Editors' pick

Photo-Op

Opera
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Photo-Op photo
Jess Righthand/The Washington Post
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Editorial Review

Opera review: Artisphere’s ‘Photo-Op’
By Joan Reinthaler
Monday, September 10, 2012

I guess it’s an opera -- at least that’s how it’s billed by conductor Robert Wood, composer Conrad Cummings and librettist James Siena. But “Photo-Op,” which opened at Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre on Saturday, could just as easily be sold as a ballet, as pure political satire or simply as a theater piece. It doesn’t matter: It’s wonderful fun, wonderfully directed and performed and, despite that fact that it was written in 1989, eerily timely.

Originally conceived as a satire on the campaign speeches and personas of a pair of competing presidential candidates, the two main characters in this production are a candidate and his wife, but it’s not easy, at times, to discern who is really the candidate and who is the helpmate. In a post-performance discussion, Cummings and director Alan Paul talked about the intentionally flexible structure of the piece, which allows for all sorts of realizations.

In this production, baritone Michael Mayes -- terrific as the candidate, bigger than life, jutting of jaw and adorned with a Reaganesque pompadour -- parades his pasted-on smile and fake bonhomie before an enormous American flag backdrop. Soprano Laurie Williamson -- his sometimes adoring, sometimes steely-spined wife -- urges him on with intensity and unflagging energy, and, together, the two of them spin out lines of text with machine-gun speed that morph into gibberish as they repeat the lines with ever-changing accents and inflections.

An energetic but mute ensemble of nine actor/dancers surrounds the pair with the busyness of functionaries, their clipboards and files at the ready; at turns, they were an adoring crowd or a troop of soldiers ready to die if need be.

The orchestra consisted of a violin, cello, woodwind and keyboard quartet expertly conducted by Wood. The music -- minimalist with a touch of almost wistful lyricism -- nailed the humor.

There are performances on Sept. 14 and 15 that shouldn’t be missed.

PREVIEW: Singing politics’ phrases
By Jess Righthand
Friday, September 7, 2012

When an opera company produces a show, the libretto is usually a fairly definitive road map for director and cast. It’s clear who is supposed to be onstage at any given time, and there’s a basic plot inherent in the words and music.

Not so with “Photo-Op,” a political sendup that local troupe UrbanArias is taking on for a two-week run at Artisphere. The score, composed by Conrad Cummings in 1989, is accompanied by only a two-page libretto filled with Dada-esque, abstract political phrases and no stage directions whatsoever.

This turned out to be a good thing. “It freed us to decide what we wanted to do,” says Robert Wood, executive director of UrbanArias and the show’s conductor.

Director Alan Paul spent months outlining and writing a plot. In previous performances, the opera focused on two candidates running for president. Paul decided to center the show on one candidate and his wife (baritone Michael Mayes and soprano Laurie Williamson), exploring the havoc the campaign wreaks on their relationship.

“We see these policy decisions or we see these things that happen in a campaign that seem to be a part of a person’s public life,” Paul says. “And yet we don’t see the echoes that it has in their personal life. And I think it’s just as important as what we [do] see. One intrudes on the other.”

Wood says he cast Mayes and Williamson because their voices are classically trained but they’re also skilled actors, capable of conveying meaning even as the words more or less lack it. “They’re opera singers, but they’re really singing actors because they are concerned about the whole thing,” he says.

The personal focus helps the show remain nonpartisan, and the language furthers that goal. The words are disembodied from tangible purpose or meaning and represent the worst of political rhetoric. (Wood describes the words as “totally vapid stump speeches that through repetition become completely meaningless.”) One passage, a sizable chunk of the libretto, reads: “By keeping things exactly the way they are / We’ll find truth in the smallest things / Which are just as good as the big ones / Which keep this country great.”

Given that the words don’t necessarily advance the plot, UrbanArias enlisted Lucy Bowen McCauley, founder of Arlington-based Bowen McCauley Dance, to choreograph the nine-person ensemble and the principals to help define the action.

Audience members will frequently be reminded of real-life politicians, Wood says. “There are moments in the opera where you will perhaps remember Sarah Palin, you will perhaps remember the Clintons, you remember things that are coming from stories that we know, because these things happen,” he says. “And they happen again and again.”

Of course, with the campaign season ramping up to the election, “Photo-Op” is a timely choice. But it also has a lot to say about what has stayed the same in what Wood calls the “political machine.”

“What we’re seeing in this opera -- it really hasn’t changed -- is the cry of the voters to say, ‘Will you just do something of substance and give us some real guidance and lead?’ and all you’re getting is sound bites and photo ops,” Wood says. “And that really hasn’t changed.

“To sum it up neatly, that’s perhaps what the piece was originally meant to show, and what I think it continues to show is that politicians don’t give us the right things, and that’s because perhaps we’re not asking for them.”