Nobody is in the usual comfort zones in Opera Philadelphia's Festival O18 – and that's why they're here.

Star mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sings tenor in male drag in the three-night cabaret Queens of the Night. Patricia Racette daringly has the stage to herself in sustaining the narrative of Ne Quittez Pas, playing a romantically abandoned suicidal woman.

Veteran divas Marietta Simpson and Frederica von Stade emerge from semiretirement to premiere an opera about Alzheimer's disease titled Sky on Swings by Lembit Beecher.

This cluster of talent wouldn't leave safety behind without often-unexpected benefits. For Von Stade, 73, playing an Alzheimer's patient in a world premiere means she need not fear comparisons with earlier years as a rambunctious Mozartean: "When you sing a really hideous note, you can say, 'Well, what do you expect? If you lived what these vocal cords have been through, you'd crack too…' "

Marietta Simpson (left) and Frederica von Stade will appear in “Sky on Swings,” part of the O18 opera festival.
Dominic M. Mercier/Opera Philadelphia
Marietta Simpson (left) and Frederica von Stade will appear in “Sky on Swings,” part of the O18 opera festival.

Though historically known for artistic conservatism, Philadelphia has become a blissfully less-pressured place for large-scale risk-taking. The 24-performance O18 festival, in theaters throughout Center City Sept. 20-30, offers recontextualizing twists even in what looks traditional:

  • Donizetti's famous study in operatic madness, Lucia di Lammermoor, is reimagined as a shadowy, hallucinatory expressionistic world by director Laurent Pelly, whose international acclaim has come mainly from his work in comedies.
  • Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo typically sings at the opposite ends of the chronological spectrum in operas by Georg Frederic Handel and Philip Glass. But at O18, arias from both are cheek-by-jowl in his Glass Handel production — with a full visual component billed as "an immersive theater experience, opera, music, art, dance, film, fashion." One of his collaborators is filmmaker James Ivory.
  • The populist outdoor Opera on the Mall video presentation isn't Mozart or Puccini, but We Shall Not Be Moved, a hip-hop opera from the 017 festival reflecting on the infamous 1985 MOVE bombing.

The festival has a potentially global reach. Costanzo's Glass Handel will move to St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York in November. The Vienna State Opera claims the Lucia di Lammermoor production for next year, though Pelly jumped at the opportunity to create the production first at the Academy of Music with one of his favorite sopranos, Brenda Rae. "I would be able to develop my ideas with greater comfort and ease," he said.

Scenes from a festival in progress

Opera Philadelphia general director and president David Devan likes to think of the festival as an artists’ colony of sorts. It certainly feels that way with all the singers, directors, and such that he runs into while making his way down 15th Street, where the Opera Philadelphia offices, the Kimmel Center, and the Academy of Music (plus the bars where they hang out) are within a few blocks. “You have to plan for an extra 20 minutes,” he said.

Each production has its own backstage story full of creative chemistry among artists and their eagerness to explore what might lie beyond whatever niche the opera industry has put them in.

Opera Philadelphia music director Corrado Rovaris is a key collaborator in Pelly's transition from fast-paced comedy to a more expansively dramatic Lucia di Lammermoor, in shadowy, foggy, snowy, horror-movie black and white — not a love story but one portraying the mentally unstable title character in a power struggle between suitor and family.

"In order to give life to a big old-fashioned work, one needs movement and action and feeling and thought instilled in them," Pelly said. "These are the monsters — these traditional operas. It's important to make sure the singers don't fall into conventions like standing and singing."

Meanwhile, soprano Racette — with a 25-year performing career still going strong in major U.S. opera houses — has started a directing career. And somewhat in that spirit, she's collaborating with director James Darrah in what started as a staging of Poulenc's La voix humaine and that has evolved into Ne Quittez Pas, with promises of a substantial video component.

As yet undeveloped, this is perhaps the festival's biggest question mark. "The piece is going to find its soul here, in real time," Devan said.

Anthony Roth Costanzo in “Written on Skin” with soprano Lauren Snouffer.
Kelly & Massa / Opera Philadelphia
Anthony Roth Costanzo in “Written on Skin” with soprano Lauren Snouffer.

Opera singers are taking control of their fates as never before — with O18 support. Performing Written on Skin with Opera Philadelphia in February, countertenor Costanzo offered Devan three options for O18, including two previously produced updates of Gluck and Handel works. Devan chose the one that existed mostly in Costanzo's head at that time — a theatrical version of his forthcoming Decca Gold-label album Glass Handel.

>> WATCH: In a clip from TV's "Articulate," Costanzo talks about singing as a countertenor — and does some subway singing

Since then, Costanzo has raised the $400,000 budget and employed the multimedia company Visionaire to create something of an art installation around the album's repertoire, which Costanzo will perform with two orchestras. Part of the package is numerous videos made by Costanzo's artist friends. Ivory's contribution is one of them.

Devan  and  Bearded Ladies cabaret cofounder John Jarboe  brought together mezzo-soprano Blythe  and drag artist Dito van Reigersberg (aka Martha Graham Cracker) in Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night. It was a huge audience success in February 2017 and too much of a life-changer for Blythe (right down to the way she walks on stage) to end there.

For Queens of the Night, two added episodes in the adventures of Martha and Blythe's alter ego Blythely Oratonio are being hatched in an improvisatory process not often found in opera.

The stories are about alienation and intimacy. "Why does an opera company need this piece? Well, we as people need this piece," Blythe said. "If we don't make art that's essential to everyone, we're going to die… it is life and death."

Alzehimer’s as opera

Sky on Swings could fall into that category. But is Alzheimer's disease is anything to sing about?

"Any subject can be done in opera," Von Stade said. "The more essential it is to our hearts and minds, the better. That's very much where opera is going today. Opera tells a story that words do not.

"Opera blurs the line between the exterior and the internal," she said. And this piece tries to get inside the minds of two characters who have Alzheimer's.

One of Opera Philadelphia's first composers in residence, Beecher admits the initial responses to the Alzheimer's idea were hesitant. Would there be doctors in lab coats? Families in agony?

But Beecher knew how patients bond among themselves, with strangers rather than family. Relationships became the key to his opera.

Tragedy is curiously absent. "When you're the person living the disease, what you're experiencing is in the moment," said Simpson, "and there's not necessarily sadness."

It's also far from the youth-oriented 017 festival — as well as from the 12 new projects in development for future festivals. "People see our festival as a journey rather than a destination. They don't want each festival to look the same," Devan said. "There is no 'new normal.' "


Opera Philadelphia Festival O18

    • Through Sept. 20-30 at various Center City venues. Tickets: $25-$275 for individual performances (Opera on the Mall free with advance registration), $925 for opening weekend pass. Information: 215-732-8400 or