The Washington Post might have done better this past weekend, covering the emergence of numerous new performing arts centers, than to use the puzzling term "polymathic" to describe our region's brightest new light Artisphere. Recall that last year on 10/10/10, its opening weekend ranged wide: from cinematic ballet, to experimental music, to skateboarding art, to chamber music. And then there was this surprising debut, out of nowhere: Washington suddenly got a new opera company. And that, at a time when the big one isn't doing so well.
Judging from their performances last November, the affiliated talent is superlative. And quite in the spirit of chamber opera, these apéritifs are not heavy-laden from marquee composers: few but the most, well, "polymathic" patrons would recognize the composers in Friday's line-up of Jack Perla, Jake Heggie, Seymour Barab, Lori Laitman and Jonathan Sheffer. Surely those big hulking controversies surrounding the Washington National Opera elucidate a need for this alternative scale. While debates swirl about the big one, such as whether we can go on living without our dear Placido, and whether the organization should merge with the Kennedy Center once and for all, Urban Arias has dramatically increased the presence of opera in this otherwise drenched swampland for the art form, without the panic of millions to raise in funds, and thousands to seat in...butts. (It is a parallel debate, and quite better suited for another time, that the widely publicized financial woes are partly needless; the all-or-nothing swell of The Grand Opera -- and her pricey A-list of international celebrity -- is simply a self-made horror borne of simplistic notions: that the art form is an over-the-top, all-cylinders-firing spectacle, leaving no room for chamber opera on our major stages.)
Moreover, just as mainstream institutions continue to neglect the major operas of our time (notably, WNO's 2011-12 season is a snoozer of repertoire standards), there is a rich body of work to be found in English-language chamber operas, such as those from last century's master of the form, Gian Carlo Menotti. And today we have numerous works from the great minimalists, notably Philip Glass' Les Enfants Terribles for duo-piano and two singers, or Michael Gordon's chamber opera Van Gogh. These works can be staged for small audiences, by small companies, and with utmost intimacy of a kind unmanageable in the Kennedy Center. (Purists even say that, for lions of the Baroque repertoire, a 2,300-seat theater is outsized sacrilege.)
Yet boundaries still stand erect between these scaled-down conventions of operatic form, and the futurist possibilities to integrate whole experiences of digital media, digital synthesizers and genre-jamming with acoustic ensembles. Very few companies outside New York City and scattered college town visionaries have been willing to go there, yet perhaps Urban Arias will make room in this humble swamp. Down by the river.
Tickets are available online, at the door, or by calling (888) 841-2787.
An interview with Robert Wood from WETA-FM's Classical Conversations