After Life and Josephine are two short operatic works featuring original music by Tom Cipullo. The first presents Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso in a heated discourse about life decisions and regrets while the world premiere second act features Josephine Baker in a conversation with us …in her dressing room. Be still my heart, what’s not to love? Especially in 100 minutes! The exquisite artistry of the performers carries the production to new heights and should catapult UrbanArias to first class recognition.
In After life, the characters enter one at a time, questioning why they were conjured up after death, portraying their personas through text and mannerisms. Catherine Cook as Gertrude enters cautiously, then sings about her life choices and the importance of love with beautifully supported mezzo soprano tones. Michael Mayes is rugged as a bombastic Pablo all full of himself, strutting like he’s God gift and knows it with a rich baritone smooth as silk. The two characters trade verbal jabs almost immediately as they delve into their lasting legacy, especially as they consider the rising tide of German occupation and the creeping onset of the Holocaust.
Picasso brays loudly about the value of his art accusing Stein of just lumbering in her cottage scribbling senseless inanities with Alice B. Toklas at her side. You can imagine how that goes down. Stein punches back highlighting the importance of cherishing life, and love expressed in her writings. Maneuvering through the increasingly heated libretto, the characters confront each other with self-defensive maneuvers and posturing, while their pauses reflect quiet inner reflections wondering if they did enough to address the impending onslaught.
In their ultimate throw down scene, their voices reach decibels that could almost break glass. Just when they come to incredible vocal blows, a voice of an angel wafts over them from offstage stopping them both in their tracks. That’s when Ava Pine enters as the grungy orphaned “Youth” holding a cherished rose, a symbol of Stein’s famous poem, and the three work through life’s passages dealing with the hurt, remorse, and the finality of death, Youth’s in a concentration camp. Pine’s incredible vocal range and sweet delivery nestles her comfortably in the precious trio of voices and messages. Eventually, each character exits while remnants of their remarkable arias still resonate in the air.
While short, to the point and accessible, Tom Cipullo’s compositions are still somewhat challenging to grasp because of the intense atonality. The music does not lend itself to familiar through lines of melody to hold onto and when something like a familiar passage occasionally peeks through, it’s a refreshing break before being plunged back into nether worlds of counter point notes. While the mild dissonance is an acquired taste, Cipullo’s absolute mastery of the music leads even a novice through for a comfortable experience.
For Josephine, the music still retained its atonal quality, but is softened, even sweetened, with periodic jazzy riffs to capture the fabulous legacy of Baker herself. This world premiere libretto is filled with snippets about how the entertainer constantly fought battles of blatant discrimination that relegated her to second class citizenship. The text beautifully portrays the impact of a willful artist who lived life full of contradiction– born in poverty, courted by kings, invited to the White House, awarded the Legion of Honor, and the only woman to speak on stage of March on Washington, to name just a few of Baker’s legendary accomplishments.
And then, there were the children, adopted with the best of intentions, a rainbow tribe of orphans rescued from abandonment, tantalizingly selected to represent the human race. With spoken text woven into the libretto, and with Melissa Wimbish’s alluring voice and delivery, Josephine is an absolute joy to behold. In total command, she slinks across the stage in silver heels doing justice to Baker’s reflections on “sex, war, race and love.” How Wimbish can belt out such beautiful notes while strapped in a bejeweled fitted corset reflecting bouncing prisms of light is beyond me. However she does it, it’s stunning. The headpiece used as a prop was also ravishingly adorn with jewels and feathers conjuring up early days of the Follies, along with the plush cape that she wraps around herself for effect, costume design by Hunter Kaczorowski.
AFTERLIFE & JOSEPHINE
An Operatic Double Bill
April 2 – 9
at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street NE
Washington, DC 22202
1 hour, 40 minutes with 1 intermission
UrbanArias celebrates its sixth season having staged productions in small venues throughout the metro area. Their mission is to “expose D.C-area audiences to engaging, accessible, entertaining operas..” by way of short, contemporary selections. After Life and Josephine present a complete package – with a short run it’s a limited opportunity to immerse oneself in fascinating philosophical issues presented by some of the most accomplished voices you’ll hear anywhere in town.
After Life . Music by Tom Cipullo . Libretto by David Mason. Cast: Catherine Cook, Michael Mayes and Ava Pine
Josephine . Music and Libretto by Tom Cipullo . Featuring Melissa Wimbish .
After Life/Josephine . Directed by Alan Paul . Robert Wood conducted the Inscape Chamber Orchestra . Set and Lighting Design: David L. Arsenault . Costume Design: Diane Schramke and Hunter Kaczorowski . Director of Production: Courtney Kalbacker . Stage Manager—Diane Schramke . Produced by UrbanArias . Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson.