Urban Arias Now And For Six Years Serving Opera, Short, New

Do you realize that live opera can be found in the Washington, DC area every month of the year!  That is not true everywhere in the US.  Twenty-five operas will be offered in the DC area in the 2016-2017 season, covering most opera genres.  There are selections from the standard repertoire, modern opera, and even premieres.  There are traditional length operas and short, chamber operas.  There are staged operas and concert operas.  There are operas in large opera houses, in small theaters, and even outdoor opera.  The DC area is sprinkled with opera companies of different sizes and missions.  There is a major, large-scale opera company, Washington National Opera, which can put on fully-staged operas.  So can Virginia Opera which has three Virginia venues, including showings of each of its productions in Fairfax, Virginia, just outside the DC beltway.  There are smaller companies, including Urban Arias, Opera Bel Cantanti, and Opera Lafayette that have defined niches for themselves.  Summer productions are provided by Wolf Trap Opera, a company in suburban DC with a major training mission, and there is one concert opera company, Washington Concert Opera.  I likely have even missed one or two yet to come up on my radar.  I am impressed that all the companies employ established and emerging artists and exhibit a commitment to high quality productions.  Listings of these companies and their seasonal offerings are maintained on OperaGene's Seasonal Lists page.

 Urban Arias 2015 production of Laura Kaminsky's  As One .  Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy of Urban Arias.

Urban Arias 2015 production of Laura Kaminsky's As One.  Photo by C. Stanley Photography; courtesy of Urban Arias.

I have been working my way through coverage of each of these companies, and will now address Urban Arias.  I have picked them to cover next because I am especially intrigued by their first offering of the new season, beginning Saturday, October 15.  In all, three operas are being presented, an opera hat trick if you will:

· The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat by Michael Nyman: Oct 15-22… Atlas Theater

· Lucy by John Glover: April 1-8…Atlas Theater

· The Blind by Lera Auerbach: June 3-11…Signature Theater

Urban Arias has been in existence for six years and is presenting its seventh season of performances this year.  The company was founded by conductor, Robert Wood, who remains its general director and president.  He has carved out a very specific niche for the company.  It’s motto is “Opera. Short. New”.  Urban Arias is very up front and straightforward about what it does and why, which is covered in impressive detail in its comprehensive website, urbanarias.org.  Their mission is to produce “short, contemporary operas…to expose DC-area audiences to engaging, accessible, entertaining operas, and to provide a venue at which both established and emerging composers can present their shorter works. By “short,” we mean 90 minutes or less; and by “contemporary,” we mean written within the last forty years.”  Their operas are shown in small theaters which brings the audience close to the performers. The website lists its previous productions and their press clippings, which provide evidence for the excellence of their staff and cast and productions.  You can get a good sense of Urban Aria productions by visiting the Our Past Work page and viewing the photos and video clips of past performances.  One of the measures I use for the DC areas opera companies is whether they get reviewed by Anne Midgette, classical music critic for the Washington Post, and what her reviews say.  Ms. Midgette is a very tough and discerning critic.  Here is a quote from one of her reviews of Urban Arias: “If Urban Arias is presenting small-scale opera, it is doing it with many singers you might well encounter on the stage of the Washington National Opera; it’s a treat to encounter some of them at close range, while the intimacy of the presentation helps compensate for the weaknesses of others.”  Another feature that I really like about the website is that the cast listings are hyperlinked to short bios of the performers. 

 Promo for Urban Arias production of Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat; courtesy of Urban Arias.

Promo for Urban Arias production of Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat; courtesy of Urban Arias.

First up this season is Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a chamber opera about an hour in length, which is based on psychiatrist Oliver Sacks most famous book.  I previously reported on the Sacks’ book, “Musicophilia”, which describes brain-damaged patients of Dr. Sacks with cognitive deficiencies who still had their ability to process and utilize  music intact, or even enhanced.  The opera examines the case of Dr. P. who suffers from agnosia, a mental disturbance that causes him to lose the ability to identify familiar objects.  At one point he reaches for his wife’s head to put on his hat.  He is able to make sense of his world through identification by sound. One of the intrigues for me of the opera is that the question is raised as to whether Dr. P is showing a progression of his illness or growing into a different reality.  The opera is for three singers, including Dr. S, who is treating Dr. P, and Mrs. P.  The composer, Mr. Nyman, is well known for his movie scores including “The Piano” and “GATTACA”.  His orchestration is identified with the minimalist genre, utilizing only a few instruments.  A highlight of the opera is a performance of a version of Ich Grolle Nicht from Schumann’s Dicterliebe in a minimalist treatment.  I was able to find online about six previous performances of the opera in the U.S. and most reviews are laudatory, and all consider the opera thought-provoking.  In regard to a Long Beach Opera performance in 2012, the LA Times called the score “compelling” and stated that this is “an opera that needs to be seen”, and about its U.S. premiere in 1987, the NY Times reported that the opera had “intensely moving appeal”. 

Additional Urban Opera offerings that will be coming up next year include Lucy by John Glover and librettist, Kelley Rourke.  Lucy is the story of psychologist, Maurice Temerlin, and his wife, Jane, who raised a day-old chimpanzee in their home for twelve years as though it were a human, before it was necessary to relocate it to a rehabilitation center in Gambia.  The final entry is The Blind, revolves around the story of twelve blind people who have been abandoned in a forest.  It is referred to online as a multisensory experience and In its 2013 premiere audience members were blindfolded.  We will have to await further information to be posted by Urban Arias on how these operas will be performed.

Urban Arias motto could also be "opera, short, new, and inexpensive".  Tickets for Hat can be purchased now online for $35 ($32 for students and seniors).  Hat is being performed at the Atlas Performing Arts Center; directions and parking info can be found here.  So, for about as long as it takes you to watch a movie, for not much more than it costs to buy tickets for a movie, you can experience the live opera of today sung by professional opera singers in close proximity to where you will be sitting.  That's a pretty good deal.