Unless, of course, it’s everything that makes you wonder whether the entire world of opera is um . . . maybe not quite right in the head — in which case, you might want to drop by Arlington, where a feisty new company called UrbanArias is tossing out the antiquated conventions of Grand Opera and reinventing the form for 21st-century ears. Starting Friday, the group’s week-long festival at the Artisphere will showcase three new “mini-operas” by young composers that are about as far from “Nabucco” as you can get: short, fast-paced works that deal with modern life, are sung in English, and happily make do with minimal sets and costumes. They’re all being produced in the Artisphere’s intimate 125-seat Black Box Theater, and with seats priced only slightly higher than movie tickets, they’re starting to draw in an eclectic new audience — everyone from opera aficionados to people who wouldn’t sit through “Lohengrin” with a gun to their head.
“We need the big opera companies to be doing the things that only they can do, whether it’s preserving major productions of big works or commissioning $2 million productions of new operas,” says Robert Wood, the founder and all-purpose driving force behind UrbanArias. “But there’s another kind of work that cries out to be seen, and because we’re small, we have a lot of flexibility. We have room to say to our audience: ‘Trust us — and we’ll give you some really amazing stuff.’ ”
Take, for instance, “Positions 1956.” A new, 90-minute opera by composer Conrad Cummings and librettist Michael Korie, “Positions” is the centerpiece of this year’s festival, and with three singers, a bare-bones set and a text drawn largely from self-help manuals from the 1950s, it’s a textbook example of the small-is-beautiful approach. But despite — or maybe because of — its modest forces, “Positions” probes with almost painful intimacy into the social and sexual life of modern America, using a deft balance of drama and sly musical humor.
Forget the antique language of 19th-century opera: The R-rated arias in “Positions” range from the tender “Standing Position” (“Up against the wall/ Is difficult but fun”) to more, shall we say, probing arias whose lyrics have no place in a family newspaper. But the frank sexuality in the piece is handled with subtlety and humor — there’s even a bit of practical advice, sung in a lilting Handelian vein, on how to manage a public erection — and used to explore the complexity of human relationships.
But what makes “Positions 1956” (as well as the two other mini-operas in this year’s festival, “Before Breakfast” by Thomas Pasatieri and Frank Corsaro, and “The Filthy Habit” by Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi) so compelling, says Wood, is not just the contemporary style, but the real issues that new opera is grappling with.