In an election year, especially in this town, it’s unavoidable that the arts should turn to politics for fodder. That fodder can be dramatic or comedic, but it’s usually the latter: See, for example, Red Hot Patriot at Arena Stage or The Campaign in any movie theater. Why should opera be any different—even if much of it predates super PACs and push polls?
But it would be tough to adapt, say, Tosca-—political though it may be—-to the New Hampshire primary. So UrbanArias, a local company that specializes in small-scale, contemporary, and experimental operas, offers an alternative. Photo Op is their contribution to our seasonal buffet of election farces. It’s also a mixed production that is daring in style but all too familiar in material.
The action revolves around two characters: Congressman Sam Sawyer, who is running for president, and his wife, Marian, joined by an ensemble of voters, reporters, and campaign staffers. The casting feels right, and it doesn’t hurt that baritone Michael Mayes, all hair, chin, and grin, bears a more than passing resemblance to Mitt Romney. Yet Photo Op is less a fully realized story than a series of vignettes, tenuously strung together without exposition or development. There’s Sam posing with veterans. Now he’s answering questions on Twitter. Now he’s holding a press conference. The fact that it’s presented in song form makes Photo Op unique to political theater, but there’s no narrative to present. Instead, James Siena’s libretto consists of a handful of sound bytes repeated over and over by the principals (“spin control spin control spin control”). The printed libretto, we are told, is just two pages long. Forget Nixon in China; there’s more plot in a Capitol Steps parody of Justin Bieber.
As Sam and Marian, Mayes and soprano Laurie Williamson are solid, though nearly overwhelmed by the demanding material. Mayes has some trouble with the lower register, and both race to keep up with Conrad Cummings’ sadistically rapid-fire score, requiring them to sing in precision staccato bursts. But if the duets are a bit exasperating both for them and the audience, it’s the stage action—particularly the dance numbers choreographed by Lucy Bowen McCauley—that really keeps things humming. Both Mayes and Williamson prove to be able dancers, and one voter-outreach scene of frenzied baby-kissing is terrifically fun.
It’s also terrifically predictable. It’s hard to imagine a joke more obvious than politicians kissing babies. Sure enough, there’s the requisite sex scandal and by the end, Sam and Marian are literally wrapped in an American flag. UrbanArias’ producer/conductor Robert Wood notes that, although Siena and Cummings wrote Photo Op in 1989, “the immediacy of this opera 20 years later is uncanny.” That’s because it’s so clichéd. Maybe we should blame the politicians more than the librettist; they are, after all, the ones who keep getting caught in their zippers. It’s tough to write political satire that’s at all original—unless the scandal involves a gay prostitute or meth dealer or something. But even that barely raises an eyebrow anymore.
The opera repeats Friday, Sept. 14 and Saturday, Sept. 15 at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd. Arlington. 60 min. $22. 888-841-2787.