Friday, May 12, 2023

Douglas Messerli | "The Night She Sang Opera in Drag at a Karaoke Bar" (on Stephanie Blythe's performance "Blythely Orantonio in Blythely Ever After")

the night she sang opera in drag at a karaoke bar

by Douglas Messerli


John Jarboe and Stephanie Blythe (writers), John Jarboe (director) Blythely Oratonio in Blythely Ever After / 2020 (TV video)


As part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series at The Appel Room, popular Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe takes on a drag role, one of the many “beards” she’s played throughout her long career, Blythely Oratonio, a somewhat intemperate tenor who she first met while selecting mustaches for one her roles and later encountered again for a full evening at a karaoke bar, in what Blythely describes as one of the best nights of his life. Backed up his band, The Fluffers, his non-gender performing “Birdies” (Messapotamia Lefae and Sav Souza), and his “Flowers” (Hailey McAvoy and Margaret Tigue), Blythely plays a gay man who not only knows his Grindr inside out, but throws out various gay slang terms, some of them so crude that most opera singers might not even whisper them in the dark.


     As critic Brady Schwind observes in BroadwayWorld:


“Bearded, bejeweled, and ready for battle in a Trojan headdress, it's patently clear from his first entrance that Oratonio, in his first American Songbook appearance, like the best of all opera heroes (and antiheroes) will take no prisoners. But lest we forget, tenors are also sensitive, fragile creatures; the inflated symbol of importance in an art form steeped in such an antiquity of tradition, it's continually pegged as a likely candidate for extinction.

…. Such a presentation, at first blush, might be the kind of grand and over the top drag exploitation, you'd expect from (at best) The Box or (at worst) America's Got Talent. Oratonio, with his band The Fluffers, merges expected mind-bending classical vocals with (what's become rather boilerplate) anachronous cross over pop anthems likely on heavy rotation at your local karaoke bar. Imagine Pavoratti doing Rick Springfield's ‘Jessie's Girl’ as a Mozartian baroque and you get the idea of the musical vocabulary and running gag of the evening.”


      As one might expect from such a figure, Blythely goes back in time to tell of his childhood attractions, which elicits “Jessie’s Girl,” to far more broad-minded pursuits, discovering his true self. Early in the hour-long concert and chatfest, Blythely sings passages from Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” that are so perfect I wanted to hear him sing the entire piece, but as he prone to do throughout, he quickly intertwines that work flawlessly with the call of another clown, singing from “Vesti la giubba” by Leoncavallo.

     Barry Manilow’s “Could Be Magic” alternates with Puccini’s “Recondita armonia,” and Delibes’ beautiful flower duet, sung by his “Flowers,” becomes an occasion for several testimonies from celebrities, including Stephanie Blythe herself, as well as the tenor taking a few deserved bows.

     Surprises in Blythely’s choices of music abound, as when he sings, quite stunningly, Toni Tennille’s and Daryl Dragon’s “Gentle Stranger,” and the next moment drifts off into Offenbach’s “Barcarolle.” 

      But despite the musical wonders Blythely calls up, it is often his personal revelations that tug deepest on the heart, particularly when he describes in graphic terms the moment he realized, on the toilet no less, that he could he can no longer “carry an expiring maid while singing a high D.” Elsewhere, Blythe, as herself, has admitted that after menopause, “my voice started moving lower and lower, and I’ve worked to develop this lower range. It’s a natural progression because of hormonal changes, and I’ve chosen not to fight it.”

      And there is throughout Blythe’s Blythely’s choice to explore the sometimes fluid shifts of sex and gender of operatic characters, as Schwind points out, such as the macho Valkyries and the loving male duo of “Nessun Dorma." Blythely’s operatic songbook, indeed, has no reason to exclude a glam rock musician such as David Bowie, whose “Changes” she sings quite admirably, or the opera-loving Freddie Mercury,* who himself pushed his music toward the oratorio. She closes her show, in fact, with his “We Are the Champions,” with the audience’s full knowledge that the “we” of which Blythely sings are far more diverse than the more conservative opera-goers might ever imagine that pronoun to be.

     What I would now truly like to hear is a full night of Blythely singing Broadway tenor solos.


*Mercury first met Spanish opera singer Monserrat Caballé in 1987, and in 1988 released an album with her, Barcelona.


Los Angeles, May 11, 2023

Reprinted from World Cinema Review

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