By Charlie Richards
Originally published on Advocate.com September 01 2009 1:45 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.
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.
How does that feel for you?
It's a lark because I can get away with saying anything about anyone!
When did you start doing your work for the Met?
I got tried out in the 2006-2007 season and I was too astonished and dumb to be scared. I almost said no -- I'm so glad I didn't! I was just so intimidated. I did four shows that season, and at the end of the season they called me in and I thought they were calling me in to say, "Well, we liked what you did, so could you do two or four next season?" but what they said was, "We like what you did, so would you like to be the weekly commentator?" I'm going into the third year now.
In general, we all know the stereotype of the "opera queen." Why do you think opera appeals so much to gay men?
That is the eternal question, isn't it? I really don't know, I mean, being one to whom opera has always appealed, and I now sort of feel like the Jesus Christ of opera, going around and spreading the gospel to 10 million people a week on the radio, I can't tell you; I think, of course, for the same reason that Judy Garland does ... this kind of ultraromantic, flamboyant art form that's kind of real but at the same time kind of mythical and superreal, I think because it involves glamour, and I think because it involves heartbreak and at the same time there is an element that I think is inexplicable -- I think it is as inexplicable as the reason people are gay.
How did you meet your husband, Hans?
I had a very long relationship with someone who's a very dear friend now, for 25 years, and I broke it off because someone else I had been friendly with and I got together. This was really the love of my life, but he decided he needed to live in Europe. He left and it was very difficult for me, and I went into a deep depression and was not considering meeting anyone new. But I kept being bothered by this student of mine to meet this guy who was a singer. He was a big guy and he wasn't really my physical type, and I kept saying, "I really don't want to do this." She kept nagging me about it, and finally I agreed to write to Hans. So I wrote to him, and we started to write to each other, and we started to write and write -- I know that e-mail is very seductive, so I was very wary of it -- but this soprano was a very aggressive Korean Dolly Levi; she invited Hans to New York for Thanksgiving in 2006 and left for Europe with her husband and left him in her apartment and left me to sort of be his New York chaperone -- total setup! And it worked! He was 38 at the time and I was 60, so he knew about the age thing, and I knew that he was fat ... but it just didn't matter and it all happened. I'm very grateful for it. I got out of my depression and he got back to singing.
Tell us a little about the wedding in Amsterdam.
It was just amazing. It was a huge event -- there were 550,000 people. The city of Amsterdam decided to have the mayor marry five gay couples because of Canal Pride, which is their Gay Pride, combined with the 400th anniversary of their settling of New Amsterdam, which is now New York, which was this year. Mayor Cohen was to marry five couples, one of whom would be American and one of whom would be Dutch. They ended up having 15 applications and they chose five of us. He [Siff's husband, Hans] had a wonderful screening interview in which he charmed everybody and sang. He is ultracharming. The part that the city did was amazing: there was a wedding boat with the mayor, the five couples, the event team, the vice mayor, a city councillor, and champagne and food. The wedding boat said "I do, I do" with two little Dutch boys kissing and two little Dutch girls kissing. They wrote for the mayor five separate speeches so that each ceremony had sort of a different feel to it, so you didn't really feel like you were at a mass event, even though you're on this boat and you look out and the canals and bridges are teeming with people. When we did the vow thing and he [Cohen] asked me, "What is your answer?" I meant to say, "I do," but I said, "Oh, yes!" and there was this huge roar.