A spectacularly-adorned creature — all glitter, lashes, hair, and curves — commands the stage with her bearing alone. Watching Trannyshack founder Heklina open her mouth and unleash a booming sound that can’t be ignored as she belts out an anthem she wrote about self-expression entitled “Live My Life,” one can’t help but notice how the famed San Francisco drag queen so effortlessly captures the essence of many an opera diva.
So it seems fitting that Heklina is hosting Drag Queen of the Opera at her club, Oasis, in collaboration with singers from San Francisco Opera (SF Opera). Appealing to the “opera-curious,” the Sunday, Oct. 30 offering from the company’s hip new audience outreach arm SF Opera Lab promises to be popular among fans of both drag and opera, as well as newbies. Heklina is encouraging audience members to come in costume, drink cocktails, and enjoy arias performed by young singers. And there’s a DJ dance party afterwards.
The lineup includes Julie Adams (who aced the U.S. opera world’s biggest competition in 2014, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions) and Brenton Ryan, hot off his acclaimed SF Opera debut in The Makropulos Case, as well as additional vocalists and a pianist. There’ll be ample gender-role bending. And in keeping with the onrush of Halloween, looming large will be witches, devils, and coming back from the dead. The ringmistress of all of this operatic mayhem, of course, is Heklina, setting up the scenes and keeping the audience focused with the sharp and bawdy humor for which she’s known.
Popping her opera cherry
Heklina herself is no opera insider. She’s never actually experienced an opera performed live on stage, though she’s going to get a chance to pop her opera cherry when she goes to see SF Opera’s Madame Butterfly next month. “I’m not sure why I’ve never been, maybe I thought it would not resonate,” Heklina says. “Like most people who aren’t familiar with opera, the word conjures images of a heavyset man belting out songs in Italian or Bugs Bunny dressed up like a valkyrie.”
But Heklina has been enjoying her nascent relationship with the young, classically-trained singers she’s collaborating with at Oasis. “After working with these guys for the past few weeks, I am very intrigued,” she says. “For the uninitiated, the pop-up will be a great intro to the opera world.”
Opera and the queer community
Opera has a huge fan base among the Bay Area’s queer community. SF Opera even has a subscription program dubbed the “Rainbow Series” for LGBT patrons, complete with rainbow colored lights and exclusive receptions.
“For me, a part of the intersection of queerness and opera definitely came out of a feeling of ‘otherness’ I had growing up,” says soprano Emma McNairy, who identifies as a lesbian. “This related to me feeling queer in some way, as well as me being so obsessed with opera as a child and teenager. My peers did not really understand this about me, but opera gave me such an amazing world and outlet for intellectual endeavors, languages, and then just plain emotion.”
With the mass popularity of TV shows like Transparent and the once-niche but now prime-time RuPaul’s Drag Race, gender fluidity is much more out in the open in our culture at large. This makes it a good time for the traditionalist, institutional art form of opera and the free-flowing, underground world of drag to finally get a joint coming-out party.
For its part, SF Opera hopes the show at Oasis will engage a younger, more diverse crowd — just like the two other more experimental events the Lab has put on since being founded last season. “Drag shows and opera are similar in melodrama, grandness, and the pomp and circumstance,” says Sean Waugh, the artistic planning manager at SF Opera and the producer of all of the company’s pop-up events thus far. “I like pushing us more and more out of our comfort zone, especially the performers. We are hoping to find a connection to the drag and LGBT community, especially the younger people.”
Cross-dressing not new to opera
Cross-dressing in opera is as old as the art form itself. Women’s roles were originally sung by castrati — male singers whose testicles were removed before puberty — as seen in the 1994 movie Farinelli. These days castrated singers are hard to come by, so the parts in 17th and 18th century operas are sometimes taken by male countertenors who sing in falsetto — or just as often, if not more often, by pants-wearing female performers.
Opera’s gender fluidity isn’t just part of ancient history. You can trace a clear line from Mozart’s casting of a woman in the role of the boy Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, through Richard Strauss’ making Octavian a female part in Der Rosenkavalier, and on to Thomas Adès using a soprano for the gender-neutral spirit Ariel in his 2004 version of The Tempest.
While less common, men occasionally take on female roles in opera, most notably the Gingerbread Witch in 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. Though the role was originally written for a mezzo-soprano, the witch is also routinely sung by a tenor, as in the Metropolitan Opera’s high-def film production in 2008.
“Queer culture and opera have been inextricably intertwined since the days of Monteverdi,” says Michael Strickland, a gay opera fan and cultural blogger who lives in San Francisco. “Why are so many queers into musical theater? I really don’t have a clue, other than they have an inclination towards escape, art, and fabulousness.”
‘Drag Queen of the Opera’ gets underway on Sunday, Oct. 30, at Oasis in San Francisco. Tickets and information here.