Arts Desk

UrbanArias’ Smug, Depressing, and Hilarious DIY Opera Festival

It’s no small feat for a tiny, local company to stage a brand new opera for the first time and have it go off without a hitch. Keep that in mind, because that didn’t happen this weekend. There were some pretty big blunders at UrbanArias’ premiere of Positions 1956 on Friday: Stagehands barged onstage in the middle of Act 2 to change sets and had to be shooed off; later they were unable to move the backdrop at all, so they just left it there for Act 3. The odd decision to mic the singers (justified by the use of a synthesizer, plus the bad acoustics of Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre) produced audibly distracting static throughout the performance.

All that aside, the two programs that make up the UrbanArias 2012 festival (at Rosslyn’s Artisphere, now through April 22) are pretty damn entertaining, for totally different reasons. The highlight, Positions 1956, is UrbanArias’ first newly commissioned opera: an ambitious project for a company that’s only been around since 2010. It’s a disjointed comedy that still feels very rough—composer Conrad Cummings hadn’t even finished his score, a spare pastiche spanning baroque to Jerry Lee Lewis, as of a sing-through rehearsal last month. The jokes don’t always work, but the basic conceit is intriguing enough to keep your attention. Even the mishaps were sort of charming, adding a seat-of-the-pants, DIY feel of a basement punk show with crappy audio.

The gimmick that sustains Positions 1956 is that it’s based on fuddy-duddy instructional manuals from the 1950s. The three acts cover three different period publications: how-to sex guides for newlyweds, Charles Atlas-type fitness magazines, and Arthur Murray-type dance lessons. Much of the humor in Michael Korie’s libretto—too much, it turns out—is invested in the characters simply reciting excerpts from the manuals verbatim. Especially for the first act, given the subject matter, Korie didn’t have to look hard to find appallingly outrageous lines (“She is equipped for pleasure / but hers is not essential”) that don’t get funnier the fourth or fifth time you hear them. Amedee Moore and Jesse Blumberg, as the hapless married couple, deserve good sports medals for singing in whatever positions they are called to assume, whether pushups or doggystyle. And things do start to get interesting as the story progresses, including a surprisingly dark turn in Act 2. Most of the time, though, Positions 1956 falls back on the facile irony of the look-at-how-far-we’ve-come baby boomer retrospective that comes off as too-smug back-patting from the generation that gave us Rush and President Reagan.

A double bill rounds out the festival on alternating dates: Before Breakfast and The Filthy Habit. It’s a balanced bill, I guess, in the sense that they’re nothing alike and provoke completely opposite emotional responses. Before Breakfast is based on a one act Eugene O’Neill play of the same name and, if that doesn’t give it away, is a major bummer. It’s also a tour-de-force by Caroline Worra, who gives a gut-wrenching solo performance as a woman trapped in a miserable marriage, singing uninterrupted (and thankfully unmic’d) for the entire opera.

If you manage not to slit your wrists at intermission, the second half is well worth the agony of the first. The Filthy Habit is an uproarious farce set in New York soon after the smoking ban took effect. Jennifer Aylmer plays Susan, a covert smoker married to Ethan Watermeier’s Gil, an arugula-chomping, Buddha-worshipping health nut who discovers Susan’s pack of menthols and presumes it belongs to a cigarette-smoking lover. Peter Hilliard’s jazzy score heightens the humor to great effect when dancer Dustin Kimball shows up as that imaginary lover, flowing from romantic to Copland as “Smokey” mutates in Gil’s mind from French artist to the Marlboro Man. So too does a wonderful Greek chorus that voices Susan’s nicotine-addled rage at Mayor Bloomberg (“At $7 a pack / it’s cheaper to be addicted to crack”) and occasionally contradicts her, in the style of Stephen Colbert’s “The Word” bit.

There isn’t a whole lot that unites the three operas, musically or emotionally, except that they all fit with UrbanArias’ mandate to present new opera that’s accessible, provocative, and sung in English. D.C. audiences don’t get many opportunities to see this sort of thing, much less up close and without having to drop major cash. Along with other small companies like the In Series, UrbanArias is a real gem. If opera ever approaches the popular art form it once was, we’ll have them to thank.

Positions 1956 repeats April 17 at 8 p.m., April 19 at 8 p.m., April 21 at 7 p.m., and April 22 at 7:30 p.m. Before Breakfast and The Filthy Habit repeat April 18 at 8 p.m., April 20 at 8 p.m., and April 22 at 2 p.m. All tickets $22. At Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. (888) 841-2787.

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