“How Many of You Have Seen an Opera With the Word ‘Penis’ Before?” UrbanArias at the Mansion at Strathmore, March 22, 2013

First of all, I apologize to the world for posting this review nine days after the actual concert took place. Immediately after the concert, I got sucked into the maw of planning for my upcoming nuptials, which are the reason there’s not going to be anything else on this blog until May. But I had to pull myself out of the morass of table assignments and vendor contacts to review the UrbanArias concert from the Friday Night Eclectic series at the Mansion at Strathmore two Friday nights ago, because the world needs to know that it was that rarest of things for a classical music concert: An absolute riot.

Yes, opera can be actually funny, and not “funny for opera” funny! Observe, for example, Melissa Wimbish as Eve in “Adam and Eve,” written in 2008 by Patrick Soluri with a text by Quincy Long. Wimbish had a ball alternately scolding and leering at the somewhat inarticulate Adam (Joshua Baumgardner) and challenging her therapist, Dr. Solomon, all to prevent Adam from eating the apple of knowledge and preserve her enabling fiction in an anonymous mental institution. (In the service of healing, Dr. Solomon, played with appropriate smiling earnestness by Ethan Watermeier, helpfully points out that the apple is actually a Jonathan.)

Melissa Wimbish.

Melissa Wimbish.

Or check out “At the Statue of Venus,” a monologue written by Terrence McNally (yes, that playwright) and Jake Heggie (music) and sung last Friday by Arianna Zukerman. McNally and Heggie tackle here a totally genius subject for an opera: the inner thoughts of a woman waiting to meet a blind date, ranging from wardrobe second-guessing to doubts about whether this is a good idea anyway to hopes and fears that this random unpaired guy approaching the titular statue is actually the blind date in question. Heggie found a musical language that, among other things, enhances the humor of these shifting thoughts, and Zukerman milked it for all it was worth. In my favorite moment, Zukerman’s unnamed character worried about the fact that her friends who suggested the date had mentioned that they both liked ballet. After trying to reassure herself that lots of straight men enjoyed the ballet, Zukerman stopped pacing the stage, stood ramrod straight, looked at the audience, and in high operatic dudgeon reprimanded herself and the world: “Name oooooooooooone!”

Neither of these operas was perfect — the mental institution setting of “Adam and Eve” seems played out at this point in history, and some of the later reveries in “At the Statue of Venus” seemed to exhaust their ideas before they ended. But they engaged with contemporary life and gave the listener a sense that opera can still be a vivid and immediate form, a sense I often lack after my rare forays to opera houses.

Of course, little could be more immediate that improvised opera, a post-intermission lark in which UrbanArias founder Robert Wood handled the piano accompaniment duties otherwise fulfilled last Friday by the skilled, sympathetic R. Timothy McReynolds. Having studied improv comedy myself, I can tell you that improvising an actual musical structure in addition to jokes is pretty difficult, and the modest success that these distinguished classical musicians enjoyed is actually pretty impressive, especially with the handicap of the lame suggestions from the Strathmore audience. (Pretty sure we’ve had enough jokes about George W. Bush and Sarah Palin at this point in history, folks.) Before the festivities began, Wood asked the question that forms the title of this review and received few positive responses, thus showing that UrbanArias is determined to advance the art.

They saved the funniest for last: Gabriel Kahane‘s “Craigslistlieder,” settings of texts that reminded me of the riches to be found in the newspaper-killing website’s “best-of-craigslist” category. Besides coming up with the absolute best name for this work — you can just see “Craigslistlieder” sitting alongside “Schicksalslied” and “Kindertotenlieder” in the Tower Records of my bygone youth — Kahane also sets these texts with close attention to the meaning of each individual word and phrase and with the keenest sense of comic timing since one of those old operamongers who I don’t actually think are particularly funny.

All four of the singers took a turn, and each had a highlight: Baumgartner’s richly unapologetic apology in “I’m Sorry,” Zukerman’s lascivious “Today I Met,” Watermeier’s perfect embodiment of the unrealistic personal-ad aspirations of “Neurotic and Lonely,” and especially Wimbish’s “Hello Potential Roommates.” This last alternately advertises for and warns about a cheap room that comes with several conditions, and Kahane’s setting and Wimbish’s performance made a funny text even funner, with several intervals in which I thought I would not stop laughing.

Opera (and UrbanArias) can do lots of things, but making people laugh is just as demanding and worthy a business as making them cry, and it was wonderful to be reminded of that. If there are any composers looking for topics for contemporary comedies, may I suggest wedding planning? I can give you lots and lots of texts…

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