Opera Philadelphia

Director's Note on Queens of the Night

By John Jarboe

Cabaret is form of wish fulfillment. 

In 1881 Paris, when the form first took hold, the cabaret was a space where artists and audiences of all stripes came to experiment, commune, and shed the pretense of high art and high class. Cabaret was space where expectations subverted, different classes mocked and mingled, and old artistic forms became something new. Artists could experiment with saying, composing, and singing what was forbidden or uncouth in more established institutions. And because of the radical permission it granted, we have cabaret to thank for its great influence on artists such as Satie, Debussy, Lautrec, Picasso, and, well, Barbra Streisand.

Stephanie Blythe as Blythely Oratonio Credit: Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

Cabaret also creates a space where the integrity of an art form can be explored out of its typical context and confines. Is an opera singer in a rock club singing Barry Manilow mashed with Tosca still opera? Once it’s happening, do we even care? 

David Devan once defined opera as “virtuosity, the classical voice, and dramatic drive.”  Have you ever heard a bunch of opera singers singing at a piano bar post show? I posit you often get more virtuosity, more voice, and more drama there than on most major stages. With Queens of the Night, we are skipping the show and going straight (or not so straight) to the bar. Stephanie Blythe (Blythely Oratonio) and Dito van Reigersberg (Martha Graham Cracker), are two incredible singers whom you might never expect to share a stage, let alone a rock venue on South Street. Yet, both are virtuosic, both are classy, if not classical, and both are full of drama. Is it still opera? If it fulfills some need of ours to see humans in full voice, vulnerability, and the passion of a story, do we even care? 

Dito van Reigersberg as Martha Graham Cracker Credit: Photo by Dominic M. Mercier

One of the most transformative encounters with opera I’ve had was watching the final room run of Opera Philadelphia’s production of La Traviata featuring Lisette OropesaThere was just a piano, fancy chairs, a ridiculously bloody bed, and some flats on wheels meant to represent walls. The chorus were in their everyday athleisure, sneakers and all. The only one in costume was Lisette. All through the run you could see the chorus in the background checking their music, whispering and intensely watching as Lisette threw herself onto one chaise or another. Occasionally there would be an interjection in a Scottish accent from the director (“be sexier, boys!), or the squeak of a sneaker passing as, all the while, a single pianist did the work of a whole orchestra.  

There was something so magical about all these adults playing make believe in their rehearsal wear, dancing around tiny walls and miming their way through a party scene. All this silliness and humanity contrasted with the utter virtuosic humanity of Lisette’s performance. Watching, I felt like I finally understood what opera was, is, or can be. It took me seeing it out of its normal context, it took me being somewhere where I can shed my expectations for me to get to the heart of the act. Cabaret offers us a chance to see opera without it’s common trappings, to encounter the voice in a totally different relationship.  

So, I invite you to relax, let go of your expectations and prepare yourself for a new kind of opera: Queens of the Night.  

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