Sunday, November 13, 2016

Looking for Wolfie in Outer Space

Heartbeat Opera Drag Benefit
Queens of the Night: Mozart in Space
National Sawdust, Williamsburg
October 31, 2016

Queens of the Night
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
On Halloween night, Heartbeat Opera held its annual drag extravaganza benefit, an event traditionally used by this young company both as a fundraiser and a “gateway drug” to introduce young opera virgins to the artform. While this is a noble cause, I was concerned that Wolfie may get too dumbed down in this format. I should not have worried, because we were in for a delicious surprise: the whole show was a sparkly, absurd, irreverent, playful pastiche but also grounded by a very clever setting and concept.

Ready for lift off. Heartbeat gonna take you higher!
Photo credit: Jill Steinberg
National Sawdust looks like a spaceship so why not set the show as a futuristic quest for Mozart in outer space? Constanze Mozart’s voiceover narrates the action by interacting with “Robot” (dancer and choreographer Emma Crane Jaster). As we “take off,” the ensemble (donning wigs, sparkly outfits, extreme makeup and high heels irrespective of gender) played the explosive and boiling overture from Così fan tutte, while Robot very cutely and slowly moved back and forth to simulate space movement. And of course the musicians were led by Captain Ashworth and Captain Schlosberg (the brilliant co-music directors of Heartbeat Opera, in tails and sequins, respectively).

The parade of planets
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Once we were in outer space, a series of aliens and other odd characters in some futuristic space gear make their entrance. First up, an astronaut in an all-silver outfit (baritone Taylor Ward), singing Papageno's introductory aria from Die Zauberflote, waves an old school phone with a curly-cue cord as he scans extraterrestrial life (with digital sounds courtesy of pianist Dan Schlosberg) instead of the traditional “flute” in the score.

Robot and Papageno look for the cosmic creative spirit
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
He is then followed by a very angry creature sporting a colorful mohawk, a geometric black and white bodysuit caged in a wire corset and a healthy dose of raging vengeance (mezzo Kristin Gornstein). She is an upset Donna Anna and of course is singing Ah, chi mi dici mai (with the astronaut playing both the Don and Leporello).

Kristin Gornstein
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Two mellower lady aliens enter next (sopranos Jamilyn Manning-White and Marie Marquis), arms linked like Siamese twins and sinuously moving around while they deliver Nozze’s Canzonetta sull’aria, with ethereal and enchanting effects, so much that the Constanze voice observes, “That was beautiful, we must be very close [to Wolfie].” The four aliens then engage in a lovely ensemble rendition of Così’s Soave sia il vento all while gracefully carrying around sparkly balloons (representing planets?).

The journey continues as we are introduced to yet more characters. We’re back in Zauberflote land when a very muscular yet lurex-dress donning Pamino (tenor Jordan Weatherstone Pitts) is chased by a spectacular and scary Drag-ooon (get it?) and then poked and prodded at by the three petulant lady aliens (and a deadpan-faced Robot). The ensuing vignette was a hilarious Papageno-Papagena duet between the astronaut and one of the alien ladies, who engage in some sort of strange sexual interaction that climaxes with the joining of elbows (instead of the traditional bird-like groping). Welcome to outer space!

The elbow sex is fantastic
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Next, in a stroke of genius, the cross-dressed Pamino delivers a Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio in his regular tenor voice. By having a man dressed like a woman sing with a tenor voice this aria that is traditionally sung by a woman dressed like a man with a mezzo voice, Heartbeat embodied the extravagant and irreverent spirit of opera (and of drag shows) in the most subtle yet effective of ways.

A space-age Queen of the Night then makes a dramatic entrance with her Dragoon creature and breaks havoc delivering her showstopper Der Hölle Rache, effectively knocking out all of the characters on stage and inducing wild cheers from the public.

To me, however, the revelation of the evening, the moment when time truly stopped was what followed the Königin der Nacht. The stage was dark, all the characters had passed out on the floor due to intergalactic interference, and some indistinct static music erupted from the orchestra. Suddenly, an alien holding a sax (Michaël Attias) slowly walks in and the music morphs into Mozart’s Requiem, while the alien starts playing a jazz rendition of the Lacrymosa movement. Using an alto sax in place of the original chorus voices was the happiest of choices, with a delivery that was surprisingly intimate, expressive and utterly moving.

Requiem for an alien
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
This is what Heartbeat does best, making you think about classics from a different and most visceral angle, even in the midst of a playful drag show. Also, pairing Wolfie with jazz is not as absurd as it may sound, as the composer was known for his improvisational skills, and isn’t jazz all about Mozartian riffing? I found the Lacrymosa choice particularly meaningful within the evening’s plot of looking for Mozart in space, since this is one of the Requiem parts that was left incomplete.

After such a magnificent moment, it seemed like the team ran out of Mozart juices as the show shifted inexplicably to a lip-sync rendition of  Puccini’s Nessun Dorma by the Dragoon (Taurean Everett) channeling Aretha Franklin. Which was spectacular, yes, but had little to do with the rest of the narrative. The evening then quickly wrapped up with some nice remarks about Wolfie’s genius being based on love and Mozart’s particles fluctuating all around us.

The show was a heartfelt homage to Wolfie with a dash of irreverence, yes, but also freshness, fun and musical as well as theatrical competence. In a way, I enjoyed far more this drag version of Mozart’s greatest hits than the star-studded but uninspired Illuminated Heart show at Mostly Mozart back in August. Heartbeat confirmed once again its knack for distilling opera to its joyous and visceral essence, and we cannot wait to see their take on Butterfly and Carmen later in the Spring.  

– Lei & Lui

Cherubino gets more than a make over
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
Dragoon channels the Queen of Soul
Photo credit: Russ Rowland
The fundraiser: a call for money
Photo credit: Russ Rowland

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