UrbanArias stages opera for modern sensibilities

Elizabeth Rylander/Elizabeth Rylander - Jesse Blumberg and Vale Rideout in workshop for Urban Arias' production of ‘Positions 1956.’

When Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” hits the Kennedy Center in a few weeks, you know it’s going to be Big. The thing is the very definition of grand opera: a lavish 19th-century warhorse that clomps along for nearly three hours, swarming with doomed lovers, a mad king, thunderbolts from heaven, armies of supernumeraries and enough bloodletting to satisfy a “Dexter” fan. There’s a quasi-comprehensible plot set a zillion years ago in ancient Babylon, and the whole farrago is sung in a language that — correct me if I’m wrong — you don’t even speak. But don’t worry! As long as you’re not in the cheap seats in the back (and you did spring for the $300 box seats, right?) you can read your way through the evening in surtitles and ponder such arias as “I am ready to ascend the bloodstained seat of the golden throne” and “Go, maid, go and conquer the palm of martyrdom.” “Nabucco” — it’s gorgeous, it’s over the top, and it has absolutely nothing to do with real life. In short: It’s everything you want an opera to be.

Unless, of course, it’s everything that makes you wonder whether the entire world of opera is um . . . maybe not quite right in the head — in which case, you might want to drop by Arlington, where a feisty new company called UrbanArias is tossing out the antiquated conventions of Grand Opera and reinventing the form for 21st-century ears. Starting Friday, the group’s week-long festival at the Artisphere will showcase three new “mini-operas” by young composers that are about as far from “Nabucco” as you can get: short, fast-paced works that deal with modern life, are sung in English, and happily make do with minimal sets and costumes. They’re all being produced in the Artisphere’s intimate 125-seat Black Box Theater, and with seats priced only slightly higher than movie tickets, they’re starting to draw in an eclectic new audience — everyone from opera aficionados to people who wouldn’t sit through “Lohengrin” with a gun to their head.

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“We need the big opera companies to be doing the things that only they can do, whether it’s preserving major productions of big works or commissioning $2 million productions of new operas,” says Robert Wood, the founder and all-purpose driving force behind UrbanArias. “But there’s another kind of work that cries out to be seen, and because we’re small, we have a lot of flexibility. We have room to say to our audience: ‘Trust us — and we’ll give you some really amazing stuff.’ ”

Take, for instance, “Positions 1956.” A new, 90-minute opera by composer Conrad Cummings and librettist Michael Korie, “Positions” is the centerpiece of this year’s festival, and with three singers, a bare-bones set and a text drawn largely from self-help manuals from the 1950s, it’s a textbook example of the small-is-beautiful approach. But despite — or maybe because of — its modest forces, “Positions” probes with almost painful intimacy into the social and sexual life of modern America, using a deft balance of drama and sly musical humor.

Forget the antique language of 19th-century opera: The R-rated arias in “Positions” range from the tender “Standing Position” (“Up against the wall/ Is difficult but fun”) to more, shall we say, probing arias whose lyrics have no place in a family newspaper. But the frank sexuality in the piece is handled with subtlety and humor — there’s even a bit of practical advice, sung in a lilting Handelian vein, on how to manage a public erection — and used to explore the complexity of human relationships.

But what makes “Positions 1956” (as well as the two other mini-operas in this year’s festival, “Before Breakfast” by Thomas Pasatieri and Frank Corsaro, and “The Filthy Habit” by Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi) so compelling, says Wood, is not just the contemporary style, but the real issues that new opera is grappling with.

“These works aren’t strange, avant-garde things most of the time,” he says. “They’re just stories that are relevant to our lives.”

The ideas behind UrbanArias began to percolate over the past decade, when Wood was working as a conductor and chorus master for several major American companies, including the San Francisco Opera and the Minnesota Opera. Opera is an absurdly expensive enterprise — high-priced superstars, big orchestras and elaborate sets can drain budgets mercilessly — and Wood saw how the costs made producers risk-averse, forcing them into a traditional, highly conservative repertoire. He also realized that audiences were put off by the length of many works (Wagner’s “Goetterdaemmerung,” to cite the usual suspect, clocks in at an ear-wilting five hours), by a repertoire that was largely in foreign languages, and by the often-stratospheric price of tickets.

A few companies, such as American Opera Projects and the American Lyric Theater, were starting to look for fresh approaches, and Wood was impressed by the way director Peter Brooks, back in the early 1980s, had streamlined Bizet’s four-act “Carmen” down to half its original length. But paring old behemoths to the bone was not really the answer. If opera was to grow as an art form, Wood realized, it needed new composers and new audiences — and that meant a whole new kind of opera that would last no longer than a feature film, and be relevant to 21st-century audiences.

“These two ideas — short and contemporary — were rattling around in my head,” he says. “And I thought, what if I just put them together?”

Wood began digging up neglected operas written in the past 40 years, formed UrbanArias in 2009, and last year launched the group’s first festival, showcasing Tom Cipullo’s opera “Glory Denied” and two works by Ricky Ian Gordon, “Orpheus and Euridice” and “Green Sneakers.” The event was wildly successful, and major companies are starting to pay close attention to the UrbanArias model. But for Wood, the most gratifying outcome was the new listeners who were drawn in, some who had never been to an opera in their lives but were willing to take a chance.

“We can say to people, just try it — if you don’t like it, it’ll be over before you know it!” he says, laughing. “But you might discover a real passion.”

Brookes is a freelance writer.

UrbanArias 2012 Festival

runs Friday to April 22, with all performances in the Black Box Theater at the Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. General admission tickets are $22, with discounts for students, seniors and the military.

“Positions 1956” runs about 90 minutes and will be performed Friday at 8 p.m., April 15 at 2 p.m., April 17 and 19 at 8 p.m., April 21 at 7 p.m. and April 22 at 7:30 p.m. It contains adult material and is not suitable for young children.

The double bill of “Before Breakfast” and “The Filthy Habit” runs about 75 minutes and will be performed Saturday at 7 p.m., April 15 at 7:30 p.m., April 18 and 20 at 8 p.m. and April 22 at 2 p.m. “Before Breakfast” is probably a bit heavy for young children. “The Filthy Habit” contains mild sexual references.

For tickets or more information, go to www.urbanarias.org or call the Artisphere at 888-841-2787.

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