In a windowless rehearsal room in the Theatre on the Run building in Shirlington, Virginia a suggestion of “bra shopping” gets shouted out as an activity for a scene. Performer Ian McEuan gives a smirk and you can almost see the wheels in his nimble mind start to spin. Director and piano player Robert Wood laughs and tells him to, “Do what you feel and we’ll tell you if we think it’s vulgar.” McEuan’s improv scene partner Peter Tomaszewski jumps up to join him, Wood begins to play an upbeat tune on the piano, and their hilarious improvised scene between two men on a earnest shopping spree for bras for themselves commences. For a traditional improv game, this two person scene involving a cheeky premise would seem simple and silly enough, but try performing the whole scene in song. Not just any goofy made-up song, but an opera, with professionally trained voices.
This show premise is exactly what Urban Aria‘s Opera Improv troupe does so very well. The group is comprised of four players: the previously mentioned McEuan and Tomaszewski along with Melissa Wimbish and Britt Olsen-Ecker. These four are true triple threats: professional operatic voices, very quick wits, and true team players.
Urban Arias has been around for the past eight years. Their mission is to bring contemporary opera (work created within the past forty years) to new audiences. There’s a preconceived, stereotypical notion of opera: Rich, elderly audiences watching the fat lady belting out a song in Italian. Urban Arias wants to challenge that antiquated idea and make opera accessible and appealing to people who may not see it as something fun to do with their Saturday night. Opera Improv certainly busts through that cliche about stodgy opera. It also breaks apart tired ideas about improv comedy.
In big cities like D.C., improv troupes are as ubiquitous as co-working spaces. Even if audiences have avoided sitting through a friend’s improv show, hearing about improv is almost unavoidable. The successful network television show Whose Line is it Anyway? popularized improv among viewers who may never have heard of Upright Citizens’ Brigade or The Groundlings. Recent movies like Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice and FX’s You’re the Worst make out improv groups to places of backbiting competitiveness over who gets the biggest laugh. With the popularity of improv, it becomes hard to see a way to make even an unscripted show feel fresh. Opera Improv achieves that by mixing highly-trained singing skills with approachable, relatable humor.
Robert Woods says the current foursome came together through auditioning for various Urban Arias mainstage productions over the years. He always looked out for the possibility of opera performers being able to do a show like this. “[I wanted] to see if was in their wheelhouse. It’s just a different skill set,” he says, gathering the team to warm up before practicing some of the games they’ll do during their show.
The team camaraderie and chemistry is apparent during their warm-up process. If there was still any notion this was an uptight, fussy ensemble it’s quirkily dispelled during a word association game where the words “breakfast,” “sausage,” “dick,” “big,” and “Will Ferrell” are thrown out in quirk succession. Where opera may seem stuck in people’s minds as something from the 16th century, in this rehearsal space the songs and humor feel very current. There are lots of laughs and dirty jokes and riffs on the Fergie National Anthem performance debacle thrown around. They easily flow into a soundscape warm-up where they use their voices to create sense of place. A suggestion of “U Street on a Saturday night” is thrown out and the troupe begins to build a recognizable atmosphere of ambient city noises, mixed with beatboxing, and singing that could easily from U Hall or Tropicalia. With their minds, bodies, and voices flexible and ready the group then throws themselves into performing some of the games they’ll do at one of their five shows this year.
While one of their games, “first line/last line,” is a game cribbed from regular improv troupes (and one of the performers mentions a moment in Who’s Line… while talking through ways to play the game), there’s an extra element of surprise when operatic song is added to the mix. An audience member shouts out a random first line of a scene and another offers a last line. The scene partners have to get from one line to the other through song. Wood reminds them that “form is really important. [The audience needs] to see a beginning, middle, and end.” Not only do they need to think about making jokes but also coherent storytelling all through song. Ian and Peter are game for the challenge as they tackle a scene of two men going bra shopping that somehow ends with Peter singing “this carpet is so soft.”
Where the opera part of the show’s name really shines is during a game called “Emotional Arias.” It’s a wordless game where the audience shouts out a one-word emotion and the performer has to express that through song with no lyrics. It’s a real showcase for these performers expansive and nimble voices. Robert also gets to show off his improvisational skills on the piano as he accompanies them on the fly. Melissa tackles “surprise” with emotion, humor, and real vocal power. This team is so tight that they even find ways to rib each other good-naturedly with pointed suggestions. When Melissa suggests “humiliation by e-mail” to Britt, the group breaks out in knowing laughter. Britt shrugs off the joke to perform the emotion that feels authentic and self deprecating. It’s this ability to laugh at oneself and then be able to turn that into a gorgeously sung moment that makes Opera Improv stand out. Even with the beauty of opera, the group’s priority is still that their audience has fun. “People need something positive to focus their attention on,” Peter says, right before he performs the emotion “saucy” with a mischievous glint in his eye.
Urban Arias Opera Improv is next performing at AMP at Strathmore on Sunday, May 10th at 8pm. Tickets are now on sale here.