Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
Don’t like opera? UrbanArias may change that. For five years, the local company has been making buffs out of the unconvinced with short, contemporary and relevant operas.
“I want to be a gateway to convert people into fans,” says UrbanArias’ out founder Robert Wood. “I want them to know what is so compelling about the human voice unamplified. What is stirring about being in a black box theater so close to the performers that you don’t only hear them you feel their voices resonate in your own rib cage.”
For many, length and language are opera’s biggest turnoffs, Wood says. In response, UrbanArias insists the works it produces be short (defined loosely as the length of a feature film — about 90 minutes) and they must be performed in English. (“Even with supertitles, people are turned by foreign language,” Wood says). Their operas are less than 40 years old, and relevant. The story must be compelling and the music beautiful and accessible.
The company’s current offering is out composer Laura Kaminsky’s “As One,” a timely chamber opera about self discovery told through the journey of Hannah, who is transgender. The protagonist Hannah is sung in two voices — Hannah Before (baritone Luis Alejandro Orozco) and Hannah After (mezzo soprano Ashley Cutright). In 15 songs, the three-part narrative follows Hannah’s experiences from her youth in a small town to her college years on the West Coast, and finally to Norway.
Commissioned by American Opera Projects, “As One” premiered last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Its co-librettists are Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, whose documentary “Prodigal Sons” traces her own transition from high school quarterback to woman who makes films.
Kaminsky initially reached out to Reed to do video design only. But when experienced librettist Campbell joined the project, he invited Reed to also co-write with him.
“It actually wasn’t such a big leap from filmmaking, especially the way Mark writes — unadorned and truthful,” Reed says. “Some of the lyrics began with a grain of biographical truth but it was important for us to leave my story behind and fictionalize the libretto to make it something universal. For instance, we included violence against trans women. Not my experience, but something that needed to be told.”
Campbell, who wrote the libretto for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Silent Night,” says collaborating with Reed was a smart decision.
“I really didn’t know if I’d get the transgender experience right. I’m a gay man but that doesn’t mean I’d automatically understand Hannah’s story. Looking back I can see that I was getting a lot wrong at first. Kim added a lot of realness to the story. I learned so much working with her.”
Campbell and Reed also made a defined resolution to tell an accessible story.
“Some people are terrified of contemporary opera, and because it’s sometimes pretentious, they have every right to be,” Campbell says. “We wanted to tell a story to which people could relate. Also, the music is tonal and rhythmic with some beautiful vocal lines. A visible string quartet plays off to the side.”
And the team was adamant in not presenting a ‘50s film version of the transgender experience. While Hannah understands the seriousness of her journey, she is not a tortured person. Her experience isn’t exclusively about pain. She can make fun of herself.
“Her journey isn’t unlike all of ours,” Campbell says. “We all have to give up something of ourselves to move on. Hannah’s recognizing her authentic self is something every queer person can understand. “
In creating UrbanArias, Wood, a D.C.-based music conductor who freelances around the country, wanted to do something fulfilling and meaningful close to home. And he wanted it to be different. He felt that interpreting what big regional houses do but on a smaller scale would only invite unfavorable comparisons. So far critics have responded positively and funding from local foundations has been good.
Wood concedes that among opera goers there will always be traditionalists who only want to see Puccini, Mozart and Verde.
“But for those who’ve seen various contemporary things along the way and are curious to see a little more,” he says. “We can serve it to them beautifully done in a smaller portion.”
Past seasons have featured gay composer Rick Ian Gordon’s “Orpheus and Euridice,” and “Green Sneakers,” and the world premier of Gregory Spears’ “Paul’s Case,” based on a short story by lesbian novelist Willa Cather about a bored gay boy who steals money from his industrialist father and runs away.
While he describes Kaminsky’s score as beautiful and embracing opera, Wood says “past productions have had feet planted firmly in a crossover genre like blues-infused opera, and musical theater, things purists in other opera houses would shy away from.”
“Also,” he says, “UrbanArias casts well. I’ve spent the last 15 years conducting around the country over, and I’ve made a lot of friends. This allows us to have talented, known singers in our productions. And we pay pretty well too.”
In preparing to sing the part of Hannah after, Cutright joined a transgender chat room.
“I didn’t have any close trans friends and I wanted to get is right,” she says. “The trans people I met were excited and supportive and forthcoming with experiences and perspectives.”
In the early stages of rehearsal, Cutright spent time grappling with her character’s physicality.
“I wasn’t sure how to move as Hannah. I’ve been cast in a lot of trousers roles which means I play young teenage boys. So I’ve had to walk like a guy, whatever that means. After some thought, I came to Hannah’s story is about somebody who is forced to be who she’s not. And they just want to be who they really are, so I relaxed and ended up moving like myself.”
Hannah is equal parts realist and optimist, says Cutright.
“She goes to Norway to see the Northern Lights and when they don’t appear, she realizes even the most natural things in the world aren’t going to appear just because I want them to, and she moves on. I love that about her.”