Almost from its beginnings, in Florence around 1600, until the distinction was usurped by film in the 20th century, opera was the most expensive art to produce. But anyone looking for proof that opera done inexpensively can be as compelling as the high-end variety should go to Urban Arias. Founded by conductor Robert Wood in 2009, Urban Arias is at once hysterically funny and deadly serious.
The company’s performance Sunday night at Iota Club and Cafe in Arlington featured four wonderful singers, sopranos Melissa Wimbish and Tracy Lynn Olivera, tenor Joshua Baumgardner and baritone Kevin Wetzel, with a terrific pianist, R. Timothy McReynolds, and occasional keyboard backup from Wood. They presented two mini-operas, “Camera Obscura,” with text by Robert Patrick and music by Jonathan Sheffer, and “At the Statue of Venus,” with text by Terrence McNally and music by Jake Heggie. Both were directed by Alan Paul. The evening concluded with seven of Gabriel Kahane’s “Craigslist Lieder” — musical settings of actual on-line personal ads from craigslist. Running the gamut from charming and uproariously funny to wistful and genuinely touching, all were beautifully prepared and splendidly sung and acted.
My favorite parts of the evening, however, were two groups of “opera improvs” sandwiched between the set pieces, with characters, situations, and locales suggested by the audience. Among other improvisations, we saw “Mickey and Minnie Mouse standing in a long line at the nursery,” “Thelma and Louise in Antarctica,” “Bonnie and Clyde lose their virginity in Munchkin Land” and “A Moyel and a Circumcise-ee in Tallahassee.” Once assigned a situation, the singers got to choose the operatic style in which they would sing — say, that of Monteverdi or Mozart, Gilbert and Sullivan or Philip Glass — with appropriately improvised accompaniments by McReynolds and Wood. The musicians brought a clever inventiveness, outrageous topicality and sheer joy in instantaneous creation to these exercises that kept the audience in stitches.
What’s deadly serious about Urban Arias is its mission of demonstrating how intensely entertaining and vital opera can be, even removed from its usual milieu of great halls and expensive productions, and the stunning musicianship and artistry the artists bring to the enterprise. This is some of the best, most original musicmaking I’ve heard inside the Beltway in a long time.
Rucker is a freelance writer.