What would you call the blend of music and genre in UrbanArias’ world premiere Blue Viola? Standard terms like “chamber opera,” “folk opera,” or “comic opera” fall short. Is it Chicago opera? Rosewood blues? Whatever you might call it, it is funny, thought-provoking, absorbing, and certainly not what most of you imagine when you think of opera. With only the barest few flaws, it is a thoroughly enjoyable gem of a tale that anyone in DC ought to consider taking in.
Adapted from a true story by librettist Matt Boresi and composer Peter Hilliard, Blue Viola is the latest new work from UrbanArias, whose mission is to produce short operas – this one is only an hour long – that appeal “to both avid opera fans and first time opera-goers.” It begins when a Chicago Symphony performer accidentally leaves their viola on the street. That instrument wanders its way through a series of lives, tracing a story that can be interpreted in any number of ways: perhaps as a serious look at economic and cultural segregation, or perhaps as a fish-out-of-water comedy where the ‘fish’ is a viola.
At the center of the tale is Arnita (Alicia Olatuja, whom you may have seen singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Obama’s second inauguration), a woman trapped in a world of lowlifes and meager wages who sees a ticket to betterment in the potential sale of the finely-crafted string instrument. The experience of seeing Blue Viola is exemplified in Arnita’s introduction, when Boresi, Hilliard, and Olatuja all come together to make lines like “Ain’t never had a good day/ Not in no paper hat/ Not at South Side Cookies and Beef” hilarious for all the right reasons. The music moves fluidly from high to low, formal to vernacular, without ever straying into the bombastic or bathetic: lightly jazzy asides for Arnita’s bitter humor, free-floating blues for her conversations with others, darkly intricate backing for her secret hopes and doubts.
While the performers will probably ease into the music more as the production goes on (although there are only six performances in total!), at the premiere the downside of that focus on musical characterization was a loss of emotional impact. Olatuja is certainly capable of powerful singing (see, for example, here ,) but she either was given too few opportunities or was too restrained to really let loose on Hilliard’s melodies, even during the most soulful sections. The same goes for Jorell Williams as junk dealer Vernon and Keith Phares as Arnita’s boss Michael; only Ben Lurye as instrument dealer Fritz has a chance to show off the bright, round lyricism of his voice.
So the real pleasure of Blue Viola is in the moment-to-moment detail of character that the performers are able to deliver. What is lost in vocal oomph is gained in expressive acting; all four performers, under the fine direction of Tazewell Thompson, create portraits worthy of a non-musical stage drama, assisted by Boresi’s wry jokes and poetic observations. Longtime collaborators Boresi and Hilliard are well-matched to each other in how they blend different registers and styles seamlessly and are able to infuse every single note and word with precise care. They’re like chefs who can take any imaginable ingredient and fit it into a cohesive cuisine.
Something in this subject matter and milieu must have inspired everyone working on it; Donald Eastman’s set, for one, is a wonder to behold, its mobile towers of cardboard boxes suggesting a shuffle through the forgotten underbellies of the city.
March 20 – 29
Urban Arias at
1101 Wilson Blvd
1 hours, no intermission
Fridays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Topping all of these achievements, however, is Hilliard, who has managed to make a bluesy-jazzy modern opera that completely avoids Gershwin territory (well, 99% of the time, at least, and that’s good enough). Full of feeling, yet never sentimental, and permeated with muted colors, complex guitar licks, and enigmatic leitmofits, it’s worth the price of admission just to hear. The Inscape Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Robert Wood, plays it superbly, and the virtuostic viola solos Hilliard provides for Megan Yanik to play live up to the instrument’s frequent description as a “beautiful liar,” reflecting the morally ambigious story being told. I genuinely would like to have a recording of them playing this score to listen to on my headphones.
The high quality throughout makes it easy enough to let go of the disappointment that comes at play’s end, when Arnita is robbed of an emotional conclusion in a rushed wrap-up. Again, perhaps, when the performers grow more comfortable, they will put more punch into the emotional highs, but as it is, Blue Viola feels slightly studied and perhaps one edit away from its minor-masterpiece potential.
If an art form requires you to be an expert in order to appreciate it, that art form is dead. Some people – or, who am I kidding? most people – may believe opera dead these days, but Blue Viola is as good a rejoinder to that idea as anything; its strengths play more to a fresh-faced audience than one looking for some classic opera experience. As a non-expert on the form myself, while I may have misapprehended a musical detail or two, I nevertheless feel quite confident recommending this to anyone in DC who would like to have their interest in opera enlivened.
Blue Viola . Music by Peter Hilliard . Libretto by Matt Boresi .Conducted by Robert Wood .Directed by Tazewell Thompson . Featuring Jorell Williams, Alicia Olatuja, Keith Phares and Benjamin Lurye, along with members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra . Set and lighting design: Donald Eastman . Costume design: Harry Nadal . Produced by UrbanArias . Reviewed by Brett Steven Ableman.
From the 2015 workshop of Blue Viola at Arena Stage