UrbanArias’ ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ is a glorious spoof of grand opera

The world premiere comedy about small town life in the South came and went in a flash, leaving laughter, applause, and hopes for a revival in its wake.

“Opera is expensive,” remarked Susan Derry, UrbanArias’ board president, when I asked her, at the opening, why there were so few performances of Why I Live at the P.O., the world premiere opera that ran a week at the Keegan.

“Short runs are an economic necessity,” she laughed ruefully, pointing out that even a handful of performances can cost a lot. “UrbanArias is nonprofit, but we believe in hiring the best talent around and compensating accordingly.”

That said—and despite its brief run—the show, like all the company’s commissions, is a glorious spoof of grand opera, mixing the familiar and funny with touches of farce to create something that is both entertaining and accessible.

In fact, according to Stephen Eddins—the composer and co-author, with Michael O’Brien, of the libretto—the opera draws on a range of musical styles, including film scores of the 1940s. There are echoes of Southern gospel along with hints of jazz, blues, big band, and even classical.

Why I Live at the P.O. is based on a short story by Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author whose work illuminated life in the Deep South. It was first published in 1941.

Emily Pulley as Sister I in ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ Photo by Nicholas Karlin.

Set in the tiny town of China Grove, Mississippi, the opera begins with the narrator—Sister I, who has taken up residence at the P.O.—explaining how she got there.

“I was getting along fine,” she sings, describing her life in China Grove, where she was the official postmistress, living at home with her multigenerational family before the trouble began.

Lyric soprano Emily Pulley fills the role with gusto as she belts out her tale of woe. It was all brought on, she sings, by the arrival—on the Fourth of July of all days!—of Stella-Rondo, the attention-seeking younger sister who had run off two years earlier with a photographer named “Mr. Whitaker.” (Sister, it should be noted, has been robbed twice, first of her Christian name, then of her suitor, who happens to have been the very same man.)

Pulley invests the role with a robust sense of self-pity. Standing, Valkyrie-like, in the post office, wearing hair rollers and a sensible robe, Sister I has a right to be pissed. Not only has she been jilted, but her nemesis—who bursts into the family home in a sultry red dress with a matching straw hat—has come back, carrying a suitcase and a large baby.

Sister II—the kinder, gentler (and wholly imaginary) version of the narrator—is played to perfection by Kyaunnee Richardson, a gifted singer and actor who projects innocence with such fervor that one expects to see a halo burst out of her head. A lyric soprano with an exceptionally pure voice, Richardson has an astonishing range, extending from coloratura to mezzo.

Melissa Wimbish is rapturous in the role of Stella-Rondo, the wanton woman who, we are told, ran off with Sister’s man. Now she’s back, with a child she insists is adopted, although—as the narrator points out—the infant looks like a member of the family. (The child, named “Shirley T” for the movie star who captivated audiences during the 1930s and ’40s, is played by a large doll.)

Melissa Wimbish as Stella-Rondo and Kyaunnee Richardson as Sister II in ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ Photos by Nicholas Karlin.

Stella-Rondo tells lies. Specifically, she tells lies about Sister, reporting that the latter has made some very cutting remarks, such as suggesting that Papa-Daddy, the grandfather and pater familias of the household, should cut off his beard, implying that the baby is not really adopted, and insinuating that sweet Uncle Rondo “looks funny” when he wears a flimsy kimono.

Gradually, in Sister’s telling of the tale, the family is united against her, forcing her to retreat, first, Cinderella-style, to the kitchen, and ultimately to the Post Office, where she sets up house, singing of the injustice of it all as she proceeds to make—and eat—pickles.

While Sister sees herself as the only hardworking person in the family, it is really Mama who runs the show. Played by Alissa Anderson to great comic effect—sporting harlequin glasses and a wrap-around apron—Mama, a contralto, is highly manipulative. Yet she is taken in completely by the hussy who’s taken over the house. And she’s crazy about the baby.

When Sister suggests that the child might be unable to talk, Mama and Stella-Rondo immediately erupt in a passionate chorus of “Oh, Oh, Poor Shirley T!” 

Eric McKeever as Papa-Daddy and Alissa Anderson as Mama in ‘Why I Live at the P.O.’ Photos by Nicholas Karlin.

The grandfather, whose formality suggests a link to a more dignified past, is Papa-Daddy. Played by Eric McKeever, he pulls himself up to a towering height when he roars at a cowering Sister, in full bass-baritone voice, “WHO? WHO? WHO?…GOT YOU THAT JOB AT THE P.O.?” (It’s a rhetorical question. He did, of course.)

The answer, however, roared back from a fearful quartet, is “NEVER…NEVER…NEVER…WILL HE CUT OFF THIS BEARD!”

Rounding out the story is Uncle Rondo, played by Ian McEuen, a “character tenor” who is a classic buffoon and one of the funniest singers around. A “certified pharmacist” who takes his whiskey from a medicine vial, Uncle Rondo brings down the house when the alcohol kicks in and—wearing Stella-Rondo’s pink kimono—he crashes to the floor, singing “I’m Poisoned.”

“You’re making me dizzy as a witch,” he cries as the rest of the family dance around his prostrate form. “Please slow down!”

 “Something perfectly HORRIBLEhas happened,” Sisters I and II sing in a duet that portends the worst. Tempers flare and fireworks, literally, erupt. The end is nigh.

Sister I, drawing herself up much like a comic Medea, joins forces with her imaginary self to sing the final duet, a poignant lament with piano and flute, called “The Very Last Time.

Much of the success of Why I Live at the P.O. stems from Dennis Whitehead Darling’s direction, which keeps the characters moving even as the action shifts from room to room, upstairs and down, and back to the post office, all on a tiny stage.

There are hints of Feydeau as members of the cast slam in and out of the two doors, one on each side of the set. And while this is opera, where sound is paramount, the performance, overall, is highly visual. (One of the funniest bits, without song or dialog, is the scene where Mama helps herself to a shot of whiskey. While hers is from a bottle stored openly in the kitchen, she drinks it, like Uncle Rondo, from a coffee cup.)

Brian Ruggaber has designed a set that takes us back and forth, between the post office where Sister presides—and irons her dresses between arias—and the house she left behind. On the opposite side of the stage, there is a hammock, suggesting a porch; a kitchen; and, right next to it, front and center, a large table where the family gathers for treats like biscuits and ketchup.

A flight of stairs leads up to the bedrooms. One of the wittiest elements upstairs is a set of windows, cleverly cut into the banister, allowing the sisters to sing their separate songs of rage while searching the landscape beyond, presumably for the missing Mr. Whitaker.

The set is festooned with American flags, signifying that it is the Fourth of July, a big day in China Grove. In addition to the flags, Paul Peers has coordinated a collection of props that embellish the story at every turn.

At the P.O., there is an almost unnerving display of domestic and postal necessities, including a coffee pot, an iron, a scale; a sewing machine; piles of packages and letters that appear to be unsorted; the ironing board and a large 1940’s radio. Everywhere, there are jars of pickles and preserves.

Not to be outdone, Austin Blake Conlee has created a collection of fabulous ’40s-style outfits, beginning with Stella-Rondo’s movie-star dresses and robes.

Offering a stark contrast are Sister I’s sensible cotton house dresses, alternating with a high-necked flannel nightgown, creating an image of dowdiness incarnate. Sister II, on the other hand, is adorned in the primmest pastels, topped with lacy aprons so that she resembles the maid in a high-class household. Mama has her motherly apron, stained from the cooking she actually does. Papa-Daddy is all decked out—even at breakfast—in a formal three-piece suit and tie, while Uncle Rondo, who is the clown of the piece, looks like a clown.

Tao Wang’s lighting is highly effective in separating time and space, spotlighting different performers and shifting easily from scene to scene.

All in all, this production was perfectly cast, expertly staged, and very cleverly written. However, the music—beautifully written and performed by the 9-piece Inscape Chamber Orchestra—overwhelmed the lyrics, making it impossible to make out the words of the libretto unless they were sung acapella or in recitative.

At the opening, I asked the composer, Stephen Eddins, how the opera came about. “I first came across the story at college,” he replied, “and it was the funniest, most poignant, and bittersweet story I’d ever read. Having grown up in the South, I found the characters recognizable and real. I understood them. I wanted to see them on stage. And I could imagine what they would sing.”

Eddins met the librettist, Michael O’Brien, 22 years ago when both were enrolled in a workshop at Toronto’s Tapestry Opera. The two began writing the score a year later, but it languished, incomplete, for more than two decades, waiting for a company to produce it.

Enter UrbanArias. The group, founded in 2010 by Robert Wood—now its artistic director and conductor—has produced more than 25 operas since. This is their 13th world premiere.

Wood and Derry, the board president, met at Northwestern University, where both were studying opera and have been close friends ever since. (Both, needless to say, have day jobs. His is conducting other, larger orchestras, while hers is singing in musicals. In fact, she is right now playing the witch in Into the Woods, which opened this week at Creative Caldron.)

UrbanArias has been housed at the Keegan Theatre since January 2020, the same year that the company hired Anne-Carolyn Bird as its first executive director.

Next up at UrbanArias, according to Bird, is a revival of Unknown, an original song cycle commissioned in honor of the centennial of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It will be screened during the Memorial Day weekend.

Running time: 70 minutes, with no intermission.

Why I Live at the P.O. ran from April 30 to May 7, 2022, presented by UrbanArias performing at the Keegan Theatre, 1742 Church Street NW, Washington, DC. For information on future Urban Arias events, click here.

The program for Why I Live at the P.O. is online here.

Why I Live at the P.O. credits

Music by Stephen Eddins
Libretto by Michael O’Brien with Stephen Eddins
Based on the short story by Eudora Welty
Commissioned by UrbanArias
Directed by Dennis Whitehead Darling
Music conducted by Robert Wood and performed by members of the Inscape Chamber Orchestra

Sister I: Emily Pulley
Sister II: Kyaunnee Richardson
Stella-Rondo: Melissa Wimbish
Uncle Rondo: Ian McEuen
Papa-Daddy: Eric McKeever
Mama: Alissa Anderson


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