On the Beat
in Philly: Probing the WARHOL phenom at Opera Philadelphia; GRIST works her magic on students at the ARROYO FOUNDATION.
by Brian Kellow
John Jarboe grew up around Detroit and studied English and drama; initially, he envisioned himself as a regional theater actor, appearing in productions of Hello, Dolly! But he found his true voice as a performer after moving to Philadelphia, where he is now artistic director of an experimental queer cabaret company, The Bearded Ladies. An admirer of the company’s work is DAVID DEVAN, who has attracted a good deal of attention in recent seasons for blowing decades’ worth of dust off of the venerable Opera Philadelphia, where he is general director. This month, the two companies join forces for a world premiere, Andy: A Popera, with music by HEATH ALLEN and DAN VISCONTI. Andy is ANDY WARHOL, whose contribution to American culture, Jarboe says, “makes fascinating subject matter for an intersection between high and low art.”
Andy: A Popera offers songs with a beginning, middle and end, along with a more fluid undercurrent associated with modern opera. “At Bearded Ladies,” says Jarboe, “we create improvisatory stuff with the performers to generate text and movement, then organize it into a libretto or script. As we get further along in the process, who owns what or where one idea comes from gets lost in a really productive way.” Mercifully, and probably inevitably, Andy is not a conventional bio-opera. “I don’t care about what he ate on a particular day,” Jarboe laughs. “I care about why Andy Warhol is still alive today. I care about why I care about him. What felt so profound in the writing of this is the journey from a young queer boy from Pittsburgh taking an American symbol of an American soup can and saying, ‘This is mine,’ to him becoming a brand, a phenomenon. He started appropriating America, and he became America. But we’re not telling the story of back then — we’re telling the story of now. He’s more vital now than when he was alive. It’s like what FRAN LEBOWITZ said at his funeral — Andy would be dying to be here.”
American soprano RERI GRIST returned to New York on June 24 with a revelatory master class presented under the auspices of the MARTINA ARROYO FOUNDATION. Wearing a colorful print dress, her back ramrod straight, Grist, now in her early eighties, was a study in quiet, polite authority. Soprano BRANDIE SUTTON came out to sing Butterfly’s “Che tua madre.” Sutton has a very good instrument, but she seemed disengaged for much of the aria, then ratcheted up the heat for an unearned emotional finish. Grist wisely counseled her to “open up your head” to send the sound forward, and the end result was a far more vital performance. Next came soprano CLAIRE COOLEN, with “Chacun le sait,” from La Fille du Régiment. She, too, demonstrated a good voice, but she seemed subtly resistant to Grist’s coaching.
Tenor JON JURGENS took his turn with Pinkerton’s “Addio, fiorito asil,” which he belted out in an alarmingly forced manner. “I would suggest that you don’t give it all,” offered Grist. “If the conductor asks for it a fourth time, I can promise you, you are not going to have a voice…. You don’t have to prove anything. You just have to feel what’s happening inside of him.” Jurgens didn’t seem too responsive, yet Grist never allowed the tension to build between them; she treated him as respectfully as she would a star colleague. She spent a lot of time with mezzo MARISAN CORSINO on “Una voce poco fa,” trying to get her to think through the specifics of the aria. She also helped tenor ALEXANDER WOOK LEE hone some of the commedia dell’arte details in Beppe’s “O Colombina,” from Pagliacci.
The evening’s high point was Grist’s work with soprano MARIA BREA, who sang “Par le rang et par l’opulence,” from Fille, in a lovely timbre but complete physical stasis. Grist got her to move and think the aria out more deeply. As she coaxed Brea to inhabit the character’s feelings, the young woman got so caught up in the simplicity of it that she broke down and cried. Grist was gentle and supportive, assuring her that it was all part of the process.
Several of the singers showed a disconcerting habit of singing “off” the voice, but it’s hard to believe that they all didn’t come away feeling substantially different for having worked with Grist. Hers is the kind of old-school classic bel-canto teaching — a mixture of strict no-nonsense and empathy — that we encounter all too seldom.
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