Paul’s Case Makes a Case for Small Opera

I started to write a formal review of the opera I saw over the weekend, with everything a reviewer should say about the music, the staging, the singing and acting, and then I stopped and deleted it because if that’s what you want then you can read the Washington Post.

Paul's Case

What I really want to say is what I’m starting to find so appealing about compact opera.

The opera was Paul’s Case, the latest production from DC opera start-up Urban Arias, whose slogan is “Opera.  Short.  New.”  I had seen one of their earlier productions which, frankly, left me less than impressed, but I’m glad I gave the company a second chance, becuase this world premier opera by Gregory Spears proved just how big opera can get when you keep it small.

Here are some things that I liked about Paul’s Case:

  • The way it was staged on a sort of runway through the center of Artisphere’s black box theater, with the audience seated on either side added a dimension of Hunger Games style voyeurism.  You see the faces of your fellow audience members across the room as you all watch the title character burn hot and fast and, ultimately, up.
  • Three women play three of Paul’s teachers, as well as three maids in the Waldorf Astoria, and also a sort of Greek chorus setting the stage, commenting on the action, and creating the train whistle effect which is integral to the story.  They are  a sort of jury in Act 1, then accessory to the crime and perhaps even executioner in Act 2.
  • The singing was very good, but not at the expense of anything else.
  • The sparse set which included just a few pieces of furniture and a series of industrial looking lamps which hung low over the performers heads lent a sense of practical frugality which contrasted with Paul’s longing for a life of art, beauty and pleasure.  And, I expect, kept Urban Aria’s budget small which brings me to my final point:

In a world where there is sadly too little arts funding to go around, opera companies should be following Urban Arias lead in doing more with less.  By choosing to perform new works, they are helping to perpetuate what too many journalists keep calling a dated or dying art.  They are providing a service to the community by keeping ticket prices low.  They are employing young, and up and coming performers.

And one more thing, it’s something I’ve noticed every time I’ve attended a performance of this kind, the small audience was utterly engaged.  People don’t buy tickets to an event like this so that they can be noticed by the Washington elite, or to impress  their new girlfriends.  They don’t show up because they feel like they ought to like Verdi in order to be respected by their fellow intellectuals.

People who come to shows like the ones being produced by Urban Arias do so because they love art.  They want to see what new idea is being presented and how, and they might love it and they might hate it or they might find it sort of lukewarm, but they are there and they are watching and listening with their whole minds and they are discussing it over drinks afterward.

Isn’t that the sort of audience we really want?

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