“Contemporary Opera” or even “Original Opera” are not categories that immediately reveal their meanings to the average consumer of theatre. Sure, we may know and love the likes of RENT, Sweeney Todd or Spring Awakening, but even if these do indeed qualify as operas, as they’re entirely sung, we know in our hearts they’re not really operas. No, that word is reserved for the Great Classics, the True Operas, the Puccinis and Wagners of the world. Diaphragm busting, vibrato rich, grandiose vocal tapestries about love and loss, tragedy and clowns, and, sometimes, Viking helmets. But a true 21st century opera, that takes Classical technique and forces it to serve at the pleasure of modern storytelling? That seemed improbable, at least to me, until I stumbled across a brilliant little group called Urban Arias.
Founded in 2010, the goal of Urban Arias is to “produc[e] short, contemporary operas”, and their new operetta, The Whole Truth, playing at the Atlas Intersections Festival, certainly fits that bill. Clocking in at a whopping 25 minutes, The Whole Truth, with Music by Robert Patterson, Libretto by Mark Campbell, and directed by Courtney Kalbacker, is like Opera Espresso: short, concentrated, and energizing. The story centers on Megan, a woman not-so-happily married who finds solace in a variety of lovers, but who can’t bring herself to commit to them, either.
The main theatrical conceit in The Whole Truth is that Megan is played by two actors: a soprano (Amedee Royer) who is Megan as she appears to the world, and a mezzo (Kate Jackman) who is her subconscious, and interjects her own un-encumbered commentary throughout the show. In this version of The Whole Truth, which seems to be more of a workshop than a fully realized production, all the men are played by Andrew McLaughlin, whose rich baritone is comically at odds with the various goofy men he plays. Ms. Jackman and Ms. Royer imbue their shared Megan with a rakish charm that belies what is essentially a selfish and passive aggressive character; nevertheless, it is fun to watch them juggle Megan’s carpenter, dentist, and therapist (throw in an Indian and she would be screwing the Village People).
The main feature of the (otherwise minimal) set design is a series of cardboard cut outs that show the various men in Megan’s life. These cut outs, while amusing, are a little confusing, especially since Mr. McLaughlin changes his costume a bit anyway to show when he is transitioning between characters. On the other hand, two white rolling chairs provide a lot of fun for the two Megans, whose best duet is when they are tied, back to back, spinning their chairs furiously while belting out their shared middle aged neuroses.
The Whole Truth is light fare, and that seems to be the point. Sandwiched between two sections of “Opera Improv,”which tasks its singers to extemporaneously sing through a variety of theatre games, Urban Arias is clearly in pursuit of its goal of making an otherwise alienating art form accessible and entertaining. And that is enough, for now at least, because until now it is a pleasure largely reserved for the Kennedy Center set. Urban Arias is bringing opera to the masses, and that, truly, is something to sing about.
Running Time: One hour, with no intermission.
The Whole Truth played February 27 and 28, 2015 at Urban Arias, performing as part of the Intersections Festival at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, D.C. For more information about Urban Arias, visit their website. For more information about the Intersections Festival, click here.