“I am going to reach out and touch you,“ bellows Martha Graham Cracker the famously “tallest and hairiest drag queen in the world”. And too close she certainly gets to many in the audience who by the end of Opera Philadelphia’s Queens of the Night: Dito and Aeneas have been shaken by a “terrible case of the 4th wall.“ Perhaps the most playful and outrageous set piece of this opera’s company’s 11-day  festival which challenges boundaries, this show upsets expectations, and achieves a whole new level of integration of opera into the contemporary urban landscape.

Queens of the Night: Dito and Aeneas. All images courtesy of Opera Philadelphia

Staged in a rock club, the Theater for Living Arts on the city’s famous South Street, Queens quite literally brings opera straight to the bar, and answers audience’s perennial wonder of what it must be like to just hang out with opera stars when they are having the most fun after the show at the piano bar. This three-night cabaret “Ring cycle of drag, tenors and rock & roll” is in no way lacking in mythic chops, here cleverly filled in by audience participation. Inventive visual puns were everywhere: the Mediterranean Sea separating the ill-fated lovers is filled in by the quasi-mosh pit of the standing floor audience who hold streamers that function quite well for water. And Aeneas, the star of the show and founder of Rome, was probably never before depicted with a Roman Centurion’s helmet made of shiny and droopy black feathers.

As for the set, the glow-in-the-dark zodiac signs all along the walls and ceilings are fitting but updated and are varyingly pornographic. Messages across the sea are sent in an oversized Starbucks cup, perhaps a play on the city of Philadelphia’s battle over a “soda tax” on large sized sugary drinks. Musically supported by a rock band hidden behind a throne on the stage as well as a string quartet on a riser in the middle of the audience, the operatic style takes its turn at fusion with Doo Wop, ukelele swing, Vangelis 80s electronic, until the self-immolation of Dito occurs to the soundtrack of Elvis’ Burning Love while the pop-up balloons you would most often encounter at a used car lot start to erupt around the stage.

Ne Quittez Pas   

If Queens literally ends in festive celebration of radical permission for all involved, Opera Philadelphia’s new company production and premiere of Ne Quittez Pas, a reimagined La Voix Humaine in two parts brings the audience to that more somber moment at the end of the night where the club owner has washed down the bar and and needs to close the venue. Similarly staged in the aforementioned rock club, Poulenc’s monodrama could not be more fitting for the cabaret setting, or provide a stronger contrast to the Queens production housed in the same space. La Voix is opera, paired down to the essentials, solo piano and solo voice, no feathers and no frills. Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine in the second half of the production is made up entirely of a one-way despairing phone conversation in which the audience hears only the side of a spurned lover on the brink of suicide. Here the woman is depicted somewhat older than usual, performed brilliantly by Patricia Racette, wearing a negligee under a shabby fur coat and often hunched over the bar in varying states of fatigue. In a startling move, the creative team behind the production sought to provide some back story for the unseen lover on the other end of the phone line in the first half of this production thereby making a kind of prologue to La Voix Humaine. Using material from Cocteau and Appolinaire, the lover of La Voix is a young student and perhaps an aspiring opera performer forced into night club singing. The pair of siblings, dressed in hot leather pink, ensnare the unnamed lover into an increasingly fraught terrain of erotic peril which leads him to be blindfolded and handcuffed shirtless. In an entirely opposite emotional tenor, the audience becomes fully immersed in an entire operatic environment, a visual world that goes beyond conventional categories of staging.

We Shall Not Be Moved staged for Opera on the Mall

A further notable achievement in environmental storytelling must be the public viewing of We Shall Not Be Moved right on Philadelphia’s historic Independence Hall Park UNESCO site in the shadow of the Liberty Bell. Although a production at last year’s festival, the symbolic significance of the setting combined with the mass presence of the public raises the bar for opera as a medium for education and reflection on the most challenging social ills. The opera with music by Daniel Bernard Roumain and libretto by Marc Bamuthi dramatises a literal haunting in the aftermath of the MOVE bombing of the only cases of domestic aerial bombardment in American history which resulted in several deaths and the burning of multiple city blocks. An eco-socialist Black separatist commune, seen by some as terroristic, their demise in the 80s has left literal wounds in the city to the present day. A story about the perils and promises of intersectionality and cycles of violence, the plot features five African-American students, who are grappling with underfunded schools and street violence, finding refuge on the site of the MOVE bombing until confronted by a Latina police woman. Legendary choreographer Bill T Jones makes stunning ballet out of the acrobatics normally associated with the violence of America’s ghettos. Watching this performance literally reframes the questions and issues, putting at stake nothing less than America itself and questioning whether entire cities might not also be “ghosts woke in the ashes of hope,” as the opera poetically puts it.

The cholesterol heavy icing on the cake of this year’s Festival O18 was the world premiere of Glass Handel performed in the atrium Barnes Foundation museum on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. So dizzying are the layers of innovation in this mash-up of the Baroque and the postmodern that is the kind of production that leaves you thinking that you have no idea what to expect even after you have seen it. The brainchild of countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, who carried it off with ethereal singing, this cross disciplinary work takes the principle of mash-up and enacts it in physical space. The long rectangular hallway of the Barnes was divided into three separate stations that could have functioned quite well independently as separate art installations and did not seem to embrace the pretension of Gesamtkunstwerk. One featured videos by James Ivory and Mark Romanek, the next, facing the other direction, held a huge backlit canvas where artist George Condo created a work before your eyes, and the third was a dance stage with a rotation of dancers performing choreography by Justin Peck. The orchestra and singer were somewhat off-centre closer to the dancer station. The Baroque instruments for the Handel were literally overlayed with the orchestra for Glass as certain musicians did double duty for both parts of the musical back and forth while others stayed silent.

Most remarkable is that a system was devised and implemented whereby each audience member was physically transported wheelbarrow like from one station to the other, so that for example, someone with a front row of the videos, might 20 minutes later be fourth row in the corner for the dance station. Setting aside any vaguely colonial residue of being charioted across the floor mostly by people of colour, the method literally pushed the limits of what an audience could possibly assimilate. To complain that the method was too clever by half, because invariably one of the stations would remain woefully under regarded, seems out of place because such a production has never before been imagined let alone attempted. While it may risk the temptation of logistics as spectacle, Opera Philadelphia continues to raise the bar, at the bar, at the museum, at the world heritage site, and envision a future for opera that is less static cinematic journey and more hyper-kinetic musical carnival for all the senses.


Opera Philadelphia’s Festival 018 ran from September 20 – 30

Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine