How prescient of the innovative UrbanArias. To be ahead of a major Washington Post Sunday Business section about a modern-day retail apocalypse: the dying of America’s suburban retail malls.
Yes, you read correctly. DMV’s own home-grown UrbanArias performed a very unstuffy, full retinue of songs about shopping malls. Who says opera has to be about the distant past, sex, and royalty? Ha!
The pocket-sized UrbanArias opera company performed a very accessible, fully engaging evening with a focus on a different kind of the dying and dead; the 10,000 retail store closures associated with the end of the over six-decade run of the suburban mall. Those monsters that devoured many a small town starting in the later 1950s.
The nine-number song cycle was called “Dead Mall Songs.” The original, bluesy-driven penetrating music was composed by Peter Hilliard with idiosyncratic words by Matt Boresi. Hilliard and Boresi are known for creating new opera and “opera-adjacent work.” UrbanArias produced a full rendering of their The Last American Hammer in 2018 reviewed by DCMTA’s Beatrice Loayza here).
Dead Mall Songs has a clear story arc built around nine colorful songs about a dying shopping mall. With titles and lyrics, the listener is taken on a journey not unlike Dante’s Inferno. There are songs about the appearance of temporary kiosks selling scrunchies as a harbinger of a mall’s dismissal, or about malls providing a very public place to get a quick massage. The kiosks are the “Canaries” in the coal mine. There was “Urban Legends” suggesting that shoppers be aware never to park near a van; for abduction by vile strangers awaits. Even Shelly’s “Ozymandias” makes an appearance “With Apologies to Shelly;” as does nature in the form of a tree constructed before the audience’s eyes.
The fine UrbanArias presentation made “Dead Mall Songs” both fun and endearing thanks to the terrific expression and unamplified vocal projection from the classically trained voices of Jeffrey Gates (Baritone), Ian McEuen (Tenor) and Melissa Wimbish (Soprano) and with musical accompaniment on piano/keyboard by R. Timothy McReynolds. The performance of “Dead Mall Songs” had a wonderfully cutting, mocking tone yet with a sincere undertone delivery. No bombast or extra-large carrying on. There was a lovely modesty to it. Hard not to think of say White Flint Mall or Landmark Mall as real-life examples.
During a second section of the evening, UrbanArias presented about 10 minutes of musicalized poetry as concert opera. This section had a deeply humanized subject matter and scale to it that grabbed me. The original poetry was not by the well-known. Nope. The absorbing subject matter was written by Brooklyn schoolchildren entitled called “Songs from the F Train” with music composed by Gilda Lyons. For those less familiar with the NYC subway system, the F Train has a long run starting in Queens, going to parts of Manhattan and then through much of Brooklyn.
This composition was originally commissioned by American Opera Projects’ program as part of I Hear America Singing. Established in 2009 and inspired by the poem by Walt Whitman, the I Hear America Singing series had its purpose to express the thoughts from the everyday and diverse people of America.
The 10 minutes or so of “Songs from the F Train” used three poems with titles such as “I’m Smart,” “I am from the Ghetto ‘Brooklyn’” and “When Randa Wears Red.” The music was dynamic and brisk, lifting the narrative emotionally. The songs were sung by Melissa Wimbish with Tim McReynolds on piano. Paul Peers directed.
A few lyrics from “I’m Smart” to give a flavor of the piece are here: “I’m smart but timid/I worry I will never break/out of my fear/I hear the harmony when people sing/I see the violence in my community/I want to indulge my talents to the world, I’m smart but timid.” Their words were written by a 12-year-old girl. Wow.
To open the evening, UrbanArias employed a crowd-pleasing, audience-driven section of improvisation that spoofed living in these contemporary days. Propelled by the vast piano talents of Robert Wood (who founded UrbanArias in 2009) and McReynolds, Gates, McEuen, and Wimbish took their cues audience suggested stories and quickly created three “mini” operas. The topics spanned “Streaking at Washington Nationals Park,” “Eating Alaskan King Crab in Maryland,” and “Vegan Dating a Meat Eater.” These were delightfully earthy and unfiltered. No need for practiced perfection when there is the natural and pleasure of immediate creation. It was the thrill of watching and hearing creative minds at work with coaching by Cara Gabriel.
The evening with UrbanArias at Shirlington’s Busboys and Poets was a joy. It was music and voices and entertainment on a human scale. And there was no amplification in these times of ever-increasing usage of amplification and earbuds. It was an analog evening in a digital age.
Running Time: About one hour, with no intermission.
This evening with UrbanArias was on November 21, 2019. For further information about UrbanArias, including its next full company performance of Glory Denied by Tom Cipullo to be performed at the Keegan Theatre in January 2020, go to www.urbanarias.org.