Robert Wood, founder of UrbanArias opera company, believes that new opera presented in smaller venues using nominal forces at reasonable ticket prices can be successful. Last weekend (4/14/12) he was proved right, with a solid premiere of “Positions 1956,” commissioned by the DC-based group from composer Conrad Cummings and librettist Michael Korie.
“Positions 1956” uses various 1950’s instructional manuals, all dealing with “positions” (sexual, physical exercise, partner-dancing) as source material for a three-part 90-minute musical theater work that follows a year in the life of a newly-wed couple, capturing the end of post-war American idealism as it gives way to the looming uncertainty of the 1960’s. The work has an appealing semi-narrative structure. There’s an overall sense of going from point A to point B, but with a distinctly non-narrative feel as various series of positions are explored. Part 1 “Marriage Manual” features 13 songs/numbers that deal with sexual positions (“Sideways,” “Doggie and Astride,” “Anal Intercourse”). Part 2 “Physique” uses various exercises as its structural elements (“Washboard Abs,” “Leg Extension”), and Part 3 “Social Dancing” is organized around a series of dances, starting with the tango, and ending with a hint of rock-and-roll.
Cummings’ music uses repetitive structures to great effect, deftly combining minimalist gestures with historical nods to Baroque music, marches and military music, and popular dance forms. There are wonderful musical moments, and some truly creative, funny musical juxtapositions. Yet this is very much a libretto-driven opera, and what the music does best (as good theater music should) is illuminate the lyrics and the drama, and otherwise keep a low profile.
The lyrics by Korie are masterful. There are moments of great poignancy (“Missionary Position” in Part 1, where The Bride, in a dreamy haze, really does “lie on her back and think of England”) and also some hilarious touches (“Doggie” and “Neck Development”). The best of the rhymes rival those of Sondheim. Two that I particularly remember were: “Foreplay: some want less play, and some want more play,” and “Press your dress and shine your shoes, when you’ve got postpartum blues.”
The singers did a good job with parts that were not easy, both musically and physically. The Bride & The Groom (Amedee Moore and Jesse Blumberg) have to romp around in bed while singing, and Blumberg somehow managed to sing while doing pushups. Their characters don’t develop very much, but that seems about right for young newlyweds in 1956: they’re appropriately clueless. The other two characters, both nicely sung by Vale Rideout, are more nuanced and each sad in his own way: the closeted Trainer at the gym, and the could-have-been dancer now Instructor at the Arthur Murray studio. Stage Director Noah Himmelstein put a fine touch on the whole: there was a lot of physical action to be worked out, and it was done well, particularly in a small space that never felt cramped.
Problems? Sure, there were a few. I thought the musicians (violin, cello, one wind player, and electric keyboard) were under-rehearsed. Some of Conrad Cummings’ music is rhythmically very complex, and it didn’t always come out cleanly. While researching this review, I came across a YouTube video of a 1996 performance of “Sitting Position” (a song that appears in Part 1 of the opera) which made me realize how much better this music can sound when played with precision. There was also the issue of amplification: all the singers and musicians were miked and run through a mixer with added effects. Of course the keyboard had to be, but it would have been interesting to hear the others unamplified. I’m just not sure it’s helpful in such a small space, and it’s disconcerting to be sitting six rows away from singers but hear their voices coming from speakers rather than their mouths. That would also have eliminated another problem: the occasional nasty static when the remote mics worn by the singers got caught in their costumes or in the sheets.
But overall, “Positions 1956” is a good work that deserves more performances in coming years. UrbanArias’ first commission is a success.
Previously on MyBigGayEars: