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.

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,

UrbanArias

Composer’s Gift Guide

The final installment of the UrbanArias 2020 Holiday Gift Guide features Gifts for Composers!

We really like the simple, modern look of this Piano Keys Sound Wave T-Shirt and a classic piece of Instrument Art.

Or, gift your favorite songwriter with Chasing Chopin, which explores when, where, and how the composer created his most famous works.

Still need a few stocking stuffers? Grab UrbanArias’ recording of Paul’s Case or this fun Piano Key Bottle Opener!

And don’t forget,  you can support your favorite Contemporary Opera Company while you shop! Simply click here and for every purchase you make on Amazon, a portion of the proceeds will come directly to UrbanArias!

Singers Gift Guide

Next up in our Holiday Gift Guide, find the perfect presents for Singers!

It might be a cliché, but any singer based in the Northeast will agree you can never have too many Oversized Blanket Scarves!

And, while we’re all performing in the digital space, no at-home workspace for singers is complete without a quality Ring Light!

After the show, cozy up with a good book like The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer or pour yourself a cheeky glass of wine and listen to Si by Andrea Bocelli 

 

Opera Kids Gift Guide

Looking for the perfect gift for the Opera-Loving Kids in your life? Check out our Holiday Gift Guide for Kids:

Try this subtle but stylish famous composers T-shirt for the teens in your life, while school age children might be ready to start their own orchestra after receiving an 18-Piece Orchestra! For the littlest ones, spark an interest in classical music with the adorably musical Mozart Bear.

For an introduction to some of the World’s most famous operas, gift Sing Me A Story: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories or get the whole family in on the fun with Spontuneous – The Song Game!

And the best part is you can support UrbanArias while you shop! Simply click here and for every purchase you make on Amazon, a portion of the proceeds will come directly to UrbanArias to support our mission of exposing DC-area audiences to Contemporary Opera!

 

 

 

Support Contemporary Opera with Amazon Smile!

Doing a little Black Friday shopping for the Holidays?

Did you know you can support your favorite Contemporary Opera Company while you shop? Simply click here and for every purchase you make on Amazon, a portion of the proceeds will come directly to UrbanArias to support our mission of exposing DC-area audiences to Contemporary Opera!

Struggling with what to buy this year? We’ve got suggestions!

Let’s start with the perfect gifts for the Opera Lover in your life…

A simple and understated Piano Pewter Cuff Bracelet is a perfect daily musical reminder! Or gift your Opera Fan a pair of stylish Symphonized Headphones to upgrade their Zoom call game or enjoy a recording of their favorite opera!

Speaking of albums, no Opera Lover’s collection is complete without
UrbanArias’ original cast recording of Paul’s Case!

For some social distancing reading material, we recommend Alex Ross, Wagnerism: Art and Politics in the Shadow of Music.

And for the Opera Fan who has everything – you can be pretty sure they don’t already have an Opera Singer Sponge Holder!

Don’t forget to type smile.amazon.com into your browser before purchasing to make sure you’re supporting UrbanArias while you shop!

Get to know our new Executive Director, Anne-Carolyn Bird!

Where are you from? 

This is always a tricky question for me: I’m an Air Force Brat! Oddly enough, that itinerant childhood prepared me for the life of a professional opera singer in many ways: I can be instantly at home anywhere and with anyone, I love travel but am also a homebody, and I learned German at an early age. I have lived in Utah, Washington, New York, Georgia, Illinois, and Maine – to name a few!

What was the first opera you saw or experienced?

My first experience with opera was probably the recording of Amahl and the Night Visitors that my father played around Christmas time. We were more of a folk music family than classical, but quotes from Amahl were always part of our daily life. First opera I saw live: something dark and gloomy at the Atlanta Opera circa 1993; clearly I wasn’t ready to discover opera. First opera the made me fall in love with opera: the Zeffirelli film of La traviata with Teresa Stratas and Placido Domingo.

How did you know you loved performing/opera/classical music?

When I was 10, I played the Maud, the no-nonsense cleaning lady, in a performance of The Capricious Pearls with the Loring Air Force Base Children’s Theater. At one point, something I said made the audience laugh – and I was hooked! After being part of the theater and music crowd in high school, I truly discovered opera in college when I realized that opera combines all the arts that I love – music, dance, theater, visual art, storytelling. It’s an incredible art form, truly boundless in its scope and reach.

What were your favorite roles / performing experiences?

Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro is hands-down my favorite role (See next question!). As for experiences: sharing the stage of the Metropolitan Opera with Anna Netrebko in Manon and L’elisir d’amore and with Bryn Terfel for his final Figaro; premiering John Musto’s Inspector at Wolf Trap; and working with director RB Schlather on David Lang’s Little Match Girl

Passion.  Meeting David Bowie after a performance of Golijov’s La pasion segun san Marcos was also a highlight! For the past several years, I have enjoyed learning the role of supporting and creating opera from the other side of the stage. I look forward to building on everything I’ve learned and experienced in my career to help UrbanArias grow into its next decade – and beyond.

Tell us about your family!

I met my husband, Matt Burns, when we were singing Figaro and Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro at Grand Rapids Opera in 2007 – and we were married within the year! In non-pandemic times, he is on the road performing about 60% of the year. In addition to his operatic talents, Matt discovered a passion and penchant for the finer points of the wine business several years ago, and when not performing he works at Total Wine and is the founder of Magnum Opus Tasting Concerts. We have two precocious children: Henry, age 10, and Gloria, age 5. Henry loves dinosaurs, dragons, music, magic, and being silly with his dad. Gloria (aka GG) loves sparkles and frills and unicorns, getting dirty, being in kindergarten, and snuggling with her mom.

What song do you have on repeat right now?

It is an eclectic mix at our house! We love piano-based songwriters, so lots of Billy Joel, Ben Folds, Regina Spektor; also early 00’s pop like The Shins, New Pornographers, Feist, Sufjan Stevens. Of course, the Beatles! The soundtracks to a dozen animated films, and my guilty secret: Harry Styles.