Q&A About INBOX ZERO with Baritone Keith Phares

We asked baritone Keith Phares about singing modern opera, and specifically INBOX ZERO, which we will present on May 4, 2023. We hope you enjoy his insightful responses!

You have done a lot of new operas – how do you find working on contemporary pieces vs. standard repertoire, and is there anything you particularly like or dread about new works?

Generally speaking, the standard repertoire is the most satisfying to sing; however, contemporary repertoire, not being bound by hundreds of years of tradition, allows me to put my own stamp on something. Furthermore, most of the contemporary works that I’ve performed have been in English.  No matter how familiar I am with French, German or Italian, I’m never going to be able to bring the same level of authenticity to a character as I can when I’m singing in my native language, i.e., it will always feel like there’s a filter between me and the audience, and I’ll be more inclined to sing for outcome, instead of staying in the scene.  In contemporary opera my line of communication with the audience is more direct.  If there’s anything I dread about contemporary works, it’s the occasion when a vocal line isn’t intrinsically singable, but of course one can find plenty of examples of that in Mozart.  In any case, I do enjoy a challenge and a great libretto makes it all the more worth it.

Have you done other one-person shows? Are there particular rewards and/or challenges for you in monodramas?

This is my first one!  I’ve sung art song recitals, and some of those have included fairly lengthy song cycles in which I get to create a character arc, but this is the first time I will be the single character in a story with a specific plot line.  I think the most challenging aspects will be the pacing and stamina. There will be no time to rest.

You are very skilled at singing opera in English and making it sound like the language we speak; not all singers have this knack. Are there any tips or tricks you use to keep the diction natural while still producing operatic sounds?

Why thank you!  The biggest factor in all of this, I believe, is that I want to be understood and I want to sound like a person speaking.  When I was coaching Robert Aldridge’s Elmer Gantry with its librettist, Herschel Garfein, he caught me basically singing for sound and atmosphere, and for disregarding that I was a person in a moment.  This changed my whole perspective on singing.  As far as the technical aspect is concerned, I’m shooting for vowel shapes that occur in plain, spoken diction wherever possible. I find that the use of spoken vowel shapes are too often overlooked as a key to clear diction.  If I can’t embrace the idea of spoken vowels, and singing SENTENCES rather than musical phrases, consonants are only going to clarify things so much.

What do you love about Peter and Matt’s work?

It’s satisfying to sing, smart, beautiful, moving, hilarious, profound, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Q&A About INBOX ZERO with Hilliard and Boresi

We asked authors Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi about their work, and specifically about their new piece INBOX ZERO, which we will present on May 4, 2023. Unsurprisingly, their answers are very thoughtful. Enjoy!

Inbox Zero is part of a multi-project exploration of the degrading effects of commerce and class upon survival and fulfillment. Can you talk more about that, and why you feel it’s important for the arts, and opera specifically, to tell these stories?

PETER: Opera is a great place to work out big ideas and emotions, particularly if you can find a way to make the ideas central to an interesting story. Matt and I write about the things that concern us in our world, and just like everybody else, we find ourselves thinking a lot about how much things cost, why they cost so much, (and why so little!) how people get the money they need to get by, and what the pursuit of financial security and material goods does to us.

The answers are complex, but it seems obvious to us that commerce isn’t leading us to fulfillment, but despair. Most of us find ourselves in some kind of hustle, which is somehow wrapped up in who we think we are as people. And since so much of the hustle is about the projection of an identity we each choose for ourselves, we can easily wind up fabricating versions of ourselves that aren’t grounded in reality. Maintaining these projected identities can cut us off from the actual people in our lives who might help us grow and tell us the truth, who might help us discover a more authentic self in community. The imperatives of buying more and more things and becoming who we wish we were leave us open to scams and frauds, which are themselves run by people hustling. And the cycle repeats itself.

I think it’s basically impossible to extricate yourself from these forces; they are the fabric of our world. But we can watch a character struggle through the consequences of self-delusion and see how we ourselves might be taken in. If we could be flattered enough, and if we thought what we were being asked to do helped us and the ones we love be happy, most of us would do very shameful things. If we can’t really face the truth about ourselves, we can at least see someone else do it in an opera.

In this piece, the most difficult thing is for the main character to admit that he made a mistake. If only we could all do that.

MATT: We very much want to tell stories about the world we live in now – we want to prove that opera can do that. Opera has done that in the past, but contemporary settings and message are not the first thing anybody thinks of when they think of opera – they think of bullfighters and pharaohs and geishas.  There are many ways to tell stories: stories about the past that echo in the present, stories about the future with warnings for the present… but that’s not our mission right now. It’s why we consider ourselves so fortunate to have worked with UrbanArias over a number of years – their mission, “Opera. Short. New.” – that intersects perfectly with what we want to do right now, and the audiences are open to seeing their own worlds on that stage.

Opera could really stand to pick up some new fans and show itself in new ways to its current audience. Contemporary audiences are always asking “how is this relevant?”  We know that there are stories set in the present day driven by passions that justify singing in big voices, and we want to tell those stories.  Our audiences have really responded to it, particularly at UrbanArias, and in cities where our UrbanArias commissions have been performed.  People say to us “I know those characters – those people up there.” Or, “That’s me up there” – in a way that they don’t in historical pageants or avant-garde work, and we love hearing that.

“The Last American Hammer” is a great example – when it’s done at Universities, the students all say, “Milcom (the conspiracy theorist main character), that’s my uncle. And we don’t know what to do about Thanksgiving anymore.”  We just got back from watching a production in Grand Rapids, MI, where the show was performed in a factory to punch up the message about the disappearance of American manufacturing, and so many audience members said, “This is the perfect Michigan show.  This show is about us right here.”  They don’t know that people say that in every town where the piece is performed. We love that so much. Opera cuts deeper than any other art form, and we want to cut deeply about the current moment.

We have things to say about the world – in particular how aggressive capitalism and the hustle culture of the US grinds us all down – makes us sick, makes us nuts. That idea of taking all you can take, of saying whatever you need to to get ahead, of looking at everything from the perspective of how monetizable it is – that’s always been a part of America – but in the internet era it feels really metastasized. It’s tragic and it’s comic and it lends itself to the stuff of opera.

What would you say are the biggest challenges to writing a one-person show? Is there anything that’s easier than writing for a larger cast?

MATT: Ha, well, mostly it’s difficult!   I suppose you don’t have to track all the characters the way you do in a bigger show – there are fewer plates to keep spinning and arcs to land.  But everything else is a challenge.  The biggest hurdle is, frankly, how do we keep this exciting?  When the audience comes in they see one set and one singer, and more or less, that’s probably all they’re going to get all night – so you have to keep changing the tone, and the ideas, and the music, so it doesn’t feel static.

In this particular piece we try to move the character to a few different locations, in his head anyway, to keep it moving and keep it fresh, but by and large it’s an intimate piece about a person alone with their thoughts and some very intrusive voices, and the main goal of the music and the words is to keep those thoughts interesting and songworthy.

One of the reasons we really want to do this particular show with this particular team – (conductor) Bob Wood, (director) Dennis Whitehead-Darling, and (baritone) Keith Phares – these are theatre people – they understand and care about how a show should work to be dramatically and comically effective.  We saw a production of (UrbanArias commission) “Blue Viola” in Memphis directed by Dennis, and his work really elevated the piece. We’ve worked with real contemporary opera specialists at UrbanArias – Jennifer Aylmer immediately leaps to mind (who starred in “The Filthy Habit” at UA all the way back in 2011).  There’s a difference when your piece is performed by people who have created new work before, sung in English a lot, and can really act.  The show is clearer, it’s more effective, it leaps off the stage.

PETER: It’s definitely not easier to write for one person. You have to find ways to give the singer a break, to give the audience some tonal variety, and to keep the story moving. In our real lives, when we are alone at home, we do not normally talk to ourselves for an hour at a time. And yet that’s what a character in a monodrama must do.

When there are a several characters in the opera, I can try to capture several musical personalities, and then play those musical ideas against each other in interesting ways. In a monodrama, it’s not enough for the single singer to have just one musical personality. They must embody the whole world of expression themselves. Musically, I also love writing ensembles, so it’s sad for me not to be able to do that. But writing for a singer like Keith is really an extraordinary treat, and it’s fun to find ways to use what he does best.

We also found a way to introduce computer generated spoken text as a sound effect, and I think we discovered how to make it integral to the story. It’s striking how much of our communication is automated now, and the development of high-functioning AI will only increase that trend. We wanted to try and explore that feeling that you’re never actually talking to a real person; give Keith a break now and again, and contribute to the texture of the piece.

You occupy a fairly unique spot in the larger world of sung theater – how did you come to land in the musical theater/opera crossover space? You also write musicals – do they have an operatic flavor at all? What would you say are the principal differences between your operas and your musicals?

PETER: Matt and I started out writing musicals at NYU, but we were both much more interested in opera. Our musicals are influenced by our operatic work, and our operas often have the pacing and humor of musical theatre. For me the difference between the two forms lies in the weight of the storytelling accomplished by the music. In an opera, the music is doing a lot more of the storytelling, and the composer is able to take that music wherever the story wants to go, whether that be in simplicity or great complexity. I can be very formally free, and I can manage carefully the energy of a scene in and out of song form as the libretto dictates without worrying about whether each song is a discrete idea. In a musical, song form dominates, and the composer’s options of expression have to find their way into more discrete shapes, rising out of dialogue, expressing the idea boldly and then letting the talking do the lifting again.

But I also think critics don’t do either form any favors by policing the line between these two forms as belligerently as they do. When a musical does something musically ambitious that asks more of the audience than it normally expects, we shouldn’t reject it because it doesn’t sound like the musical theatre we recognize. And when we encounter a tune in an opera with a form we understand, it’s ludicrous to dismiss it as ‘too musical theatre’. Good music is good music.

Matt and I find audiences for new opera are almost always more adventurous than musical theatre audiences, which is what makes opera so fun to write. We can really stretch ourselves, and have confidence that the artists will match me and that the audience will come along for the ride.

MATT: Didn’t Shakespeare say, “Some are born to crossover work, some achieve crossover work, and others have crossover work thrust upon them”?   We both grew up with musicals and opera in our lives and we love both forms – we trained in both, we each played Harold Hill in our youth!  (Maybe that’s why we care so much about hustle culture!)  We met in the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU, but we wanted to write operas – there’s a joke to be made about there about bringing a gun to a knife fight.  But we loved it.  And we wrote our Masters thesis show together – a modern opera buffa called “Don Imbroglio”. That piece appeared Off-Broadway, produced by Beth Morrison Projects, with a cast that had Broadway singers and Met singers.  That’s the two worlds coming together as much as possible!

When Rossini was asked what the most important things were about opera he said, “Voce, voce, e voce.” (The voice, the voice, the voice.)  And when George M. Cohan was asked what the three most important things were in American Musical Theatre he replied, “Speed, speed, and more speed!”   When we write opera, we try to bring some of the infectious energy of musicals to the table, and when we write musicals, we want the music to have real heft.   Mozart and Da Ponte got it – their operas are definitely opera, but some of them move at the pace and are as character driven and as wild a ride as a Broadway show. We want to bring that back – operas that aren’t swallowed up by the alienating effects of the music or the handling of the subjects.  Opera that you can really enjoy like a musical, and musicals that are as smart and high quality as opera.

We’re writing a musical right now at the opera and musical theatre program at University of Illinois, the operatic baritone Nathan Gunn and his wife, the musician Julie Jordan-Gunn, commissioned the piece. It’s a backstage comedy set at an opera quite like the Met – so it’s a chance for us to poke fun at all the more absurd aspects of the opera industry we’ve been thinking about all our lives.  There’s a lot of operatic singing, but there are big song and dance numbers, too. It’s a real privilege to be able to play in both formal sandboxes.

How do you think your current work differs from your earlier work? Have your styles evolved over time, and if so, in what ways?

MATT: A classmate of ours said the most cutting thing about us years ago, “You guys can really write – if you ever have something to say, you’ll be unstoppable.”   Ouch! – but he was right.   We’ve always been fascinated by playing with form – making sure our musical and dramatic form follows the function it must perform. And we’re history buffs, we love historical models of how songs and scenes work – and we don’t want the effective aspects of past operas to be lost to history.  But now that we’re dads, and taxpayers, and life has kicked us around a little in the way life does – we really want to say things about life, love, society – things that audiences will hear and say, “Thank you for saying that. I’ve felt these same feelings and thought these same thoughts and I value having them reflected on stage.”  It’s an overused term but we want our audiences to feel “seen” when they’re at our operas.

PETER: Our work is always changing. We are fortunate to be able to see a lot of our older work in brand new productions, and it’s fun to track our development over time. One of the most interesting things is to see ideas that are now central to our work in the periphery of our older pieces. For example, our work now centers around the dangers of paranoia and delusion, and the benefits of community and relationships. 10 years ago, we were writing more explicitly about the importance of the arts, and how different parts of society experience culture. But we can see our new themes percolating in the older work too. We write about what we love and what we know. Hopefully you’ll see what you know and love as well.

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