UrbanArias has not only landed once more in our midst, but opened its second season and first commissioned opera Sunday night to a full house. This world premiere of Positions 1956 with music by Conrad Cummings and lyrics by Michael Korie showcases two mature professionals at the top of their game, completely at ease in the world of new opera, with a work that is funny, musically accessible, and emotionally stirring.
But it doesn’t exactly start out that way.
There was a funny kind of verfremdungseffekt, alienation thing happening. It was unsettling, and like much Brechtian theatre, not totally successful, from the juxtaposition of curiously Baroque music to contemporary subject matter, and from the mostly older opera audience to the avant garde space and edgy material.
Even pre-show, as I was listening to several well-heeled folk around me chit-chat about whether they are going to give money to Opera Lafayette or some other deserved arts organization and which dinner party would they be seen at next week, I thought we all might be wearing the plush off the seats at The Kennedy Center. Yet we were sitting in the barest of black box theatre space at Artisphere in the unstylish city of Arlington.
Then the theater darkens, and soon into the show we recognize the onstage synthesizer start a restrained baroque strumming with the “back up” of clarinet, violin, and cello. A man and his bride appear in bed, she wearing a veil, and they sing, in classic recitative style moving into fugue-like musical passages, as they read from a manual giving instructions to couples on sex. It’s 1956 and the prudish, sexist tone that creeps into the book’s directions feels intentionally at odds with the conjugal “positions” recommended, as well as the musical style. Amedee Moore as the bride is a radiant young singer with a silvery liquid sound but the operatic tendency to stand and deliver out front which proves somewhat a challenge in the choreography of “ Standing (up against the wall) Position” and “Doggie Position.” Jesse Blumberg as the husband, carried more of the acting as he earnestly prepared to enter a landscape of eros by reading passages from the manual teaching him what a man might demand of his wife.
I think the audience gets the point perhaps sooner rather than later and probably doesn’t need 13 sexual groupings to get the joke musically and dramatically to establish these characters. Also, to my mind, Part I keeps the opera somewhat at the level of a clever exercise for the creative team of composer and librettist, “let’s play around with manuals and the American obsession with ‘how to’s.’ ”
The opera opens up in both its humor and its dramatic journey in act two. It begins with another day, another manual, only now we are in one of those mid-twentieth century gyms. Vale Rideout sings while pumping iron and is carried on his own sweat into the fumes of hyperbole, striking poses like the classic Charles Atlas. Korie kicks into a new gear in his writing, as he moves from clever risqué into crafting wonderful riffs in his rhyming that work on several levels. He plays with bigger social and political themes and makes us recognize certain American traits of character. We wince as we laugh at America’s growing idea of its own grandiosity, “Let today be the age of physique…. We need a race of supermen to use and face the foe.”
When Blumberg reenters, we remember him as the husband from his less than successful marriage night, and we have some charity for what we understand is his somewhat deflated sense of himself as a man. Rideout, as trainer, leaps into action and promises him a new body and virile confidence in thirty-five days. He shows the man the path to attaining his goal through inspirational pictures in a fitness magazine. They sing throughout their workouts, idealizing the new man, supporting the musical line despite the increasing degree of physical difficulty.
I wanted to cheer their sheer musical virtuosity as they pushed through reps of what started as the decidedly staged pulling on steel chains for the chest to real “manly” sit ups, push ups, and so on. The two men are wonderful singer-actors and connect at a level that the first act never managed. The music, written lines, and acting came together so seamlessly that I forgot I was watching an opera. The work in this section never descends into cuteness or cleverness, but instead pushes to a dramatic end of this act that shocks to the core. Act II indeed stands alone as a new operatic gem.
If Act II shifted musically, deftly weaving military flourishes and staunch hymn material in its vocabulary, Act III became a playground for the composer Cummings as we take on the theme of social dancing. The married couple, now less than a year later, not surprisingly, has discovered their marriage is somewhat rocky and that they are drifting apart. The wife decides to throw her efforts into saving her marriage by signing up to take dancing lessons at an Arthur Murray establishment. Moore and Blumberg alternately confront and coax each other on the dance floor with guidance from dance instructor Rideout.
In this act, solos and duos become trios. Music drives the whole scene where a fox trot is expanded and massaged deliciously, and a saxophone gets funky. Popular music forms seem to free up everyone, and the layers of sound become complex. Each performer resonates, responding to an individual dance style. The husband finds that his hips move in exotic rhythms, and the wife floats through her own fantasies in waltzes, while the trainer finds his way back to the source of his inspiration in the timeless softshoe of Broadway. They all get loose emotionally as well as physically, by the power of rock and roll that delivers them into a new world.
I heard that Act III was composed “on site” during rehearsals. To whatever sense this section has of being thrown together was informed by the singer-actors, this part of the evening had a very free, spontaneous feel. Characters deepened; nothing felt overwritten.
I was taken aback by an intimate space in which the directors felt the need to have classically trained singers stoop to using microphones, a la the ubiquitous Broadway musical. Two reasons were given: the acoustical difficulties posed by this particular space and the challenge of balance once you introduce a synthesizer, in theory to maintain a similar “sheen” sound. On opening night, the problem with the mics created more technical difficulties than solutions.
Having said that, Artistic Director Robert Wood has done a masterful job musically directing this challenging, wonderful piece that blends so many musical forms. Noah Himmelstein’s stage direction made good use of the limited space, giving focus to the story and the characters. David Arenault’s lighting and set were minimal, focused, and symbolically potent. Rhonda Kay’s costumes were strong without becoming statements in themselves like Madmen. Musicians David Jones, Regino Madrid, Sean Neidlinger joining Robert Wood on the side of the stage shared well with the performers this splendid evening.
I left with a feeling that I had seen something very special indeed. Take the journey and head on over for the few performances left. This is what theatre and certainly opera should be but rarely is.
Positions 1956 has 3 performances remaining, Thurs, April 19 at 8 p.m., Sat, April 21 at 7 p.m. and April 22 at 7:30 p.m.All performances are in the Black Box Theatre at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd,Arlington, VA (near the Rosslyn metro.)
Details and tickets
Music by Conrad Cummings
Lyrics by Michael Korie
Musical Direction by Robert Wood
Directed by Noah Himmelstein
Produced by Urban Arias
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission