrations and dreams about what elections mean to us at exactly this moment in time.

How have you approached this production of Photo-Op?

I have tried to capture, in a non-partisan way, the country’s feelings about the electoral process.  And I have also tried to take a closer look at the personal reasons for many of the public decisions we see, since one always intrudes on the other.  It has been fun to come home and see the Convention on TV after rehearsal every night, and we have worked hard to make the opera as current as we possibly can.

What previous opera directing experience do you have?

I have been an opera lover my whole life, but I didn’t direct my first opera until Robert asked me to direct the double bill of Before Breakfast and The Filthy Habit for UrbanArias last spring.   I will follow Photo-Op with a double bill of Dido and Aeneas and El Amor Brujo for The In Series in November, and I hope to continue working in opera.

How does your directing and rehearsal process for Photo-Op differ from the way you would approach something at the Shakespeare Theatre?

The main difference is the wonderful addition of singers, dancers, a conductor, and a choreographer.  I love collaboration, so it’s a particular joy for me to have so many people to bounce ideas off of and work with that I wouldn’t normally have.  And when your collaborators are Robert Wood and Lucy Bowen McCauley, the level of fun we have in rehearsal approaches giddiness.

What are the particular challenges and advantages of working with UrbanArias and companies like it?

What makes UrbanArias so special is that Robert picks material that is so musically exciting and that you won’t see anywhere else.  New operatic works by American composers are so rarely produced, so to have a home for them in Northern Virginia is a great thing for the opera community and for the DC Metropolitan Area.

What do you hope the audience takes away from their experience?

I hope audiences take a closer look at presidential campaigns, and come to understand that we share the same challenges and hopes on both sides of the aisle.

Photo-Op opens on Saturday, September 8th at Artisphere in Arlington.  Performances continue on Sept. 9th, 14th, and 15th.  Tickets are $22, or $17 for students and seniors.  You may purchase them on the Artisphere ticketing website.

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