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Urban Arias: Glory Denied

Last year during the opening weekend festivities of Artisphere, I wrote about the surprise arrival of a new opera company in Washington called Urban Arias.  “Surprise” is a relative term, because we imagine ourselves to live in a city that ranks among the world’s richest in terms of access to culture, and even pools of talent.  But we cannot underestimate the scarcity of accomplished opera here, moreso chamber opera which arguably never existed.  Much bemoaned at this blog, the Washington National Opera is just about the only game in town, a fine company that -- while utterly conservative -- also delivers reliably competent runs through the core repertory of safe standard fare on a revolving basis, occasionally risking offense to its overwhelmingly classical audience with contemporary works by living composers.  But the heart of this dilemma always has been scale, more than substance; large institutions simply never can be counted upon for taking risks (well within their rights, and little to weigh upon their consciences).  The saving grace for any chamber opera by a living composer is some abundance of small companies that might not, even taken together, outsize the major institution(s).  For example, some so-called “opera aficionados” here crave more than just the now-abbreviated five productions per year at the Kennedy Center.  Consider, too, that the smaller scale of chamber opera (and the likely more immediate relevance of contemporary works to a younger audience) holds the most promise for bringing new “aficionados” into a love for the medium.  In some sense too, the law of averages can do much good -- abundant opportunities to experience diverse works of art is a much better situation than…well, monopoly power.  As an interesting counterpoint, last Tuesday the Czech Embassy screened a filmed performance of the chamber opera Tomorrow There Will Be... about their martyred national hero Milada Horáková, and when I discussed the work afterward with composer Ales Brezina, he conveyed the idea that even back home, audiences were tentative approaching the chamber opera format -- this, even in the Old Country where opera on the whole thrives better than for Yanks.  But Brezina testified to the unique intimacy afforded from chamber opera, and in fact has declined offers to stage his opera in larger houses.

As an interlude to those thoughts, I’m writing these next words (the day after the overall point of this piece) into a netbook from the balcony of a Washington Chorus concert dedicated completely to new works by Elena Ruehr, and I’m waiting for the music to start.  The music director has arrived about five minutes late to an awkwardly silent room, only to launch into a long discourse about new music that begins with something to the effect of, “wow, a whole concert of new music, poor you!”  And having said that -- framing the tired idea that new music always defaults to its audience’s tolerant generosity -- he goes into an opposite, winded lecture about how new music is important (mostly talking about himself).  About twenty minutes later, the music actually starts.  And it’s pretty schmaltzy stuff, easier to hear than the mean average of new works that strain for atonality, but lacking musically narrative structure and sounding ponderous, rather like a line-up of fanfares.  The point of these comments is not to bag on the concert -- it was, after all, a competent performance of a talented composer’s work -- but here you have an example familiar to Washingtonians, even embraced by them, of inflating the broadest of categories (whether race, sexuality, gender or artistic style) in a way designed to promote it, but ultimately subverting it:  the masses, for all their legendary skimming, know better than to confuse generality with quality.  Audiences do not merely donate good will to a work of art in the sense of tolerating the newness because it is new.  Rather, they like something if it’s likeable, and that’s that.  No one likes, or likes to admit that they like, a creative act because of its category.  Imagine, if you will:  a hardcore punk act bombs at the 9:30 Club, but a tweedy intellectual steps out to lecture the liquored up audience about how they should support the creation of new music anyway.  That’s inconceivable.  Why not elsewhere?

Thinking of all that as a palate-cleanser, the point of the moment is to extol Tom Cipullo’s deeply personal opera Glory Denied, featured in the inaugural festival of Urban Arias.  Glory Denied happens to be a work of our time; of special meaning to where we live at the seat of Federal government which dispatches soldiers to war.  It engages its audience in tonal melodies, intellectual substance, emotional drama, and a concise narrative arc.  It holds its own against the greatest of the classical repertoire, while helping to redefine it at the rarer scale of chamber opera.

Playing for three more performances through April 10 in Artisphere’s Black Box Theatre, Cipullo’s compositional style is chromatically complex only to the extent of its design to intensify a fundamentally lyrical score.  Simpler put, he alternates his singers between beautiful and despairing lines that make complete sense in the dramatic whole.  As a composer, he must be gratified that Urban Arias gives his score loving attention, beginning with Robert Wood’s nuanced conducting.  The four-singer cast is top-rate, headlined by the extraordinary talent of Michael Chioldi, who will sing the role of Lucia's Enrico next season with the Washington National Opera.  (It is an interesting coincidence that Chioldi also recently sang the title role in Long Beach Opera's production of John Adams' Nixon in China, another similarly fearless work for tackling a politicized subject, in this medium better known for tavern drinking scenes and hilariously prolonged death sequences.)  No less impressive in this production is the assembled chamber ensemble, especially the virtuosic piano backbone of Sophia Kim Cook.  The scenic design, too, is expertly devised using appropriately minimal set pieces, complemented with video projections of archival footage largely meant to evoke the artifice of family photographs that serve a sentimental, not documentary, function.  As often happens in the attempt to incorporate video with theatre craft, though, these diverse source materials line up onscreen in discontinuity, a mostly stylistic problem (that could have been cured by careful color-grading, or more simply just tamping the entire timeline to black-and-white).  As a supplement to the main front screen, projection designer Kevin Frech also creates a video floor from a ceiling projection that sparingly but effectively adds a less representational atmosphere, at key moments in the narrative.

Based upon the same-named book by Tom Philpott, Glory Denied is a morally complex opera that ultimately dignifies its subject, of suffering military men and women, by avoiding easy outcomes.  (Compare that, for example, to the cheap rage of The Tillman Story.)  Cipullo cleverly devises the two-person drama into four characters, who represent the younger and older versions of Thompson and Alice.  We see the longing and the optimism of the young couple unfolding just as surely as we watch the later unraveling of their relationship.  (Notably, film director Terrence Malick masterfully explored this dichotomy between idealized memory, and heartbreaking truth, using his idiomatic visual poeticism in The Thin Red Line.)  One effect of this antiphony is that our sympathies are equally drawn to the before and the after -- an important device for clarifying (ironically) the moral ambiguity of the Vietnam War era.  Cipullo’s execution in this way is deft:  after a challenging first half of the opera that begs for clean songwork, an aria finally arrives that is probably the most lush and beautiful of the evening, when Alice sings something to the effect of, “After I’ve had my say…”  She is warning her husband, when he has returned after nearly a decade away, that things have changed -- that she has betrayed him.  The outrage that Thompson feels is so much larger than that betrayal; in the opera’s most powerfully terse passage, Chioldi sings with his thundering baritone of the way that the world has changed since he left.  It is a litany of complaints that seems at first like a script of Conservative talking points; and yet, it might only sound that way to this majority society so slowly desensitized to the erosion of one thing and another over a decade of American life.  The opera poses this question, of who has the better insight into truth (past a poisonous relativism that defines our hyper-democratized culture), between the one who slowly tolerates this erosion, and the one whose view of society suspends for nearly a decade, expecting that nothing really changes.  And thus, in this way, Glory Denied goes to the heart of one timeless dilemma for veterans, who return from war to a different country than the one they left, in sacrifice to it.  There is a moment in the opera when the wrenching sadness of this dilemma seems to be headed for a clean reconciliation, when Thompson tenderly offers forgiveness to Alyce for leaving him while away.  In a pitch-perfect twist, she stands him down with bitter cruelty.  Wisely, Cipullo (presumably following Philpott’s lead) ends the opera without redemption for anyone, a crisis amplified by the religious tenor of the final scenes.  (Earlier in the opera, a cerebral setting of the 23rd Psalm anticipates this unresolved yearning for the divine.)  Structurally, there is an unexpected and powerfully serene denouement in the form of a musical interlude, a duet between the pianist and cellist Drew Owen.  After that, we are merely left with the vision of Thompson as a man forever haunted by the past, of falling in love, losing her, and losing himself.  As an interpretive possibility for myself, I like the way that the mystery of the divine might be the one thing left for Thompson.  It intensifies the drama and invites something more than the visceral pointlessness of war.  But we are left to ourselves for that thought, and what we cannot ever escape is the fact that we remain a warring species.  Recently I came across a video via acquaintance in the local filmmaker community that elegantly (if not melodramatically) depicts the solemn dignity of official ceremonies for our lost Marines at Arlington National Cemetery.  Embedded below, it is in service to the daily opportunity we have as Americans to honor the men and women who put their lives on the line, and lose them for our sake.

btemplates