The scoop on our Spring commission: Why I Live at the PO

UrbanArias is excited to premiere our ninth (!) commissioned opera this Spring! Running April 30 through May 8 at the Keegan Theatre, WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O. takes the comic masterpiece by beloved author Eudora Welty and combines it with classic and contemporary American musical styles to tell the story of a supremely relatable family.
by UrbanArias Founder and Artistic Director, Robert Wood:
WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O. is a classic American short story by a famous author, and even many years later, it captures so much of human nature: our pride and vanity, our difficulty in moving on from the past, and the unbelievable ability of your family to drive you crazy the way nothing else can. In the last several years, I’ve been drawn more and more to crossover and fusion work: operas that sing to us in a variety of musical styles. Why? Because I believe that opera, or any music theater, is at its most successful when it reflects the language of the people hearing it. Literally, in the sense that opera in your own language is easier to understand, but also musically – most Americans aren’t familiar with the evolution of classical music in the 20th century, but most Americans ARE familiar with musicals and with big band, which form a large part of P.O.’s musical style. I’m always looking for operas that are about US – our society, our shared experiences, our culture, and P.O. fits all of that to a T. 
I was at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers festival of new opera a few years ago, and P.O. was one of their selections. I heard the first 20 minutes of it, which was all that had been written to that point, and found it very charming and funny. It’s been on my mind to produce at some point for several years now, and I don’t know about anyone else, but what I’d really like to do after two years of this wretched pandemic is laugh. Just laugh, with other people, in a theater.
We were able to do that in a workshop presentation of P.O. in September, and boy, did it feel great!
So not only was this the year that we had the means to commission the completion of this opera and a great venue to produce it in, it was also the year where everyone needed a break more than ever – and where the idiosyncrasies of family relationships felt extremely fresh to many of us. So WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O. feels very of the moment in 2022. 
Tickets for WHY I LIVE AT THE P.O. will go on sale in late February!

Holiday Recipes from Our Team!

For Christmas 2021, our team is looking forward to celebrating a successful but rather unusual year with some traditional holiday recipes! Check out some of our favorites below:

Thumbprint Cookies
from Executive Director Anne-Carolyn Bird

We store all of our Christmas ornaments in holiday tins, so after the tree is decorated they are empty – and ready to be filled with cookies! Every year I make at least four kinds: decorated gingerbread and/or sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, thumbprint cookies, and classic chocolate chip. My family’s favorite is the thumbprint cookie, topped with raspberry or peach jam – or Nutella!


  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1 cup butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs, separated
  • 2 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 cups pecans, finely chopped
  • Your choice of jam (or Nutella!)


  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. In a bowl, beat together brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and egg yolk. Stir in flour and salt.
  3. Roll dough into 1 inch balls. Place egg whites and pecans in two separate bowls. Dip each ball in egg whites and then roll in pecans. Place about 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Press thumb or into center of each cookie. Make sure to not press too far down.
  4. Bake 13 minutes. Immediately remove cookies from cookie sheet to a wire rack. Let cool 30 minutes. Store unfilled, and top each cookie with jam just before eating.
Chocolate Crinkles
from Founder and Artistic Director Robert Wood
Here’s a tried and true recipe that I got from my mother, who got it from our local nature center’s newsletter (my mother typed all of her recipes on large index cards and always noted the source. Later, she transferred a number of them to an “electronic cookbook”, which she emailed me about ten years ago).
Many, many families have a version of this recipe, but this is the one I grew up with, and that I love. I remember the first time I made it by myself as a kid, I put in baking soda instead of baking powder. Oops! You can tell the vintage of the recipe by the use of vegetable oil, and the assumption that baking chocolate was only sold in 1-ounce squares.
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 4 squares (4 oz.) unsweetened chocolate, melted
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla (the vanilla you get now can be really strong, so I use scant teaspoons for this)
  • 2 cups flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • powdered sugar to roll the dough in – I’ve never measured it, but it’s probably close to a cup
Mix oil, chocolate, and sugar. Blend eggs in one at a time. Add vanilla. Mix together flour, baking powder, and salt; stir into the dough. Chill overnight. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Drop teaspoons of dough into powdered sugar and cover all over by rolling. Place 2″ apart and bake 9.5 – 10 minutes; do not overbake (they will be moist).
Christmas time is exciting for me because that means fruit mince pies are abundant. I am a big fan of Jamie Oliver, I tried this recipe of his version of a mince pie with filo and puff-pastry (normally with sweet-short pastry) a few years back when I was with my family back in Oz, and it was a hit.
Fruit Mince Pies
from Artistic Administrator Paul Peers
  • 100 g good-quality mincemeat (That’s fruit mince, not meat, should be able to buy a jar of it at Wholefoods or Trader Joes)
  • 25 g dried cranberries or blueberries , chopped
  • 2 clementines , zest of
  • 1 splash sherry or brandy
  • flour , to dust
  • 250 g puff pastry
  • 1 pack filo pastry
  • 50 g butter , melted
  • 1 free-range egg , beaten
  • 50 g flaked almonds
  • icing sugar , to dust
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/400ºF/gas 6. Scoop the mincemeat into a mixing bowl and mix in the dried berries, the clementine zest and the sherry or brandy.
 2. Dust a clean work surface with flour and roll out the puff pastry into a big rectangle about 20cm x 40cm and the thickness of a pound coin (1/8th inch). Thinly spread the mincemeat over the pastry, leaving a 1/2″ gap around the edges. Tightly roll up the pastry, lengthways, like a Swiss roll, place it on a floured tray, and pop in the fridge to firm up.
3. Take two cupcake trays (for 12 cupcakes each) and butter each one lightly with the melted butter. Place one layer of filo pastry over the tray (you may need more than one sheet to cover each tray depending on the size of the sheets) and ease the pastry into each hole. Brush with the melted butter, then cover with a second layer of filo pastry. Brush with butter again.
4. Take the puff pastry roll out of the fridge and, with a sharp knife, cut it into 24 slices. Place each slice, flat-side down, into a filo-lined hole. Brush with the egg and sprinkle a few flaked almonds on top of each little pie, then pop both trays in the oven for about 25 minutes, until cooked and golden brown.
5. Leave to cool, then crack the individual pies out of the trays. Dust with a little icing sugar before serving.
Cardamom Bread
from Communications Director Alysa Turner
A sweet and sugary Christmas morning tradition – perfect for enjoying with coffee while opening presents by the tree!


  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 4 1/3 cups all-purpose flour, plus flour for the work surface
  • 1 pkg dry active yeast
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/8 cup canola oil, plus more oil for the bowl
  • 2 large eggs, separated into one full egg and extra yolk for the dough and extra white for the wash
  • 3/4 tablespoons kosher salt
  • 1.5 tsp cardamomPreparation

    Heat the milk in a small saucepan over low heat just until it’s between warm and hot, it should be feel hot but you should be able to keep your finger in it comfortably.
    Put the yeast in a large bowl and stir the milk into it. Add a little bit of honey and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.
    In a separate bowl, combine the remaining milk and honey, the oil, and one full egg and egg yolk. Stir together. Add the salt and stir again, then add to the yeast mixture. Gradually stir the flour into the liquid ingredients, about 1/2 cup at a time. When the dough becomes sticky and difficult to stir, dump onto a floured surface and knead it by hand, adding a little more flour if necessary to keep it from sticking, until smooth and elastic.
    Meanwhile, bring a small sauce pan of water to a boil on the stovetop.
    Knead the dough into a ball and put it in an oiled bowl.
    Cover with a kitchen cloth and put in the oven (turned off) on the middle rack with the pot of now boiling water on the bottom rack (or next to it). Close the oven door and let stand until doubled in size, 1 1/2 – 2 hours.
    Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Gently punch the dough down and turn it onto a floured surface. Divide the dough and braid. I usually do a six braid which I learned from YouTube tutorials. Cover with a cloth and let stand until nearly double in size, another 25 minutes or so. You can also let it rise in the oven with hot water again but make sure to remove it before pre-heating.
    Preheat the oven to 350°F.
    Lightly beat the remaining egg and white and brush it over the top of the challah loaf. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake the loaves until golden brown, 20 to 30 minutes, turning once halfway through and fine-tuning for your oven.

Filming at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

We were humbled and honored to shoot scenes from UNKNOWN at the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial here in Washington, D.C.

The memorial’s design by Maya Lin has a fascinating history and makes it one of the most reverent and recognizable locations on the National Mall. At the time, Lin was a 21-year-old college student who entered a nationwide search as part of her architecture class at Yale.

Maya Lin conceived her design as creating a park within a park — a quiet, protected place to provide peace and healing for visitors.

To achieve this effect she chose polished black granite for the walls. The mirror-like surface reflects the images of the surrounding trees and lawns.

The Memorial’s walls point to the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, thus bringing the Memorial into the historical context of our country.

The names are inscribed in the chronological order of their dates of casualty, showing the war as a series of individual human sacrifices and giving each name a special place in history.

Read more about this fascinating National Memorial here.

Three Questions with Scenic Designer Mollie Singer

We’re proud to have worked with local artists and local locations for UNKNOWN. Scenic designer Mollie Singer masterfully handled the set and props, taking this film around D.C. and Virginia – and across the world, all while staying local!
We recently asked Mollie some questions about her work on UNKNOWN:
1. What was the hardest thing (or location) to find?
The hardest thing to find ended up being the newspapers.  Finding the right papers, in good condition, with the right headlines was tricky.
2. What resources do you lean on for a project like this?
Resources for this kind of project include eBay and other Collector sights, Prop artisans, and local Theatres prop storage.  I was able to borrow some items for the filming, which is always extremely helpful.
3. What is your favorite moment in the film?
My favorite moment of the film is watching the performers inhabit the different war memorials.  It is very powerful to be standing amongst the memorials but watching the performers interact as they’ve taken on their roles gave even more meaning to the experience.

Exciting New Opera to see this Fall

Despite an uncertain Fall ahead – there is no shortage of great contemporary opera premiering around the country!

Check out some that caught our eye:

Hosted at a Studio Friction in Denver, a studio specializing in aerial arts, Nathan Hall is directing a contemporary opera called “Unbound”, a multimedia, musical kink show about a gay man’s exploration of sexual desire and search for sexual fantasy.

The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA will produce the West Coast premiere of “Sun & Sea,” which addresses climate change in “what could best be described as an operatic lament about the disintegration of our planet.” The creative team of director Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, librettist Vaiva Grainytė, and composer Lina Lapelytė are all Lithuanian women.

Opera in the Rock in is opening its 2021-22 season with Derrick Wang’s one-act contemporary opera “Scalia/Ginsburg,” which of course highlights one of the most peculiar friendships in modern politics.

And right here at home, we’re premiering our latest commission: Shawn Okpebholo and Marcus Amaker’s Unknown honors the centenary of the Tomb of the Unknown soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. The World Premiere is Tuesday, October 5 at The Barns at Wolf Trap – and stay tuned for a film production in November!

No doubt about it: opera is a hot ticket and we are here for it. What else is on your radar this fall?


Operas you can watch on YouTube!

Beat the late Summer heat with Opera Night at home!

Here are some full-length operas you can stream right now for free on YouTube:

Teatro Comunale Luciano Pavarotti’s 2021 concert production of “Don Carlo” was presented in honor of Italian Soprano Mirella Freni and her husband, Bass Nicolai Ghiaurov.

This production of Rossini’s “Semiramide” from Venice’s La Fenice Opera House – the very same Opera House in which the work premiered 1823!

This traditional Aida from San Francisco Opera stars two of the greatest opera names of the 20th century. Sam Wanamaker’s 1981 production with Luciano Pavarotti as Radames and Margaret Price as Aida is available to watch right on YouTube!

Puccini’s comedic one-act masterpiece Gianni Schicchi tells the story of a man who successfully impersonates another with surprising results. This production from 2017 premiered at the Butte Music Festival.

More About Our Latest Commission

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.

Art is Political


dwb (driving while black)

“Driving while black”

One is the title of the opera by Susan Kander and Roberta Gumbel that we are presenting at the end of the month. The other is a phrase Black Americans have used for years to encapsulate the injustice, fear, and danger they encounter on a regular basis while simply going about their lives.

Susan and Roberta wrote the piece in 2015, inspired by their conversations surrounding their own sons’ coming of driving age and by the general awareness of Black parents of what it means to put their child behind the wheel of a car. They were making an artistic and political statement by writing the opera on this subject.

UrbanArias Founder and Artistic Director Bob Wood programmed dwb into the 2020-2021 season because it is an excellent work which tells a story of today’s America (and, of course, it is short and new). He was making an artistic and political statement by including the work in our season.

George Floyd's face projected onto Confederate monument

Soprano Karen Slack and filmmakers Du’Bois and Camry A’Keen were making artistic and political statements by signing on to star in and create a film version of the opera.

All these subtle political statements happened before Black Lives Matter exploded in mid-2020, becoming a global movement fueled by the collective outrage surrounding the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. Artists and companies around the country and around the world came forward with written statements speaking out against the unjust fears our Black and Brown colleagues and friends face daily.

And now, just this week, we have seen two more horrific examples of this fear, the fear of Driving While Black, come to life. Army 2nd Lieutenant Caron Nazario, pepper-sprayed after being pulled over in his new car, and Daunte Wright, killed when a police officer used her gun instead of her taser.

As the director of a company presenting an opera entitled dwb (driving while black) in this moment, I am keenly aware of the line we are walking between art and politics. Toni Morrison once said “All good art is political! There is none that isn’t. And the ones that try hard not to be political are political by saying, ‘We love the status quo.’”

As we present this beautiful film, we are saying loudly and clearly that we do not love the status quo. We do not love seeing yet another “beautiful brown boy,” as The Mother in dwb calls her son, killed in an act of senseless violence. We do not love a system which routinely thwarts justice by allowing perpetrators to go largely unpunished while the lives of innocent people are destroyed.

Art is political, one way or another. We are choosing to be political on the side of change.


Anne-Carolyn Bird
Executive Director

Our favorite Musical and Operatic Fools for April Fools Day

Robert Wood, Founder and Artistic Director

This April Fool’s Day, I am choosing Rigoletto to illustrate the dark side of practical joking and fooling. It’s all fun and games until your daughter falls in love with a gigolo and karma takes your assassination plot and bites you in the ass with it.

More seriously, many of my favorite operas are works that examine humanity and don’t shy away from the ugly parts.The audience both pities Rigoletto and is disturbed by him. Verdi’s incredible music elevates this character into a deeply flawed man full of pathos. Rigoletto is a joy to conduct from start to finish – as is all of Verdi, really. 

Anne-Carolyn Bird, Executive Director: 

My favorite opera “fool” has to be Figaro from Le nozze di Figaro. Throughout the opera, Figaro willingly acts a fool, turns the tables to make his master look a fool, and in the end is completely fooled by Susanna, who is his equal in every way (although maybe not so foolish). We first meet this character being a “fool for hire” in The Barber of Seville, using his smarts to create a foolish diversion in order for his master to sneak away with the girl. 

By the time we get to Nozze, however, Figaro’s stakes are higher and his foolishness – intentional or otherwise – almost gets in the way of his marrying his match. In Act IV, he recognizes Susanna’s trick at the very last minute, turns the tables once again and fools her back. After a wicked fight, they end in perfect harmony – “La commedia, idol mio, terminiamo” “My love, let’s stop this foolishness!” It is a beautiful moment of reconciliation, and will always be my favorite moment in this perfect opera. 

NB: I sang Susanna many times and am married to my very first foolish Figaro… Smartest decision I ever made. 

Paul Peers, Artistic Administrator

As a director I have always loved the archetypes from Commedia Dell’Arte; Arlequino, Il Capitano, and Pucilnella to name a few. So when given the opportunity to direct opera from the Baroque period I jump at the chance. Elviro from Handel’s Xerxes was a lot of fun to collaborate on with a singer. He is a Basso Buffo role, a Zanni who is a fool who plays the astute servant. Although I would not call Elviro astute, his heart is always in the right place no matter what crazy situation he finds himself in.

NB: My wife and I first met working on a clown show titled Love is in the Air. Five years later when we married, we had all of our guests wear red clown noses during the reception.


Susan Derry, Board President 

Ah the fool.  She’s in a million love songs: fools rush in, so I’m a fool, but falling in love with love is playing the fool. I’m a fool to want you, fool that I am. Weren’t we fools? April has her fair share of songs too and as an April baby, I love them all – give me half a chance and I’ll even work spring songs into a Christmas show. But there aren’t that many that put the two together. One that I love: Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ “April Fooled Me.”

Once April Fooled Me

With an afternoon so gold, so warm, so beguiling

That I thought the drowsy earth would wake up smiling

But April Fooled Me then

The night was cold

Jerome Kern wrote some really famous music: the luminous “All The Things You Are” has been called the perfect song, and of course his music for Show Boat completely changed how we integrate story and song in the musical theatre.  But it’s the tunes he wrote with Dorothy Fields that are among the most-performed in his canon.  The two began writing together in the 1930’s, penning such hits as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I Won’t Dance,”  “Remind Me,” “A Fine Romance,” and the musical A Tree Grows In Brooklyn.  By all accounts they were great friends.  

They were slated to start work on Annie Get Your Gun when Kern suffered a stroke on a New York street and later died.  Fields was heartbroken to lose her friend. Kern’s wife Eva sent Fields a wordless melody Kern had written, “one of his treasures – and I simply had to write a lyric to it.”  And so she did – it’s a lovely tribute.

Once someone fooled me

With a kiss that touched my heart beyond all believing

But like April that sweet moment was deceiving…

It was not really spring nor really love

You were alike, you two

Restless April Fooled Me

Darling, so did you.


Musical Holiday Traditions in 2020

This holiday season has looked a lot different. While some traditions remain unchanged – trimming the tree, making latkes and gingerbread houses, lighting candles – others are just not possible. Getting together for concerts, services, and caroling will have to wait until next year, but thankfully there are many virtual options. These creative alternatives can all be enjoyed from the comfort of your couch, Christmas jammies on and hot chocolate (or hot toddy!) in hand. 

Below, the UrbanArias team shares some of our holiday traditions and ways that we will be celebrating this year. What are you missing this year? If you’ve found a good virtual replacement, let us know about it! 

Robert Wood, Founder & Artistic Director:

“I listen to different recordings of the Messiah and carols while decorating the tree. (The John Eliot Gardiner recording with the Monteverdi Choir is a good one.) This has not changed. What was different is how early I put up my tree this year (December 3!). I needed the holiday energy. So I started my rotation with King’s College Advent Lessons and Carols, since it was, you know, barely Advent. For the purists out there.”

Susan Derry, President:

“In a normal year I’d be gearing up to pinch hit with my childhood church choir – a super-fun group of folks with whom it’s always a pleasure to spend a very long Midnight Mass.  But that’s not possible this year.  So I’m getting my holiday musical kicks by doing a solo show – it’s a lot more work but it’s also safer. I’m excited to spread some holiday cheer, Derry-Christmas style.”  

For a beautiful online Christmas Eve service, sign up to view mass at the Washington National Cathedral! And you can watch Susan’s delightful cabaret through the end of the month: Buy tickets here: Holiday Cabarets from Creative Cauldron.

Paul Peers, Artistic Administrator:

“Here in Australia, we celebrate our summer Christmas by listening to Carols (generally my family lean toward the crooning versions of Sinatra or Dean Martin) while eating chilled cooked prawns (shrimp) and the dessert called Pavlova or commonly known as ‘Pav’. Pavlova is a popular summer dessert of lightly baked meringue topped with sweetened whipped cream (Or Creme Chantilly) and fresh fruit (generally various berries of some sort), very delicious and cool in the summer heat. The ‘Pav’ is named after Anna Pavlova, a Russian ballet dancer who toured Australia early last century.”

Alysa Turner, Marketing Director:

“Every year I get dressed up with friends and go see the NSO’s Messiah at the Kennedy Center. That can’t happen this year unfortunately but I am loving all the new streaming options and am looking forward to enjoying some of them over the Holidays! As a marketer, I’ve also been fascinated by the rise of the crowd-sourced TikTok musical based on Pixar’s Ratatouille – which has a benefit concert performance to support the Actor’s Fund on New Year’s Day!”


Anne-Carolyn Bird, Executive Director:

“My favorite traditions have always been home-based, so this year isn’t much different: making cookies, watching holiday movies, decorating a Gingerbread House that we will smash on New Year’s Day… Christmas Eve for me has always included a listening of Menotti’s Amahl & the Night Visitors. Thankfully that isn’t a tradition impacted by the pandemic! I always listen to the 1951 NBC Television recording. The Mother’s music used to always bore me a little when I was a kid; now that I’m a mother, I recognize it as the real meat of the opera. “Have You Seen a Child” makes me cry every time.”

However you celebrate this year, we hope you are healthy, safe, and surrounded by music! We look forward to seeing you – online and in person! – at the opera in 2021! 


Happy Holidays and Happy New Year,