BY Charlie Richards

September 01 2009 1:45 PM ET

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When did the whole idea for La Gran Scena develop?
It had been brewing for a long time because I used to sing soprano in the basement of my parents' home in Brooklyn. Years went by; I got a degree in fine arts, I was studying voice secretly, and I started teaching voice. My voice teachers told me, "Stay away from the high falsetto -- it could hurt your tenor voice." But it all crystallized for me -- it was kind of a combination of the Ballets Trockadero [an all-male ballet company] to a degree, but it was Charles Ludlam who had the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in New York and did Camille -- it was genius. It was seeing Charles's Camille -- it was so ugly and so beautiful and so serious and so funny all at the same time -- that made me realize that I really wanted to do this with Traviata [Verdi's opera based on Dumas's play Camille]. And then I met a friend [Mario] who used to come to my cabaret shows invited me to a soiree, and I could tell right away that the soprano in the soiree was Mario. I was levitating because I had done this with friends but I had never taken it seriously, but I really wanted to. [Mario] and I teamed up as two divas and we launched La Gran Scena. Mario was wonderful at getting us people. We got a theater ... we were supposed to do four late-night shows at this one theater and it turned into 12 ... people started pouring down from the Met with paper bags over their heads, you know, secretly coming to these things. It just sort of caught on. We went on tour all over Europe ... it caught on. It was never a living like the Trockadero ... we almost went to Japan, and I think if that had happened, I would be rich now, but it fell through at the last minute.

And you attracted a lot of people from the "legitimate" opera world as well.
We attracted people like [Leontyne] Price and [James] Levine and Sutherland and [Richard] Bonynge. I sent Joan a video at one point saying, "You were my first diva, and I thought you might enjoy this thing," and she wrote back and said, "I already have it"! We started to correspond. When she was in New York she and [her husband, Richard Bonynge] came to the show -- it's even in her autobiography! It was gratifying that people who I worshipped were then coming to the shows and enjoying them.

Well, because it's not really satire, it's more like homage ...
You got it -- it's a tribute.

Was the reaction different from what you expected?
Well, I didn't really know what to expect. It was always clear [to the audience] that it was affectionate; people might have wanted to dismiss it because of the drag. I myself am kind of drag-o-phobic, and I probably would have been a snob about it if it hadn't have been my show. But when they would come, they changed their minds completely and became very respectful. And people love to laugh, and they love to laugh at something they love.

You often talk about Madame Vera in the third person. Do you sort of think of her as being a separate entity?
Oh, yeah. Recently I did what I really think is going to be one of my last shows in New York, and I was looking at the videos when I was in Tanglewood with Hans, my husband -- I had this feeling that I always have ... I was thinking, Oh, she looks good! She doesn't look so old in this. I wish she'd done better with that phrase ... Only once in a while there will be a lapse, but at this point when she takes over, she takes over.

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