The pop opera of UrbanArias

UrbanArias finds "winning combination" to attract new opera fans

“When I founded the company I was looking for things to do that would bring more people into the operatic fold,” says Robert Wood of UrbanArias. Opera is an intimidating and/or prohibitive art form for many, he deduced, and the chief barriers are performance length, language and ticket price. “So when you do it in English, when you keep it under 90 minutes, and when you give them excellent artists for a lot less money than they would spend at the Kennedy Center,” Wood says, “it’s a winning combination.”

Wood, who regularly conducts for established companies including the San Francisco Opera and the Minnesota Opera, has found this “winning combination” to draw in new audiences for the genre by virtue of the four-year-old, Arlington-based UrbanArias, which focuses exclusively on producing short, contemporary operas.

Right now Artisphere hosts the company’s double-bill of two short comic operas by librettist Mark Campbell: Bastianello, based on an Italian folk tale about a wedding, wasted wine and a world of fools and featuring fun Renaissance-styled music by John Musto; and Lucrezia, a Machiavellian tale about the limits of life and love, told in a zarzuela style with Latin flourishes by composer William Bolcom. Directing both operas is the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Alan Paul, who has previously credited UrbanArias for helping inspire his recently acquired passion for opera. And Paul isn’t alone.

“We’ve spawned a lot of interest around the country in doing shorter works, particularly in alternate, intimate spaces,” Wood says, citing recent productions of UrbanArias-originating work at the Fort Worth Opera and at New York’s new “daring opera”-centered Prototype Festival.

Wood has also grown audiences by venturing beyond traditional venues, even beyond traditional marketing — from offering an annual show at the concert club IOTA in Arlington, to the occasional “guerilla opera” approach of  “crashing the open-mic at Busboys & Poets” by handing out flyers for an upcoming production during an impromptu five-minute teaser. “Every time we do those things we get new people to come to our shows,” Wood says, adding: “You really have to put it in front of them. If you do, they like it.”

Bastianello and Lucrezia opens Friday, June 6, at 8 p.m., and runs for five performances this weekend and next at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd. Arlington. Tickets are $25. Call 703-875-1100 or visit artisphere.com or urbanarias.org.

Doug Rule is a theater critic and contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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