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Keeping Opera Current

There’s no shortage of conventional wisdom that the arts generally, and opera specifically, must be “relevant” in order to survive. UrbanArias is a testament to this – on a basic level, we strive to appeal to new audiences by removing barriers of length and language which might impede people from embracing the art form. But we also intentionally program many works which deal with issues of today or the recent past, and which are set in our own recognizable, contemporary American world.

Our whole 2017-18 season deals with modern subjects – from a strange neurological disease in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, to cross-fostering experiments between species in Lucy, to our very current struggles with race relations in this country in Independence Eve. In each of these pieces, though, my primary attraction was to the storytelling and the score. I feel very strongly that opera is nothing without a good story. Conceptual pieces can be really cool from time to time, but I want something I can sink my teeth into, something that will move me. Independence Eve‘s invention of three “everyman” Black/White duos presents us three compelling tales of racial tension and injustice. It’s not a pandering “issue opera”, although it deals with a timely and sadly timeless issue; like good verismo, it takes three “slices of life” and shows us three interactions between a Caucasian tenor and an African-American baritone which illustrate the difficulties we’ve had as Americans recovering from the less savory parts of our history and finding common ground.

It would be easy, for instance, to write a generic indictment of white reactionary behavior during the civil rights era, but Daniel Neer’s libretto instead tells us a story – a story about a black boy, Louis, who sneaked into a store in the segregated South to catch an up-close glimpse of a baseball player he admired. He also eyed a large barrel of candy. He didn’t take anything, but the white shopkeeper sure thought he was up to no good – and threw him out so violently onto nearby railroad tracks that he landed on his head and never regained hearing in one ear.

That’s the story a grownup Louis tells us, and it’s immediately gripping. Why do people treat each other so badly? And why does skin color play such a huge role in that poor treatment? And why does the white man he tells it to automatically assume that Louis’ true intention was to steal the candy?

Another scene in the opera tells a story with even more direct relevance to our time: the story of an African-American stockbroker strip-searched in the lobby of his own condo building by police who thought he looked suspicious because he was wearing sweats. That scene, originally titled “Stop and Frisk”, is plenty current. But it’s not that currency alone that drew me to it – it’s the way the characters are drawn, the sympathy with which both the lawyer and his clueless white friend are portrayed.

Great art should make us have conversations, and there is a lot to unpack in Independence Eve. But it’s the human quality of the narrative, not just the issue, that fosters those conversations. And it’s the music, not just the situation, which moves us. Composer Sidney Boquiren is also telling us a story with the score – he augments the feelings engendered by the text in each scene. He heightens the emotional impact of the boy being thrown out of the store with the eloquent beauty of his musical phrasing, and the tender turn of melody; similarly, he magnifies our tension when the African-American stockbroker tells us what the cops did to him, through the use of driving rhythm and spiky harmony.

All of this is to say that relevance is important to convince more people that opera is meaningful to them – but that relevance has to come through good, well-crafted work. I was beguiled and moved, saddened and uplifted by this opera when I first encountered it in workshop, and I hope you will be too.

– Bob Wood

Origins – some notes about LUCY

When composer Tom Cipullo recommended I take a look at a new piece called Lucy by John Glover and Kelley Rourke, I was immediately interested – Tom is one of my favorite composers, and a suggestion from him is worth paying attention to. So I asked for a perusal score and a recording, and learned that Lucy was about . . . a chimpanzee.

“Tom!” I thought to myself. “Come on. Animals onstage? Did you send me this because I cut Josephine Baker’s cheetah from Josephine? Is this a little dig? I thought you were over that.”

But I did take a look and a listen, and it wasn’t long before I decided to produce the opera. Lucy is based on a real story, as you’ve read elsewhere on this website – the real story of Maurice Temerlin, and the cross-fostering program at the University of Oklahoma. Temerlin and his wife, Jane, adopted a chimpanzee at birth, and raised her in their home, with their biological son, Steve. This story was the subject of a great piece on RadioLab, which you can listen to here: http://www.radiolab.org/story/91705-lucy/.

It’s an amazing story – and a very sad one. I’m probably not alone in thinking that adopting a chimp to study the primate mind sounded like a fascinating idea, without thinking through what it might mean to try and introduce a member of another species into a way of life that was so different from her natural one. As humans, we’re intrigued by our similarities to apes, but our differences are indeed enormous.

That’s the story the opera tells: the incredible but harrowing journey undertaken by Temerlin, and the unintentional (but wholly foreseeable) havoc it wrought on Lucy. It’s a challenging story to tell onstage (much less without a chimpanzee . . . and no, there is not actual chimp in the opera), and that’s where John and Kelley’s brilliance comes in.

The libretto opens vistas of thought to the audience, and implicitly asks a wide range of moral, ethical, and practical questions, but still remains remarkably succinct. Kelley’s words portray the experiment vividly, but it’s always clear that we’re only seeing it from one side: his. We can try to imagine what Lucy herself thought about it all, particularly when she was transferred to a park in Africa after the situation in the Temerlin’s home became untenable. And yet, to the very end, she saw us – humans – as her people, and whenever one came to visit her, she would react with great joy. Kelley breaks down this complicated tale by taking discrete events more or less sequentially – how quickly Lucy learned to walk, her potty training, her large signing vocabulary, her proficiency with tools, her growing inability to contain her emotions – and crafts a series of numbers which unfold not unlike a song cycle, showing us her development over the years.

When I first started exploring the opera, I was (of course!) relieved that the chimp is not physically in the show, but I wondered if I would miss her presence. Composer John Glover has included her, though, in an inventive way: she is represented in part by a toy piano in the small orchestra. The toy piano has a sound somewhere between a glockenspiel and wind chimes, and evokes a sweet and childlike quality which turns out to be wonderfully appropriate for Lucy. Just as a child can swing quickly between rage and calm, frustration and delight, so too the toy piano part is written to be by turns simple and dissonant, reflecting Lucy’s mood.

The opera is in three parts. Each begins with an an unaccompanied solo for baritone, and then the orchestra joins in. The overall sound of the piece traces an arc from pleasing harmony in Lucy’s early years, veering towards dissonance as she grows up and the interactions between her and the Temerlins become increasingly strained, back to an aching beauty as Temerlin remembers the good moments while contemplating her ultimate fate. I like how John doesn’t shy away from portraying ugliness and violence in the score when the story calls for it, but I also appreciate (as I’m sure you will in the audience) how lovely much of the writing is, and how approachable.

Our origins – the subject is perhaps one of the deepest we can contemplate. This story and this opera give us glimpses of where we came from, and how tantalizingly narrow the gulf between us and other primates seems – and yet how broad it truly is. Lucy gives us insight about what it means to be human – which art, literature, and music can do so well. I am grateful to the authors for bringing this story to life, and writing it for the operatic stage.

– Bob Wood

Meaty Roles Make Happy Singers

We’re now in our second week of rehearsals for AFTER LIFE/JOSEPHINE at UrbanArias, and I am again struck by what a pleasure it is to work on another opera (or operas) by composer Tom Cipullo. In particular, our cast of excellent singers are really enjoying sinking their teeth into his work. Why is that, you might ask? It’s pretty simple.

Tom writes music that is both challenging AND gratifying to sing. Put another way – he knows how to write powerhouse moments for the voice. People talk a lot in new music about “whether composers understand how to write for the voice”; this usually has to do with how the composer constructs a part, where he or she places it within a singer’s range, and how well she or he understands what a given vowel is likely to sound like on a particular note. Does a composer make a singer stay uncomfortably high (or low) for pages at a time? Does the whole role feel like one long relentless climax? Or is there variety in the writing which allows the artist to keep massaging her sound, to recover from the more strenuous passages and reset for the next difficult one? Certainly, singers can rise to all kinds of crazy challenges, and they do – but a good opera composer knows how to pace things well so that a performer doesn’t feel like he’s hanging on by his fingernails all night.

Tom takes it one step further: he not only knows how to pace and structure a sung role, but he also knows how to let singers show off. And let’s be honest, what singer (or any performer, for that matter) doesn’t want to show off from time to time? One big reason, in my opinion, that the operas of Mozart, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner and others have stood the test of time is that they present singers with tough but surmountable challenges that are exciting for an audience to hear achieved. High notes are thrilling – but they’re even more thrilling when they’re sung with utmost confidence, perhaps held long enough to carom around the skull a few times, and then released effortlessly, sending their energy right into the audience’s hearts. Soft passages will draw an audience in, making them crane forward in their seats. Ensemble writing lets us hear not one, but several fantastic, unamplified voices at the same time – and in harmony.

It’s like anything else in theater or music – certain things just work. We know they work. The trick is to do them in a different or new way, but one that does not rob them of their original, visceral power. Tom does that in spades, which is why opera singers all over the country love him. And it’s also terribly fulfilling for the audience. When you hear AFTER LIFE/JOSEPHINE, you will know you came to an OPERA.

I seem to write when there’s bad weather.

Hi all,

As many of you will know, we had a bad storm in the DC area last weekend. Although we at the UrbanArias Corporate Offices kept power throughout, our internet inexplicably went down on Tuesday . . . right as I was about to write an eblast about our very exciting upcoming performances.

So now I’m at IOTA, the excellent cafe, bar and performance club where we’re doing our next show, typing away to get the website updated and the eblast going. Thank goodness their wireless is working!

Stephen Negrey, IOTA’s owner, is super friendly, and very accommodating – he’s happy to let IOTA be my office in this time of distress. Plus, it allows me to negotiate our deal face to face. I feel very comfortable that I just charmed the hell out of him, so I’m anticipating a good cut.

In all seriousness, we have a fantastic show planned for August 5th here at IOTA, called “Blind Dates.” You can read more about it on the site here. We’re giving four mini-operas written around the subject of dating, and they’re all very funny. One of them is text of actual Craigslist ads set to Mahlerian music. IOTA is traditionally a club which features bands, but they have a solid commitment to classical music as well, so we are a natural fit. Even better, it’s a five-minute walk from my house. It’s a great feeling to be part of Arlington arts institutions coming together.

I highly recommend their food, and their beer selection is also excellent. Please join us on August 5, and you will see how good it is. Plus, we’re doing “opera improv,” so when you’re properly sauced, you can suggest all kinds of inappropriate scenes for us to turn into operas.

Bob Wood

Susan’s (that’s Madame President to you) Favorite Things

As we head into our second season, I am astounded by the talent we have amassed. I am also astounded by the hard work, dedication and far-thinking approach of my colleague (and, full disclosure) dear friend Bob Wood. And as a musician, I am also still astounded that he patiently got me through my piano final at good old Northwestern, and that he didn’t laugh too hard at me in conducting class as I stood at the podium, trying desperately to keep the horns in check and cue the violins without falling off the little step. Conducting is no joke, people; wait till you see Bob in action – watching him work is one of my favorite things.

I have been told to STAY AWAY from backstage (and backstage is definitely one of my favorite things) this year and let the people who are good at this kind of thing actually do their jobs; no more “Undercover Boss.” My duties last year included crew wrangling, mistress of the keys, organizing large and cumbersome instrument cases in small shared spaces, errand girl, caterer, wig control, steaming and pressing, minor stitching and the dreaded but exciting quick changes – with a great team and gracious actors it all worked out, but it’s a good thing my blood pressure is actually a little low. (If you do Insanity for a workout then you have an idea of what my life was like last season.) I loved being in the thick of it and making it all happen and I will miss it, but it is high time I left the running of that part of UrbanArias to our production stage manager for the season, the lovely Jocelyn Henjum, and our technical director Brad Porter. Brad was with us last season and was instrumental in figuring out how to hang the precipitous yet stunningly beautiful projection screen; clearly he can handle anything, and we’re very lucky to have him back.

A few more of my favorite things for the upcoming season:

· Vale Rideout More full disclosure – Vale was my Raoul in Phantom of the Opera in Hamburg, Germany a million years ago – “Raoul! Es ist nicht mehr vie fruher Raoul!” Never mind what it actually means – just know it makes Christine sound like a barking dog in a corset. Glad to be working with you again, friend.

· A workshop of our commission Positions 1956 (it’s a commission – how cool is that? – Conrad Cummings and Michael Korie are working as I type). This one of the main reasons we founded the company and it is gratifying to see our first effort get off the ground. More on this in my next post….

· Caroline Worra is coming back, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. If you had the good luck to see her in Glory Denied last year, you know she is a fantastic singing actress. We’re confident she will kill it in Before Breakfast.

· A 15 piece orchestra conducted by Bob, not by me.

· Cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudel…Favorite things, get it?

· And we are grateful for our awesome and generous donors – keep it coming! Get your friends involved – check out our Kickstarter campaign.

Check back for more of Madame President’s favorite things, and get your tickets for 2012!

UrbanArias in Playbill

I’m excited to tell you that UrbanArias recently had a feature article on Playbill.com! It’s about our upcoming premiere, Positions 1956 by Michael Korie and Conrad Cummings. Have a look! It’s a perfect premiere for us: somewhat subversive and boundary-pushing, but still tasteful. Have a look: click here.

NEA Opera Honors

Hello all,

It’s that time again: The National Endowment for the Arts in collaboration with Opera America is presenting the 4th Annual Opera Honor Awards. Previous winners include Leontyne Price and John Adams; this year’s honorees are famed mezzo-soprano Risë Stevens, composer Robert Ward (The Crucible), designer John Conklin, and Speight Jenkins, the general director of the Seattle Opera.

This ceremony is a great event – this year it’s at the Harman Center in Washington, DC, and as always, it’s free. The evening will feature video tributes to the honorees, personal acceptances by all but Mme. Stevens, and performances by world-renowned singers Lawrence Brownlee and Sarah Coburn (for those not in the know, that’s Senator Tom Coburn’s daughter!). And it’s hosted by Nina Totenberg! How Washington is that?

I will be going, along with a number of UrbanArias board members and patrons – it’s THURSDAY, OCTOBER 27 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are free, but they must be reserved; call the Shakespeare Theatre Company at the Harman Center to reserve yours. (202) 547-1122 or visit the website www.shakespearetheatre.org. (Astute UrbanArias fans will remember that we performed at the Harman Center in September).

This will be a lot of fun, and a feel-good evening for opera fans. Attire is festive, so no need to break out the tux. Hope to see you there!

Bob Wood

New York’s Reaction to Irene was as Dramatic as our Operas

Dear Friends,

My quick trip up to New York was indeed quick, and quite dramatic. I knew that I would be racing the clock to take care of all the business I had hoped to accomplish up there and get on a train back to Washington before Amtrak shut down — but I did not anticipate that upon leaving my first meeting on a sunny Friday afternoon, I would encounter a man taping an evacuation order to the building I had just left.

Was this a sign? Well, yes, it was certainly a sign, but was it a SIGN?

Should I have halved my offer to the composer I had just met? Should I have insisted that he rewrite his opera for a recession-proof ensemble of upturned plastic tubs? (Wait, someone already did that.)

In any case, I had a wonderful meeting with composer Conrad Cummings, who (spoiler alert) will be featured on our upcoming April Festival.

The rest of Friday afternoon was stressful. After my meeting with Conrad, I returned to my hotel under completely different circumstances – transit was to shut down the next day, and what seemed like large swaths of the city were to be evacuated. The front desk clerk was reassuring European tourists that they had nothing to fear on the 14th floor, except for walking up to their room in case of an elevator outage.

“Well, it’s good for the exercise, isn’t it? Because the fitness center won’t be open if the power goes out.”

Right.

I managed to change my Amtrak reservation to an earlier train, and rescheduled the singer I was to hear on Saturday morning to 10:30. Poor guy.

Then it was off to the Fringe Festival, where I thoroughly enjoyed a play called Sammy Gets Mugged, directed by Noah Himmelstein, who (spoiler alert) will also be featured on our upcoming season. Then to bed.

On Saturday morning, I went to Penn Station early to print out my ticket (before the auditions — fortunately, I had booked a hotel within walking distance of the train AND the audition studios!) and it was a madhouse, everyone trying to escape avant le déluge. The electronic ticket kiosk was not cooperating, and the line was too long for me to still make it to the studio on time. I gave up, and went and heard a wonderful singer, which took my mind off hurricanes for twenty minutes.

Back to Penn Station — now it was eerily quiet, as if everyone who was left was resigned to there being no more lifeboats on the Titanic. I felt particularly bad for the ladies working at the only cafe in the station that was open — because the transit system was shutting down at noon, they were not going to be able to make it back to the outer boroughs where they lived. I hope their employer gave them cab fare! Although one really has to ask — was it necessary to shut the whole system down? It made me think of a line from an opera which (spoiler alert) we’re going to produce in April: “Damn you, Mayor Bloomberg!”

Once we had boarded the train, it was still touch and go. We were delayed for 15 minutes due to “mechanical issues”, which turned out to be a lack of hot dogs in the cafe. Once they were loaded on, we were released from New York — and proceeded mostly uneventfully until shortly after BWI airport, when we lost power. So close! Fortunately, we were able to move on before too long, and we certainly made up for lost time — we did the stretch from BWI to the District at 80mph. Yes, we want to get home, but IN ONE PIECE, PLEASE!

We arrived safe if a little frazzled.

Meanwhile . . .

I am now looking forward to a performance at the Harman Center’s Fall Arts Preview, which is part of DC’s Arts on Foot — click on “Activities” and then at the very bottom on “Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Fall Arts Performance Showcase”. We’re performing at 3:30 on Saturday, September 10th . . . eblast to follow shortly.

Hope everyone stayed as dry as I did!

Bob

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

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