Performance on January 14, 2011

Hello all,

We’re ringing in the New Year with another performance: on January 14, UrbanArias will return to the Black Box Theater in Artisphere to present an evening of mini-operas.

This will be our usual mix of the irreverent and the thought-provoking — we’re reprising Jonathan Sheffer and Robert Patrick’s comic take on video communication, Camera Obscura; we also have a delightful gem by DC-area composer Lori Laitman called The Act (about knife throwers); Again, a provocative look at abusive relationships and how they are enabled by Jake Heggie; Jack Perla’s Betty Box Office, which spoofs the degree to which there is a hidden performer in almost every employee of an arts organization; and three short pieces from Seymour Barab’s new cycle of mini-operas, In Questionable Taste.

When I was assembling the program for this evening a few weeks ago, I already knew I wanted to do Camera Obscura again, as we got such a great reception for it in October.  I also knew that since I had already programmed Tom Cipullo’s delightful Lucy twice, I should probably look for some pieces that the DC-area public hasn’t seen yet.  Although, it would be fair to argue that there are many thousands of people in the area who did not see Lucy.  But still.

I generally ask composers with whom I already have a relationship if they have anything that suits our needs, and most of them have files ready to go at a moment’s notice.  Jack Perla wrote Betty Box Office for the opening of Tapestry New Opera in Toronto, and he had that and four other mini-operas to me within a few days of my request:  they’re all good, but we’ll start with Betty because it lends itself to performances by start-up companies.  A few text changes (sanctioned by the composer, of course), and it’s about UrbanArias.   It’s amusing to insiders and outsiders alike; it’s extraordinary how many people you run into in the administrative offices of opera companies who are former performers of one kind or another.  We all know “Betty”.

I ran into Lori at a party in December, and she mentioned that she had a five-minute opera, which she sent along the next day — I’m delighted to be doing it, although I’m calling our insurance agent about the knife-throwing.  Actually, we don’t have an insurance agent yet (!), so I’d better put obtaining one on my list first, and then use conceptual knives.  We’re new and edgy, we can get away with a lot, right?  Anyway, it’s the director’s problem.

Jake has been very kind in giving us permission to do a couple of his songs and arias at various gigs, and I find his 9-minute opera Again very intriguing.  The libretto, by David Patrick Stearns, dissects the relationship between Ricky and Lucy Ricardo (yes, THAT Lucy and Ricky).  Is it screwball?  Or screwed up?  It’s amazing what you can do in nine minutes — this one leaves you feeling thoughtful, and perhaps a little unsettled.

So after I assembled all of that, I still needed a few more pieces to bring us up to a performance that would be about an hour long.  Enter Seymour Barab, whose work I have admired for years.  Edrie Means, one of our cast members last October, and a returning artist for our January show, knows him, and has sung a number of his works — she also, as it turns out, has his phone number.  (He prefers to speak to a person rather than communicate by email, which is what the youth mean, I think, when they say “Kicking it Old School”; although possibly they mean something else.)  Mr. Barab is very charming in person, so I’m glad I called; he told me he had a whole cycle of mini-operas/musicals that are brand new, called In Questionable Taste.  I told him it sounded right up our alley.

Well!  I had no idea what I was letting myself in for.  They’re all jokes, expanded, staged, and set to music.  They’re very funny (although some of them are a little coarse for us; after all, we do hope to get NEA funding some day!) — even more so if you already know the punch line.  Watching the characters get to the inevitable is a reward in itself.

I have chosen three of the cleaner ones, although I won’t spoil them for you here; you’ll have to come on the 14th.  I will tell you, though, that the cast burst out laughing as they read through each of them.

So we have a nice, varied program, and a great cast, and we have two short weeks to put this all together.  Now I know why arts organizations don’t schedule performances so soon after the the holidays — no one is around to work.  UrbanArias is scrappy, though, and I’m sure will pull it off with aplomb.  After all, they’re only ten-minute pieces – how hard can they be?  (This is a question I have been asked, and the short answer is: very.  The long answer is for another post.)

I hope you can join us on January 14 and a very Happy New Year to everyone!

Bob Wood

Success on October 10th

UrbanArias had a fantastic debut at Artisphere — it’s hard to believe it’s already a month ago!

We presented two “mini-operas”: Lucy by Tom Cipullo and Camera Obscura by Jonathan Sheffer. We had excellent casts, excellent direction, and a great pianist, and the audiences really responded. In fact, both shows were packed — standing room only. We performed for close to 300 people (a few came twice), and not only did people really get what we’re about as a company, but we also made a number of converts — people who are not necessarily opera buffs, but who will come back now that they know how entertaining and accessible an art form it can be.

As a result of everyone’s positive feedback and interest, we decided to add another evening of ten- to fifteen minute mini-operas in January (there are a surprising number of these pieces!). We’ll do two performances on Friday, January 14 (details to follow). UrbanArias is thrilled to be so popular, and this added performance will serve as a terrific bridge to our festival season in April.

Can’t wait to see everyone!


Welcoming Kate Mesches

We have lots of news!

First of all, I’d like to welcome Kate Mesches to our Board of Directors. Kate is a fantastic businesswoman and restauranteuse, and we’re delighted to have her expertise and good advice. Plus she is a lot of fun, so she fits in well with the rest of us. Kate was won over by our successful performances at Artisphere on October 10 — more about those in the next post.

Gearing up for a very busy fall

Dear friends,

After a hot and languid summer, we’re suddenly humming with activity.

We have another performance coming up:  Artisphere, Arlington’s new cultural center and our new home, has invited us to perform at their open house on Sunday, October 10.  I can’t wait to get in the new space and see what it’s like!

We’ll do two 10-minute operas:  Tom Cipullo’s Lucy, which we also did at the Kennedy Center last April, and Jonathan Sheffer’s Camera Obscura, a wonderful gem from about 30 years ago.  Lucy is the story of an elderly lady who imagines a handsome young man sitting on her television; he sings to her, of course.  Camera Obscura is a witty take on the then-new technology of video phones . . . and their attendant time lag.

UrbanArias is delighted to have Edrie Means Weekly, Ethan Watermeier, VaShawn McIlwaine, and Colleen Daly starring at Artisphere!  They will also sing a few excerpts from other recent operas . . . the audience should get an excellent feel for the kind of work we do.  We’re also very excited to have Chuck Hudson join us from New York to direct these mini-masterpieces.  (We’re making him take the bus, though.  Tight budget.)

Our fundraising also proceeds apace — we have an event coming up on October 2nd at my home, also featuring Mr. Watermeier’s fine baritone, and we’re planning two evenings with our 2011 season composers, Ricky Ian Gordon and Tom Cipullo.

And I want to extend a special welcome to Mary Hynes, of the Arlington County Board, who has recently joined our Advisory Board!

Finally, we’re nearly ready to announce casting for our 2011 season, and I’m really thrilled about the artistic teams we’ve assembled.  (Some of whom may also have to ride the bus.)

More soon!

Bob Wood

Good News for UrbanArias . . .

This week UrbanArias received its Letter of Determination from the IRS, which means we are now a recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

We’re delighted that we have achieved tax-exempt status, which is retroactive to our incorporation last October — it makes our lives much easier on the business side of our operation.  We can do all sorts of things now:  apply for foundation grants, accept donations on the website (which I’ll set up shortly), even get our web hosting for free courtesy of DreamHost!

Our website will soon undergo a major update, as we announce repertoire and dates for our April, 2011 UrbanArias Festival, and as the “support” and “about” headings get fleshed out with new material . . . plus, we have some great pictures from the Lucy rehearsal process we will upload, thanks to photographer and friend Karen Redmond.

We look forward to keeping all of you informed!

Bob Wood

Yes, Classical music should be enjoyable!

I applaud Anne Midgette’s recent article in the Washington Post regarding classical music at the White House.  Her ideas for future White House classical programming are wonderful (and one day could perhaps include UrbanArias!), but her warning that classical music can stifle its own growth by taking itself too seriously is one we should all take to heart.

People want to be entertained.  This is not to say that symphonies and opera companies should dumb down their programming, or rely exclusively on gimmicks to get people in the door – but I do think there is a lot of room for “audience-aware art”.  Why not pay attention to the Zeitgeist, and offer audiences pieces they can easily enjoy?  Why indeed is “accessible” a dirty word in some circles?  “Accessible”, “entertaining”, and “sophisticated” are not mutually exclusive qualities – certainly the operas of Mozart are perfect examples.  And in our day, think Jake Heggie, Stephen Sondheim, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Tom Cipullo, just to name four composers.

UrbanArias received many enthusiastic comments after our production of Tom Cipullo’s ten minute mini-opera at the Kennedy Center, and the comments centered around four things people found enjoyable:  excellent singing, an American opera with text they could clearly understand and whose story they found touching and relevant, a musical palette they were drawn to, and (dear to our hearts at UrbanArias, as we’re making this our credo) an opera that has an impact in short form.

I think that paying attention to those four elements will be the key to success at UrbanArias, and will allow us to take our place in American Opera of the present and future.  By presenting short, moving, approachable pieces that are well-sung and -acted, we can help new audiences explore an art form that has so much to offer – and perhaps also reinvigorate the interest of opera fans who are yearning for something new that does not need to command their attention for 3+ hours.

At any rate, we continue to feel we’re onto something, and we look forward to giving our audiences even more reasons to find classical music enjoyable.


Dear friends,

We at UrbanArias could not be more thrilled with the performance of LUCY last Saturday at the Kennedy Center.  What a perfect way to launch the company!

Emily Albrink and Michael Anthony McGee sang wonderfully, Michael Baitzer played beautifully, and Pat Diamond’s staging was simple, elegant and touching.

It was a busy couple of days, and our first foray into the world of producing; I’m amazed it all ran so smoothly!

An overview, for those of you who are curious about the antics of a start-up opera company:

Monday, April 5

Transportation consternation.  We have set pieces that Pat has skillfully arranged for us to use free of charge – but how to get them to the Kennedy Center, and where to store them for a few days?  U-haul?  Possible, but not cheap once the days add up . . . fortunately, our board president Susan Derry came to the rescue with her mother’s van (used for her estate sale work).  Susan was our miracle worker, as later events would prove . . .

Tuesday, April 7

Bob flies to Denver for a gig with Opera Colorado.  We all keep murderous schedules.  And – we thought it was important to practice running UrbanArias from a remote location in case of . . . well, whatever.

Wednesday, April 8

Bob still in Denver, Susan muscles the furniture into the van with some help from Unviersity of Maryland grad students (thanks guys!), collects the wigs, and accidentally purloins a bench from UMD (natural, really — Susan and I were brought up on the Opera Bench school of staging — every opera has at least one bench).

Thursday, April 9

Many phone calls.  Train and plane schedules noted and organized.  Have we told enough people about this?  Maybe another email blast . . .

Friday, April 10

Bob flies back to DC.  Michael Anthony arrives in DC by train.  Everyone converges on UrbanArias HQ (Bob’s house) for a whirlwind rehearsal – musical work, staging, costume fitting, more furniture schlepping . . . pure synergy.  Anything is possible when you hire good people!

Saturday April 11

The big day . . . Susan and Bob get lost with the van in the bowels of the Kennedy Center on their way to delivering the furniture.  The KC crew is extremely helpful, however, and we’re good to go in no time.  The cast assembles for the sound check and run-through on the stage – it looks and sounds great (especially considering it’s 10 a.m.)!  VocalArtsDC’s Gabe Estrin deftly keeps us all organized.

One advantage of having an early sound check: we can adjourn to UrbanArias HQ for a quick photo shoot courtesy of Karen Redmond, who snaps some great pics we can use on the website.  Emily and Michael Anthony are alternately patient and vivacious as necessary; Susan has now assumed the role of costume mistress (ironing) and then wig mistress.  Now how many opera companies have board presidents who can pin curl?  I ask you.  Not to mention a board secretary who has an extra cummerbund.

Back to the KC for lunch, and then we’re on!

The performance is fabulous; Tom Cipullo has come down from New York to see us perform his work and is very pleased (even though I cut a measure after Michael Anthony’s aria – gotta watch that producer like a HAWK or he’ll pull some shenanigans)!

Receive applause, chat with fans, proceed to 600 Watergate for some well-earned libations – and to plan what’s next.  No rest for the wicked!

Thanks to all who came, and we promise you’ll see more of us soon.

Bob Wood

Almost there!

We’re less than 48 hours away from our debut at the Kennedy Center!  Everything is coming together nicely . . . producing sure is different from conducting, though.  Coordinating load-ins, moving furniture, lots of paperwork . . . we have an excellent team, however, and I know we’re going to present a memorable ten-minute extravaganza, and we hope all of our new fans can join us!

Tom Cipullo’s “Lucy” is a beautiful, lyrical, poignant, funny mini-opera.  It’s amazing what depth he’s achieved in such a short space.  It’s the story of an elderly woman who imagines a young man coming to visit her – a sweet and interesting take on memory, imagination, and whether or not a person’s concrete surroundings are as important as what goes on in her mind.  Musically, Tom gives us a wonderfully melodic score, with a few Puccini-like  phrases that clearly reflect this woman’s soul.  The aria for the Young Man is a real jewel – I predict that any young baritone in the audience will be writing Tom for a copy.

I look forward to hearing it all in rehearsal tomorrow, at UrbanArias HQ (my living room – hey, we have to start somewhere!)


Welcome to UrbanArias!

Opera. Short. New.

We like it, and hope you will, too!  Please browse the site and feel free to drop us a line.

This blog will be your most immediate source for updates on the UrbanArias festival – our performances, fundraisers, joys, sorrows, successes, excesses – essentially a chronicle of our progress as an opera company, and a window into what happens in an opera start-up.

It will be passionate, glorious, and occasionally seamy, just like the art form we produce.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Robert Wood