OK, I’ll come right out and state that I’m not a big opera fan, but I recently saw the Opera Company of Philadelphia production of “Orphée and Eurydice” and was delighted by the wonderfully imaginative staging, with very contemporary, stark lighting and interesting angles to heighten the dramatic effect.
The voices of the lead characters were excellent to my untrained ear, with none of the huffiness that usually turns me off of opera. (I went with someone who’s an opera buff and confirmed that the singers were outstanding). As an added bonus, both leads were played by women. The male lead was played by Ruxandra Donose (who looks a little like our favorite lesbian, Portia de Rossi), and I cheered as “he” followed “his” wife, played by the lovely Maureen McKay, into the depths of Hades to bring her back to life. At the helm of the company is the charming David Devan, one of Philadelphia’s biggest cheerleaders.
PGN: I understand you’re not originally from Philadelphia. DD: No, I’m not even from the U.S. My husband, also David, and I moved here from Canada four-and-a-half years ago. We moved here from Victoria, British Columbia, so it was a big move. Different coast, bigger city, different country.
PGN: Where did you get married? DD: We went back three years ago and got married there at a beautiful estate. Victoria is arguably one of the most beautiful cities in North America. It was a big wedding with 160 people, 22 of them from Philadelphia. To have only been here two years and have that many people fly across the continent to share the day with us says a lot about how much we love Philadelphia and the people we’ve met.
PGN: Is it difficult being here as far as LGBT rights are concerned? DD: Yes. But there’s a difference between the people on the ground and what the law does or doesn’t do. I mean, we are completely accepted as a couple by everyone in my life and work, and there’s not even a hint of discrimination that I’ve felt. David has been totally recognized as my husband. But legally, the reality is that he’s here on a student visa. That’s great, but the minute he stops going to school, he has to leave. [Laughs.] He’s starting seminary school, so he’s stuck with me for four more years, but after that, we’ll have to figure things out.
PGN: How is married life? DD: It’s great. When we got married, it really changed our lives. We didn’t really expect it to make that big a difference, but it really did. Like it or lump it, a marriage is really the only time that society comes together to celebrate you as a couple. We weren’t expecting the huge outpouring of love that we received. We’d had it individually, but never that much as a pair. It blew us away and changed us for the better. We are lucky that because we are formally and legally married, there’s an internal knowledge that we are legal, and that’s something that most people here don’t get to experience. As a result of knowing what it truly means, we are big marriage proponents.
PGN: Tell me about growing up. DD: I come from a small town outside of Toronto, Lindsey, Ontario, and I’m the oldest of five — four boys, one girl. My sister works in arts administration, I have a brother who is a roofer and another who is a cook. We’re all over the map.
PGN: Were your parents artistic? DD: They weren’t particularly artistic, but they were very supportive. I was a dancer and competitive figure skater and my sister did ballet and they backed us up just as much as they did my brother, who was a hockey player. After working as a choreographer in skating for a while, I went back to school and got an undergraduate degree in finance. One of my professors suggested that I should get an MBA in arts administration. That way I could do something that would merge my creative side and my math side. I did an interview with the Canadian Opera Company and they hired me on the spot. I had been working for the company for seven days when I went to my first opera and it was the most awful thing I’d ever seen. I fell asleep and thought, I’ve made the biggest mistake in my life, Opera is not going to be a viable vehicle for me. But then I went to the next production, which was “Madame Butterfly,” starring Yoko Watanabe, an opera singer who was known worldwide for portraying the title character. I was a mess, it moved me so I cried like a baby and fell in love with opera for the first time.
PGN: You figure skated? DD: Yes, I was a pairs skater.
PGN: Are you as freaked out as we are when you see a romantic pair team, cheek to cheek, hip to hip, gazing into each other’s eyes and then find out that they are brother and sister? DD: [Laughs.] Yes! I never really understood that. It’s hard enough being an elite athlete without bringing in that weirdness. It must lead to some dysfunctional family dynamics. For the record, I never danced with my sister! Or my brother!
PGN: What was a great moment in skating? DD: It actually happened after I retired from competitive skating. One summer, I decided to visit some Canadian friends who were living in Hong Kong. I’d been living in a fishing village and on the last day of my trip, I decided to go into the city to explore. I was in a mall and I heard music coming from the far side. As I got closer I saw that there was a skating rink in front of an eight-story window looking onto Hong Kong harbor. I really wanted to skate, but I had 34 Hong Kong dollars left to my name and it cost $26 to rent skates. I still needed money to get back to the village and take a cab to the airport, but I figured, I just have to do this, it’ll work out somehow. So I walked out on the ice, and being the only Caucasian, the tallest person out there and dressed in shorts and a muscle shirt, all eyes were on me. I was doing some spins and footwork and a guy came up to me and asked where I was from. When I said I was from Canada, he asked if I knew Brian Orser and he got excited when I told him that we trained at the same facility. Then he asked if I knew how to do a triple. I told him that I used to, but that it had been a while. Apparently, they are all atwitter about the triple in Hong Kong and he pleaded with me to do one. I told him that I’d be willing to try if the skates weren’t so awful, and he offered to upgrade me. I don’t know why they had a pair of size 9 professional skates there, but they did. So I put them on, did a few jumps and the whole floor cleared for me. He kept on urging me to try a triple and I tried to explain that it’s not just something you do without training for it, but I finally relented and actually managed to do a relatively decent triple toe. That got my adrenaline going and I went to try another one and crashed into the boards. I heard a huge “aaaaaaaaww,” and I looked up to see three levels filled with shoppers all peering over the ledge to watch me. Everyone wanted to talk to me and I stayed and helped people with their jumping as I skated. When I left, they gave me an envelope and there was $200 in Hong Kong dollars in it! To have such an amazing experience overseas happen because of my years of training as a skater was a really special moment.
PGN: When did you come out? DD: I’m 47 now and I came out when I was 39. I was a late bloomer, but once I did I came out full tilt. I think it was a result of being first born and raised in a Roman Catholic family that I felt I needed to be what I thought people wanted. My family is wonderfully supportive and, in hindsight, they probably always would have been. My mother once asked me what it was like coming out and I said that it felt like, before, I was living under a bushel basket. I could see and I had a whole life under there and, when I came out, I didn’t change, I still had the same friends, but with the basket lifted, things were brighter than they’d ever been. It didn’t change where or who I was but I could see the horizon for the first time. I think people who come out later have a different experience. I had a lot of early professional success, which happens when you have no personal life. You throw yourself into work so you won’t have to face your feelings. Once I did come out, I decided there wasn’t going to be a single ounce of editing, so I’m constantly coming out. I just came out at a lunch meeting today. Someone asked if I was married and I said, “Yes, I have a husband.”
PGN: So you weren’t out when you were skating? DD: I know, it’s such a gay sport, but no. I knew I was attracted to men, but when I was growing up in my small town, I was teased and tormented for skating. I was called a fairy skater and faggot, before I even knew what one was. I used to hide my skates in a snow bank so I wouldn’t get beat up by the high-school boys. I didn’t want to be that thing that got teased, so I convinced myself that I wasn’t gay and led a completely heterosexual life.
PGN: It seems like there is, oddly, a lot of homophobia in skating. DD: Yes, like that whole ridiculous Johnny Weir fear and the Evan Lysacek, “He’s straight!” nonsense. It’s not an easy place to be gay even though almost all of the skaters are gay. It’s a sport that doesn’t want to be a part of the space it should own.
PGN: It’s like women’s basketball with only a handful of out players in the whole league. DD: Exactly, it’s crazy. But I’m feeling more hopeful with people like rugby’s Gareth Thomas and basketball’s John Amaechi coming out and receiving support from their straight teammates. It’s weird, but figure skating is one of the last places people feel comfortable coming out.
PGN: I guess if you’re a rugby player, or a linebacker like Esera Tuaolo, you don’t have to worry about someone calling you a sissy once you come out. DD: Very true.
PGN: So what’s one of your favorite things about Philadelphia? DD: I’ll tell you three things. I love the scale of the city and the fact that it takes me 30 minutes to walk three blocks because I keep bumping into people I know. It gives it a real hometown feel. I also like Philadelphians: There’s such a streak of independence in people here, everyone has their own way of doing things. And I love the art scene here. The city really works to make connections between the different arts communities, especially with the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance.
PGN: When I think of opera, I think of my parents’ generation. How do you get a younger generation to appreciate and have an interest in opera? DD: You need to address head on that you’re producing opera for the 21st century. We need to place the stories, whenever they were written, in a contemporary setting. Opera is the original multi-media experience and we need to make it exceed expectations and make it viable for the current time. For example, the show you just saw, “Orphée and Eurydice,” was written in the 17th century, but there’s nothing Baroque about our staging. It’s very stark and contemporary, done with lights and colors and shapes. It doesn’t mean that everything we do is updated to be modern, but that we always have a sense of theater and heightened vocal performance that speaks to today’s audience. It’s the idea of making opera less like Turner Classic Movies and more like HBO.
PGN: More like Showtime! I have to say even though I know she was portraying a male, I enjoyed seeing the two women wrapped in each other’s arms with Ruxandra nuzzling Maureen’s ear. DD: Yes, that was fun. We also do some other programming to get young people in, like our Hip H’opera, which brings kids and composers together. We do podcasts and we’ve teamed up with the Bryn Mawr Film Institute to do “OCP at the Movies.” We’ve screened “Carmen” and “Black Orpheus,” which is a great film out of Brazil, and on July 1, we’ll screen Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades.”
PGN: So what did you think of the opera scene in the movie “Philadelphia”? DD: Oh my God, that wipes me out. I’ve seen it about 50 times and I’m a mess every single time!
PGN: I looked at your website and saw that anyone can audition for non-singing parts. DD: Our supernumeraries! Yes, anyone can be a super and be onstage as townspeople, servants, soldiers, etc.
PGN: Does the fat lady really sing? DD: [Laughs.] No, no! The great thing about opera in the 21st century is that everybody has to be a singing actress. They actually have to live and move around as the character. There’s no more diva “park and bark.”
PGN: What does it cost to put on a show? DD: To do a season with five different operas, it costs just under $2 million, and that’s not including management, staff and other overhead. It’s pretty extreme. It takes a lot to put out the caliber of performance that we do. We have an orchestra of 60 and singers that perform like they did 200 years ago, un-miked, so we have to rehearse for that. It takes a lot.
PGN: What do you do to relax? DD: I cycle and go to the gym and I’ve started doing yoga. I also love to cook. We just moved into a new loft with a great kitchen, so I’ve been finding my inner Julia. We like to travel as well.
PGN: Favorite celebrity encounter? DD: Neil Patrick Harris. We were extras in a movie he was shooting. I don’t do celebrities’ photos, but I told him David and I were married and he thought that was really cool and posed with us.
PGN: What fashion from another era would you like to wear? DD: I think that early ’50s skinny tie “Mad Men” style fits me. I love suits.
PGN: The biggest crime you’ve committed? DD: In college, we moved a statue from one side of the campus to the other. That probably wasn’t legal.
PGN: What should I know about you? DD: I don’t know, I’m so blessed … I have a great life: a professional career that I love, a great husband whom I adore, good friends and I live here in this wonderful city. I’m in a sweet spot.
To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].