|Blythely Oratonio (alias Stephanie Blythe)
photo by Steven Pisano-courtesy of Opera Philadelphia
We will never forget the first time we heard Stephanie Blythe. It was at the Santa Fe Opera in 2002 when she sang Isabella in Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri and the audience went wild when, in a miracle of stagecraft, she appeared to arrive in a turn-of-the-20th c. Wright Flyer. We were hooked by her larger than life stage presence and her magnificent instrument.
Thursday the indomitable Ms. Blythe appeared in different guise but still wowing us with her presence and her pipes, although this time the pipes were miked. As part of the American Songbook Series of Lincoln Center, Ms. Blythe appeared as her alter ego--Blythely Oratonio whose costume beggars description but can be appreciated in the photo above. Mr. Oratonio sipped a drink from a quart-sized martini glass and mopped his brow with a large white handkerchief. He gently poked fun of opera to the delight of the audience.
As one might expect, of the various genres of music being offered, we responded most enthusiastically to his "Nessun dorma" and "Tu sei Pagliaccio", not to mention "Recondita l'harmonia". Arias were interspersed with popular music, music with which we confess to being unfamiliar but which certainly struck a chord with the audience, to coin a phrase. Music Director Drew Wutke managed to mingle Verdi, Puccini, and Queen! He also did a knockout version of Chopin's Prelude in E minor, Op.28 No.4, the death-like imagery of which perfectly suited the message at the end of the program.
On our way to the performance, a friend asked us why Ms. Blythe would want to appear in beard and moustache, singing tenor songs. My answer was based on the secret pleasure we have had singing tenor arias in the shower. Show me a mezzo-- a fach well known for playing second fiddle to the soprano so to speak--who hasn't wanted to sing a starring role, be it soprano or tenor!
But as the evening went by and we listened to the clever script of Co-Writer and Director John Jarboe, we realized that Ms. Blythe had more important fish to fry. The theme for this compelling program was that of transitioning. That word is being heard more and more these days as increasing numbers of individuals are choosing to live as a different gender than that with which they were born, or refusing being put into any gender category. People are freely insisting on being called by their gender of preference or using "they, them, and theirs".
But there are even more transitions of which we need to be made aware. As we go through life we age. We can no longer do the same things we did before. This is particularly true in ballet and opera, but it is also true for civilians. Sometimes we have to accept the death of what was (and that's where the Chopin Prelude came in) and welcome what is.
Early in the program, Ms. Blythe sang Queen's "I Want to Break Free" and indeed she did. Later she sang Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns", adding a bit of pathos. We don't know what percentage of the audience comprised her opera fans and what percentage were subscribers to American Songbook. But everyone had a splendid time and left smiling. We, on the other hand, left thoughtful. We know all about changing and moving on from a personal perspective but this was the first time we became aware of it from an artist's perspective and felt grateful for the insight. It's true that a little bit of humor makes the medicine go down!
Additional credit must be given to Daniel Kazemi for his fine arrangements and the band, which comprised Mr. Wutke with Jimmy Coleman providing the percussion, Mike Ian on guitar and Andrew Nelson on bass.
The extravagant costumes were designed by Machine Dazzle with Rebecca Kanach.
Other performers were called "Birdies"--Messapotamia Lefae and Sav Souza. Yet others were called "Flowers"--Hailey McAvoy and Margaret Tigue who sang "Döme épais" from Leo Délibes' Lakme and "Belle nuit" from Offenbach's Contes d'Hoffman.
We love the idea of breaking boundaries! The show took "breeches roles" into a new dimension.
© meche kroop