by Robert Wood
UrbanArias Founder and Artistic Director
I love commissioning new work. It’s probably the most exciting thing we do at UrbanArias: identifying talented authors, finding a compelling subject to write about, and participating in the birth of a new piece of music and theater. This process is typically a fairly lengthy one in our industry – many authors can tell you stories of pieces lost forever in endless workshops.
For UNKNOWN, the song cycle we’ve commissioned from Shawn Okbebholo and Marcus Amaker, it was a little different.
Shawn Jeffery, of ADA Artist Management, came to us in early 2021 with the idea of creating a tribute to the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery. What better company to premiere such a work than UrbanArias, actually located in Arlington? And what better artist to participate in such a project than Michael Mayes, who has performed a slew of military-themed operas, many of them multiple times?
During preliminary conversations, we determined that a dramatic song cycle would be the way to go for this work. We were hedging our bets on how quickly theaters would reopen, so we decided to make this a short film – just 20 minutes, to accommodate post-pandemic screen fatigue. And we wanted to add two more singers, so that we could present a variety of perspectives in the film – that of soldiers, but also that of those left behind, and also of the nation as a whole, honoring a sacrifice from which many of us are completely detached.
Also, this timeline would need to be very fast by opera standards – with November 11, 2021 as the looming date of a digital premiere, the entire work would need to be conceived, written, edited, cast, performed, and produced as a film in about eight months. That’s not just “expedited”, that’s “lightspeed”.
In searching for authors, I was drawn to Shawn and Marcus because of their notable 2020 composition TWO BLACK CHURCHES for baritone and piano. It is a gorgeous and searing work about events perpetrated by white supremacists: the 16th St. Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, AL, and the Mother Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charleston, SC. Whether commissioning opera or songs, it is important to me to work with artists who have a keen sense of drama, and who know how to use the musical resources at their disposal to their fullest to reach an audience and grip their emotions. I was tremendously grateful that they were able to make time in their schedules for UNKNOWN, and I am very excited by what we have seen from them so far.
All of the work we do at UrbanArias involves a huge amount of trust, but perhaps nothing so much as commissioning: authors trusting us that we will produce their work with beauty and integrity, and we trusting them to write something extraordinary when there ISN’T a years-long workshop process in place. It’s in our ethos, though – taking big risks has allowed us to have a big impact in contemporary opera, and far beyond the DC region. That is evidenced by major regional companies like Opera Colorado, Minnesota Opera, and Wolf Trap Opera joining us in co-commissioning this important work. They, and you, our audience, count on us to deliver, and we are proud to have earned that trust.