Washington boasts so much music-theatre these days that it’s not surprising the conversation has returned about what is opera, what is a musical, and what is music-theatre. People bring their prejudices, often based on limited experiences, to the conversation, and want to stake out their positions. But now, more than ever, these divisions seem artificial and even a little dangerous.
Audiences might do well to step outside what they have found comfortable, particularly in anything calling itself opera. No more is the opera landscape limited to grand scale “productions with elephants” and equally lumbering singers planted downstage center. Experiments like the Met’s simulcast productions, which have brought cameras zooming in for close ups, have demanded singers possess flexible and expressive bodies as well as voices. At the other end of the music-theatre spectrum, composers of modern musicals push for forms and singers’ ranges to get vocal qualities that demand the rigorous vocal training that the classical world provides.
UrbanArias, the newest opera company to announce itself in the Greater Washington area, has infiltrated the metro arts scene like some guerilla underground movement. Its name helps announce that this lean, mean organization, led by Artistic Director Robert Wood, has taken on the challenge of defining a new kind of opera and thereby wishes to search and attract new audiences. “Opera. Short. New.” That’s the manifesto, and the company laid out three evening programs in its first festival to prove it.
The first program, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, was an outstanding evening of theatre and demonstrated unequivocally how powerful opera can be as a crossover art form. Let’s just start with the obvious. Soprano Elizabeth Futral could give Angelina Jolie a run for her money. Moving with grace and sensuality around the stage, her beautiful body, sheathed in a slinky golden-yellow satin dress by costume designer Paul Carey, was matched by her equally golden voice. How delicious to have that form, that voice, so up close and personal as the space at Artisphere provided. Futral’s moment to moment realization of a woman who loves so deeply she cannot seize enough of love or of life was some of the most powerful acting I have experienced on the Washington stage.
Orpheus and Euridice was the most abstract of the three operas presented in the festival, yet I found it the most compelling. Drawing on the myth of Orpheus and his journey to bring back his love from the dead, composer Gordon found a way to express in words and music both the glory of love and the heartbreak of losing that love to death. Through this writing, he was healing from his own journey, losing his lover to AIDS.
He chose to present the character of Orpheus as a solo instrument. In this production, Todd Palmer, clarinetist, embodied Orpheus. Director Kevin Newbury choreographed him to move around the stage, sometimes leading as a Pan figure seducing his love through joyful passages, sometimes following as the silent witness to Euridice’s growing separation.
The stark set was comprised of a little row of molded plastic chairs representing the most impersonal of waiting rooms, a limbo of illness and death, lit garishly at times by a strip of fluorescent lights. Palmer draws Futral away from this ugliness and into his world of light and sounds. But this modern Euridice always returns to this shadowy, familiar waiting room where she drinks from the little plastic water bottle, wheels the ubiquitous black roller suitcase, and sits and waits for death. The two performers had such an intimate and well-matched relationship both musically and physically that the fact that they never touched lent the story of loss an even greater sense of poignancy.
Gordon wrote for the program notes “Is that why we are taught myth, so that later on when we need them, we can tell our own stories through them?” He wonders if that is how myths came about and then adds, “At that moment in my life, it is as if, knowing this myth, and its eruption inside me, saved me”.
If Orpheus and Euridice provided its creator the formal distancing device of myth, in its companion piece, Green Sneakers, the same impulse of loss was laid bare. Also written for a soloist, the skilled and expressive baritone Ian Greenshaw sings this memory piece of watching a loved one die. I had some problems with the arc of this piece. It seemed more a sequence of songs than a work of music-theatre with any dramatic build. Greenshaw sings, “We made a universe of moments,” but I felt the universality of loss was buried in the albeit painful details of personal moments.
The most accessible of the Festival 2011 operas was Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied, based on the book and life of Tom Philpott, who was the longest surviving POW in US history. Composer and writer Cipullo has created an opera full of muscle in telling the story of a modern hero who returns from nine-years imprisonment in the Vietnam war to learn that his wife moved in with another man who has helped raise his four children.
Time moves back and forth in this opera with two performers each playing the younger and older husband and wife. Plenty of conflicted emotions here, and plenty of drama that drives the work. The older Thompson also plays various Vietnamese interrogators and torturer to the younger Thompson. Their roles are sung by baritone Michael Chioldi and tenor Kevin Vortmann whose voices blended well. But it was the elder Chioldi who gave us the climactic song, “Welcome Home”, and what a knock out that was. Structured as a list of newspaper headlines and topical phrases, Chioldi shaped every image with a mounting sense from bewilderment to embittered outrage. He gave us the whole experience of bombardment from culture shock in one nugget of a song. Talk about a crossover work, this song definitely could have been a Broadway hit.
Caroline Worra as the Older Alyce also brought both dramatic skills as well vocal power and expression. She delivered the very difficult emotions of shame and defiance in the powerful aria, “After you hear me out,” putting across the position of someone whose faith had flagged, someone who couldn’t live up to the image of the devoted military wife.
This piece was a painful reminder of a very difficult chapter in our country’s history. But it was also about faith, the personal dugged-deep for faith. How do some people find the strength not to just survive but to forgive and rebuild lives while others are broken and left embittered wrecks? There are two haunting images that stand side by side from this piece: the Older Thompson standing up in his church to attest, a man whose heart has opened to Grace, and Older Alyce, eyes narrowing and sucking on a cigarette, whose self-loathing leaves her swearing and snarling at the life that was ripped from her.
Tom Cipullo has given us a very daring work that goes to the heart of human emotions in a dramatic way while his music simultaneously lifts us into a meditation on faith.
Executive and Artistic Director Robert Wood built this season of UrbanArias to show us some very powerful expressions of human emotion set as small gems in new operatic forms. He has shown us what the authentic impulse of music-theatre can do as no other art form can: to see through the film on the mirror of daily life and relationships to experience the radiance of the human spirit exposed through the most powerful and transcendent sounds of the human voice. This is theatre. This is opera.
The Urban Arias Festival 2011 ran from March 31 to April 10, 2011 in the Black Box Theatre of Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA.
The festival consisted of:
Orpheus and Euridice and Green Sneakers
Music and Lyrics by Ricky Ian Godon
Directed by Kevin Newbury
Music and Book by Tom Cipullo
Directed by Scott Embler
All three under the music direction of Robert Wood
Produced by Urban Arias
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith