UrbanArias Blog


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.

Stay tuned for Festival 2012 – and more!

Dear UrbanArias fans and visitors,

I can’t believe it’s already been four months since our April Festival!

I was really pleased at how it turned out — it’s impossible to know the first time if everything will come together, and it certainly did.

I felt our artistic work was on a very high level (and the reviews agree!); we had a number of sold-out performances, and I was gratified to get so much great feedback from both seasoned opera fans and those who had never seen an opera before.

Many thanks, belated but heartfelt, are due to our wonderful singers, players, designers, crew, board, and supporters.

Over the next weeks, I will reveal the details of our 2012 UrbanArias Festival, which will again be in April, as well as upload information about other performances we’re giving this fall and winter. Plus, I will share some war stories about last spring . . . there are a lot of them.

More very soon, and I hope everyone is having a great summer.

Bob Wood

What do you wear to a radio interview?

Rhetorical question. Doesn’t matter – just be flattered you have the interview, as someone who runs a brand-new, start-up opera company.

Classical WETA invited me over this afternoon for a very congenial session, which will be posted on their website soon (link to follow when I have it), and broadcast several times next week. This is a wonderful means of promotion for our evening of mini-operas next Friday! I couldn’t be more pleased. Nicole LaCroix was the animated and very informed hostess with the perfectly-modulated, soothing voice (not sure my radio voice is up to snuff, we’ll see). Deb Lamberton was the extremely capable, warm and equally informed producer. After my 9-minute fling at the microphone, Deb commanded me to retire to her studio for a “quiz”. Oh no.

She put a CD in the machine . . . “Do you know who that is?” she asked. German accent . . . the context indicated he was a conductor . . . sounded like he was an old-school maestro . . . “Is that Adler?” I asked. It was. Phew.

Kurt Herbert Adler was the legendary General Director of the San Francisco Opera for many years — before my time, it’s true, but when I was working there, I ran into a handful of people who had known him, and they all spoke of him with reverence. The Adler Fellowship, a rigorous training program for young singers at the San Francisco Opera (and now for coaches and directors as well) is named for him. So I acquitted myself adequately in the quiz (or as the young people say, I “represented”. My former home town San Francisco, that is. Not sure if that is really meant to be conjugated in this context. Oh well.)

The point is, we’re excited about the publicity, and the show next week is going to be fantastic. Our cast is excellent. Quick, musical, and good on stage. And, I went nude.

Kidding, just seeing if you read it all.


Performance on January 14, 2011

Hello all,

We’re ringing in the New Year with another performance: on January 14, UrbanArias will return to the Black Box Theater in Artisphere to present an evening of mini-operas.

This will be our usual mix of the irreverent and the thought-provoking — we’re reprising Jonathan Sheffer and Robert Patrick’s comic take on video communication, Camera Obscura; we also have a delightful gem by DC-area composer Lori Laitman called The Act (about knife throwers); Again, a provocative look at abusive relationships and how they are enabled by Jake Heggie; Jack Perla’s Betty Box Office, which spoofs the degree to which there is a hidden performer in almost every employee of an arts organization; and three short pieces from Seymour Barab’s new cycle of mini-operas, In Questionable Taste.

When I was assembling the program for this evening a few weeks ago, I already knew I wanted to do Camera Obscura again, as we got such a great reception for it in October.  I also knew that since I had already programmed Tom Cipullo’s delightful Lucy twice, I should probably look for some pieces that the DC-area public hasn’t seen yet.  Although, it would be fair to argue that there are many thousands of people in the area who did not see Lucy.  But still.

I generally ask composers with whom I already have a relationship if they have anything that suits our needs, and most of them have files ready to go at a moment’s notice.  Jack Perla wrote Betty Box Office for the opening of Tapestry New Opera in Toronto, and he had that and four other mini-operas to me within a few days of my request:  they’re all good, but we’ll start with Betty because it lends itself to performances by start-up companies.  A few text changes (sanctioned by the composer, of course), and it’s about UrbanArias.   It’s amusing to insiders and outsiders alike; it’s extraordinary how many people you run into in the administrative offices of opera companies who are former performers of one kind or another.  We all know “Betty”.

I ran into Lori at a party in December, and she mentioned that she had a five-minute opera, which she sent along the next day — I’m delighted to be doing it, although I’m calling our insurance agent about the knife-throwing.  Actually, we don’t have an insurance agent yet (!), so I’d better put obtaining one on my list first, and then use conceptual knives.  We’re new and edgy, we can get away with a lot, right?  Anyway, it’s the director’s problem.

Jake has been very kind in giving us permission to do a couple of his songs and arias at various gigs, and I find his 9-minute opera Again very intriguing.  The libretto, by David Patrick Stearns, dissects the relationship between Ricky and Lucy Ricardo (yes, THAT Lucy and Ricky).  Is it screwball?  Or screwed up?  It’s amazing what you can do in nine minutes — this one leaves you feeling thoughtful, and perhaps a little unsettled.

So after I assembled all of that, I still needed a few more pieces to bring us up to a performance that would be about an hour long.  Enter Seymour Barab, whose work I have admired for years.  Edrie Means, one of our cast members last October, and a returning artist for our January show, knows him, and has sung a number of his works — she also, as it turns out, has his phone number.  (He prefers to speak to a person rather than communicate by email, which is what the youth mean, I think, when they say “Kicking it Old School”; although possibly they mean something else.)  Mr. Barab is very charming in person, so I’m glad I called; he told me he had a whole cycle of mini-operas/musicals that are brand new, called In Questionable Taste.  I told him it sounded right up our alley.

Well!  I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.  They’re all jokes, expanded, staged, and set to music.  They’re very funny (although some of them are a little coarse for us; after all, we do hope to get NEA funding some day!) — even more so if you already know the punch line.  Watching the characters get to the inevitable is a reward in itself.

I have chosen three of the cleaner ones, although I won’t spoil them for you here; you’ll have to come on the 14th.  I will tell you, though, that the cast burst out laughing as they read through each of them.

So we have a nice, varied program, and a great cast, and we have two short weeks to put this all together.  Now I know why arts organizations don’t schedule performances so soon after the the holidays — no one is around to work.  UrbanArias is scrappy, though, and I’m sure will pull it off with aplomb.  After all, they’re only ten-minute pieces – how hard can they be?  (This is a question I have been asked, and the short answer is: very.  The long answer is for another post.)

I hope you can join us on January 14 and a very Happy New Year to everyone!

Bob Wood

Success on October 10th

UrbanArias had a fantastic debut at Artisphere — it’s hard to believe it’s already a month ago!

We presented two “mini-operas”: Lucy by Tom Cipullo and Camera Obscura by Jonathan Sheffer. We had excellent casts, excellent direction, and a great pianist, and the audiences really responded. In fact, both shows were packed — standing room only. We performed for close to 300 people (a few came twice), and not only did people really get what we’re about as a company, but we also made a number of converts — people who are not necessarily opera buffs, but who will come back now that they know how entertaining and accessible an art form it can be.

As a result of everyone’s positive feedback and interest, we decided to add another evening of ten- to fifteen minute mini-operas in January (there are a surprising number of these pieces!). We’ll do two performances on Friday, January 14 (details to follow). UrbanArias is thrilled to be so popular, and this added performance will serve as a terrific bridge to our festival season in April.

Can’t wait to see everyone!


Welcoming Kate Mesches

We have lots of news!

First of all, I’d like to welcome Kate Mesches to our Board of Directors. Kate is a fantastic businesswoman and restauranteuse, and we’re delighted to have her expertise and good advice. Plus she is a lot of fun, so she fits in well with the rest of us. Kate was won over by our successful performances at Artisphere on October 10 — more about those in the next post.

Gearing up for a very busy fall

Dear friends,

After a hot and languid summer, we’re suddenly humming with activity.

We have another performance coming up:  Artisphere, Arlington’s new cultural center and our new home, has invited us to perform at their open house on Sunday, October 10.  I can’t wait to get in the new space and see what it’s like!

We’ll do two 10-minute operas:  Tom Cipullo’s Lucy, which we also did at the Kennedy Center last April, and Jonathan Sheffer’s Camera Obscura, a wonderful gem from about 30 years ago.  Lucy is the story of an elderly lady who imagines a handsome young man sitting on her television; he sings to her, of course.  Camera Obscura is a witty take on the then-new technology of video phones . . . and their attendant time lag.

UrbanArias is delighted to have Edrie Means Weekly, Ethan Watermeier, VaShawn McIlwaine, and Colleen Daly starring at Artisphere!  They will also sing a few excerpts from other recent operas . . . the audience should get an excellent feel for the kind of work we do.  We’re also very excited to have Chuck Hudson join us from New York to direct these mini-masterpieces.  (We’re making him take the bus, though.  Tight budget.)

Our fundraising also proceeds apace — we have an event coming up on October 2nd at my home, also featuring Mr. Watermeier’s fine baritone, and we’re planning two evenings with our 2011 season composers, Ricky Ian Gordon and Tom Cipullo.

And I want to extend a special welcome to Mary Hynes, of the Arlington County Board, who has recently joined our Advisory Board!

Finally, we’re nearly ready to announce casting for our 2011 season, and I’m really thrilled about the artistic teams we’ve assembled.  (Some of whom may also have to ride the bus.)

More soon!

Bob Wood

Another great piece by Anne Midgette

Sounds like us!  It’s now time for me to give Ms. Midgette a call!

Anne Midgette’s article on New American Opera

Good News for UrbanArias . . .

This week UrbanArias received its Letter of Determination from the IRS, which means we are now a recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

We’re delighted that we have achieved tax-exempt status, which is retroactive to our incorporation last October — it makes our lives much easier on the business side of our operation.  We can do all sorts of things now:  apply for foundation grants, accept donations on the website (which I’ll set up shortly), even get our web hosting for free courtesy of DreamHost!

Our website will soon undergo a major update, as we announce repertoire and dates for our April, 2011 UrbanArias Festival, and as the “support” and “about” headings get fleshed out with new material . . . plus, we have some great pictures from the Lucy rehearsal process we will upload, thanks to photographer and friend Karen Redmond.

We look forward to keeping all of you informed!

Bob Wood

Yes, Classical music should be enjoyable!

I applaud Anne Midgette’s recent article in the Washington Post regarding classical music at the White House.  Her ideas for future White House classical programming are wonderful (and one day could perhaps include UrbanArias!), but her warning that classical music can stifle its own growth by taking itself too seriously is one we should all take to heart.

People want to be entertained.  This is not to say that symphonies and opera companies should dumb down their programming, or rely exclusively on gimmicks to get people in the door – but I do think there is a lot of room for “audience-aware art”.  Why not pay attention to the Zeitgeist, and offer audiences pieces they can easily enjoy?  Why indeed is “accessible” a dirty word in some circles?  “Accessible”, “entertaining”, and “sophisticated” are not mutually exclusive qualities – certainly the operas of Mozart are perfect examples.  And in our day, think Jake Heggie, Stephen Sondheim, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Tom Cipullo, just to name four composers.

UrbanArias received many enthusiastic comments after our production of Tom Cipullo’s ten minute mini-opera at the Kennedy Center, and the comments centered around four things people found enjoyable:  excellent singing, an American opera with text they could clearly understand and whose story they found touching and relevant, a musical palette they were drawn to, and (dear to our hearts at UrbanArias, as we’re making this our credo) an opera that has an impact in short form.

I think that paying attention to those four elements will be the key to success at UrbanArias, and will allow us to take our place in American Opera of the present and future.  By presenting short, moving, approachable pieces that are well-sung and -acted, we can help new audiences explore an art form that has so much to offer – and perhaps also reinvigorate the interest of opera fans who are yearning for something new that does not need to command their attention for 3+ hours.

At any rate, we continue to feel we’re onto something, and we look forward to giving our audiences even more reasons to find classical music enjoyable.