Posts Tagged ‘contemporary opera’

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.

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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