Cabaret, opera fuse in Warhol work

This month’s long-awaited “Andy: A Popera,” co-produced by Opera Philadelphia and Philly’s Bearded Ladies Cabaret, is a site-specific work composed by cabaret member Heath Allen and international classical composer Dan Visconti, with a libretto by BLC director John Jarboe. The work explores what Warhol has become in the now, as a brand and as a man.

 

“Bearded Ladies Cabaret is a queer experimental company made up of professional theater artists — performers, musicians, designers, directors and a dramaturg — who are passionate about creating experiences for audiences that are undeniably live,” said Bearded Ladies associate artistic director Sally Ollove. “We believe in the idea of ‘the poison cookie,’ in which thought-provoking social criticism is introduced through the pleasure of intimate, homemade theater with beautiful songs, groan-worthy puns, tricked-out costume changes, drag and virtuosic prop construction. We also really love glitter.”

Scott McPheeters, a Bearded Ladies collective member who plays Warhol “Superstar” Candy Darling, said the work continues with the group’s agenda to make great queer-focused art by playing into the idea of what it means (or at least meant in Warhol’s time) to be an outsider.

“Apart from the varying sexual identities of characters that existed within Andy’s sphere, we explore a larger, more generalized theme of what it means to be a misfit, and the potential power existing as a result of being different,” McPheeters said.

How the production operates as an opera and cabaret at the same time comes to what Jarboe said is an attempt to be as grand as opera — just as Warhol’s “superstars” were trying desperately to be actual superstars but, for the most part, failed.

“This is by far the most highly produced Bearded Ladies production; the set, lights, sound and video design give the impression of opera grandeur,” McPheeters said. “However, as in all good cabaret performance, the underbelly of the theater world is quickly exposed. Juxtaposed with the vocal precision and relatively exact staging of the opera chorus, the cabaret performers have a script, but we’re encouraged to stray from it in order to interact and respond to the audience that is present each evening. The warehouse is our playground and we desperately want you to like our games.”

Philly actor/director Mary Kay Tuomanen, a one-time Bearded Ladies member who returns to play Warhol as a 12-year-old boy, said her version/vision of Warhol is one obsessed with the glamorous people in Hollywood magazines, living in Pittsburgh with his doting Ruthanian mother and acutely aware that he is “different” — not like other all-American boys.

“His name is funny — Andrei Warhola — and he would rather join the modern-dance club than any sport,” she said. “English is practically a second language and he has difficulty in school. He knows he’s queer but doesn’t have the words to identify it. He’s out of place. This awkward alienation from traditional gender is a great excuse to make Andrei a drag role. In our version of the Warhol story, Andrei replicates better, sleeker versions of himself (played by the opera chorus), so he can appear to the world as a phenomenon rather than a person, as recognizable as Coke.”

Throughout “Andy,” Tuomanen appears as a creeping presence of the boy Warhol, controlling everything from the shadows, passing as something he is not.

“We really play up the femininity of my body to give Andrei a cringing frailty,” Tuomanen said. “He’s a tiny mastermind behind an enormous machine.”

Keeping with the idea of small and large, Tuomanen tried to make her voice and manner bigger to suit what she perceived as operatic, especially as her grandmother was an opera singer.

“I came up against my limitations quickly, yet they’re perfect for this particular show, this opera/cabaret collision. Andrei is smaller than the opera singers. His voice is also smaller. His manic desire to be bigger is exactly what creates the Warhol phenomenon. Halfway through the show, I start singing less and start lip-synching; my voice is produced by eight-12 opera singers. I become operatic, larger than life.”

McPheeters — who found focus as Candy by exuding confidence through a calm, collected, soft-spoken demeanor that demands attention — believes the best way to comment on the Warhol phenomena and Warhol the man is to put them side by side.

“The differences are extreme and yet, over time, Andy learned from the bigness of his art and created a persona that was a mirror image of the work itself,” McPheeters said. “We relate the phenomena to the grandness of an opera chorus and the messy intrigue of the factory to cabaret performance.”

“Andy: A Popera” runs Sept. 10-20 at 1526 N. American St. For more information or tickets, visit www.operaphila.org.