"A truly otherworldly space": Heartbeat Opera's Drag ExtravaganzaInterview
“Don thy codpieces, neck ruffs, and farthingales,” advise the folks at Heartbeat Opera, “Shakespeare cometh!” The New York-based indie opera company is gearing up for its fourth annual Halloween Drag Extravaganza, “All the World’s a Drag!” Presented on October 30 and 31 at National Sawdust, this year’s Extravaganza takes on a Shakespearean theme, paying dazzling homage to the music of Verdi, Purcell, Bernstein, and more.
Heartbeat Opera’s connection with drag is both unique and organic. “My personal connection to drag comes not from a background as a drag performer, but rather from a vital interest in theatre as participation,” says Louisa Proske, co-Artistic Director the company. “When we founded an opera company, that question became: how can OPERA be participatory? We developed the Heartbeat Opera Drag Extravaganza as a joyful and complex answer to this question.”
The extravagance of opera, paired with the exaggeration and glitter of drag performers, is no far-fetched combination. “Suddenly you create a truly otherworldly space where beauty reigns, rules can be bent, and the audience are invited to REVEL and INVENT THEMSELVES,” says Proske. “That, for me, is the magic of drag.”
We spoke with Ethan Heard, Heartbeat Opera’s other co-Artistic Director, about this year’s Drag Extravaganza, opera’s long-standing relationship with gender and theatre, and the personal tastes of Heard’s onstage persona, Trixie Spirit.
What do you think opera and drag have most closely in common?
Opera has been a home for drag for centuries! Think: pants roles like Cherubino. Moreover, opera is about big emotion expressed in grand, often over-the-top ways. The Queen of the Night’s famous aria from The Magic Flute embodies rage and power with delightful virtuosity. Drag performers channel big emotions in grand ways too. Plus, opera and drag both demand fabulous costumes and wigs!
How do you think opera became detached from the fun (and filth) of past centuries - like Mozart’s time? How do you respond to claims of “irreverence: when aiming to bring those aspects back to opera?
Making grand opera can be very expensive. When something is expensive to make and resources are scarce, artists and producers can feel pressured to make safer, more polite decisions. Heartbeat Opera balances reverence for our material with a healthy dose of irreverence. We believe treasures of the operatic canon need to be reinterpreted. We need to experience new versions, especially as the world changes so dramatically. In 2017, with smartphones and Netflix and YouTube, audiences experience stories differently than they did four hundred years ago. We have to innovate.
What sort of response have you gotten to the idea of “participatory opera”, particularly with Heartbeat Opera Drag Extravaganza?
We’ve gotten great responses! People love being up close with the singers. They love realizing how athletic and sensual opera singing can be. Opera doesn’t just have to exist in big theaters with vast orchestra pits separating the performers from the audience. We can all make the event together.
Are there certain operas you find lend themselves especially well to drag-inspired re-tellings?
Yes! We like looking for sexy material. And funny material. And serious material that we can make sexy and funny. We love playing with gender. Purcell’s The Fairy Queen was a fabulous way to start. We’ve been honing our skills at putting together the shows ever since then.
What is Trixie Spirit’s favourite opera?
Trixie loves her some Elixir of Love. It’s also her favorite cocktail.
All the World’s a Drag! runs October 30th and 31st at National Sawdust. For details and ticket information, follow our box office links below.