BY Charlie Richards
September 01 2009 2:45 PM ET
Ira Siff is one of those unique individuals that only the wildly irrational and extravagant world of opera could have created. Siff's love of the operatic art form began when he was in his teens and ultimately led to the forming of the La Gran Scena opera company, the world's first (and, to my knowledge, only) all-male drag opera troupe. It was at this point that Siff created his famous persona and alter ego, the wildly over-the-top Madame Vera Galupe-Broszkh, the world's first "traumatic soprano."
But what might have seemed at first to be a gag developed into a company that has been highly acclaimed all the over the world and has garnered fans even in the highest echelon of the operatic stratosphere, including the likes of legends such as Leontyne Price and Dame Joan Sutherland, both of whom have attended numerous concerts and have praised La Gran Scena in the press. This is probably because La Gran Scena is less of a parody of than homage to the golden age of the operatic diva. Every member of the troupe, including Siff, is a highly trained, talented professional, and underneath the wigs, makeup, and falsetto voices lie pure art, much love, and a dedication to that odd art form that seems to cast the strangest of spells over its devotees.
But in recent years Siff has broken out of the niche world of the drag opera diva and has become a major player in the legitimate operatic scene, directing operas at various important venues (including a recent Don Giovanni at Tanglewood), and over the past few years has become the first openly gay regular commentator for the Metropolitan Opera weekly matinee radio broadcasts, an institution that goes back to the 1940s. One can't get more mainstream than that, and Siff's ready wit, enthusiasm, broad knowledge, and charm have won him new fans all over the country, many of whom may never even have heard of La Gran Scena.
This summer he married his partner, opera singer Hans Heijnis, in front of thousands of people at a multiple gay marriage ceremony in Amsterdam, a ceremony that was meant not only to celebrate New York's long history with the Dutch but also to send a message to the city about gay marriage in general (the ceremony was conducted by Amsterdam's mayor, Job Cohen).
Advocate.com sat down with Ira Siff recently to discuss his career, his passion for opera, and his recent marriage.
Advocate.com: When did you become interested in opera?
Ira Siff: It started kind of by surprise when I was 15. I was going to high school in Brooklyn and I had this weird friend who was into opera. I had gone to Broadway shows a lot, but I had never had anything to do with opera beyond an opera singer appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, that sort of thing. I went; I didn't really know what to expect. [We saw] a Lucia di Lammermoor with Joan Sutherland, it was her debut season; it was the final show [at the Met]. I remember the "mad scene" -- until the "mad scene" I liked it ... but it didn't really mean that much to me and then, it was startling! It was amazing, the singing was amazing. It was unbelievable. I went berserk, but what also impressed me was the carrying on! I had never seen anything like this -- the audience just went nuts! I started going a lot. My thing with Sutherland, well, you know, your first one, it's sort of like your first boyfriend, but then I switched teams to Callas very fast! And then [Renata] Scotto, [Leonie] Rysanek -- all the singing actress types.
Which is what Madame Vera is.
Yes, Madame Vera really is a Slavic Scotto! I became totally smitten with Scotto, and then, of course, the reverse happened and she became totally smitten with Vera.