On South Street on Friday night, you could have had your tongue pierced, picked up some new vape juice, or had a tattoo laid down by the inch or the foot.
Or you could have done something truly counterculture: opera.
At the Theatre of Living Arts, a venue that normally plays host to groups like Moose Blood and Tribal Seeds, it was opera night. In an unusual subculture-within-subculture spiral, Opera Philadelphia put together a mash-up that might have been unique.
Real-life opera star Stephanie Blythe shared the stage with Martha Graham Cracker, about whom absolutely nothing is real except perhaps her towering talents. Martha, played by Dito van Reigersberg, is a local drag queen cabaret artist – a 6-foot-something-inch pile from heels to wig with a biting humor and notable humanity in between. Blythe, fresh from Opera Philadelphia’s run of Rossini’s Tancredi at the Academy of Music, is an internationally celebrated mezzo-soprano, more commonly found commanding the stage of the 3,800-seat Metropolitan Opera than intimate rock joints.
The event, billed as “Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night,” was a trial balloon for an annual spring fund-raiser for Opera Philadelphia, and it just broke even. But the company is working toward an ongoing answer to the Academy of Music Anniversary Concert and Ball that would be a good deal more audience-participatory and a great deal edgier. Indisputably, this one was both.
It’s also safe to say that in its four decades, Opera Philadelphia probably never drew a more mixed audience than Friday night’s – an ecstatic brew of gay, straight, millennial, middle-aged, the monied, and young professional. For 90 minutes, or about twice what was planned, the pair of divas carried on, singing songs and trading banter in a drag show written and directed by Bearded Ladies Cabaret artistic director John Jarboe.
Opera of course was the original drag show. Trouser roles in which women sing the roles of men are found in Mozart and Strauss. And please, let us not discuss castrati.
But only rarely is opera as gender-teasing as this show. “We strung together a bunch of songs and made them super-gay,” Martha told the crowd of about 250.
An oversimplification, really. Music director Daniel Kazemi made the musical arrangements, a giddy and often ironic patchwork of material that careened from opera to pop, string quartet to rock band, with no advance warning.
The story, if there was one, is that Martha has fallen hard for Blythley Oratonio, played by Blythe in, yes, a trouser role. They sing to each other from across the room, separated by a crowd that becomes part of the show, as they trade moments of Chopin, Puccini, and Mozart interspersed with any number of double entendre and pop tunes.
Beyond the humor – some of it of the you-had-to-be-there variety, some not fit to print in a family newspaper – the show was remarkable for being able to heighten what makes each of these artists singular. Blythe has the voice. Her sound changed over the course of the night, from a strong tenor in the beginning that really did make you question the gender of the person singing, to soaring mezzo of incredible intensity. From here, Blythe can do anything.
Martha has that drag-queen gift of giving with one hand, while slapping down with the other.
“Blythley,” asks Martha with great love in her voice at one point in their courtship: “Do you have to sing everything you say?”
What good is opera if you can’t make fun of it? And who better to make fun of opera than an opera troupe that, in the last year or two, has been able to put a tremendous gust of momentum behind a 400-year-old art form?
You have to adore any show that includes an immolation scene with backup singers, a Queen of the Night aria sung several octaves lower than written, and the chief of your local opera company opening the evening handing out feather boas and ending it by walking the runway in a silver beehive wig.
Outside afterward, South Street never seemed so tame.