World Premiere A production of Opera Philadelphia in conjunction with The Bearded Ladies Cabaret
September 17, 8:00 at Sala Bahdeebahdu art gallery, Philadelphia

Music by Heath Allen and Dan Visconti

by Ana María Ruimonte Díaz de Lewine, and Alan Lewine –

What is art? Can art be the object of quotidian use that is packed in a board box that we bought in the supermarket?  Is it famous because it is art? Is it art because it is famous? Why is some art famous? Can you be art? Can you be famous?

Yes to all of these, said Andy Warhol. Warhol believed that art can be found in anything from a Coke™ to a famous or generic brand of soup. The objects are quotidian for consumption, but if famous could be considered art.

As the public enters the performance through the door of the old factory where it is performed, they become part of the (P) Opera as their own presence at the performance transforms each person into one of the collaborators and friends of Andy at his famous art creation laboratory, The Factory.

In this performance, the actors mix with the public continuously, and the public joins the opera interactively.  The (P)opera presents Andy’s own manic story, as he might have told it, with more respect for the pop art that formed a basis for his art and life, but with only passing reference to a framework of historical accuracy.

The members of the audience also appear on stage through the magic of video transformed and processed to resemble Warhol’s 8mm films and projected onto a large screen at the back of the action.  Actors/singers wade into the crowd asking questions (sometimes in a Polish accent from the character of his mother, Julia (Malgorzata Kasprzycka)) such as “beautiful you, beautiful, have you ever had a Coke, haven’t you?”  And when the audience nods yes, she replies “as Andy, as the Chinese president, as the poor in the corner”… and “you can be too”, showing Andy as the ideal: “In the future everybody will be world famous for 15 minutes”… This flows from Warhol’s radical new conception of the popular as art, and the public as players in the play, as if each were one of the characters whom Andy met, perhaps as banal as a banana.

Andy cultivates people, seeking open communication and freedom of expression – ego, superego and id.  Effectively sung by Mary Tuomanen (and the trouser role seems particularly appropriate here), he creates a life full of eccentric and egocentric persons, and declares (and makes) famous any item of popular consumption: “a can of American soup, tomato soup and carrots and chicken, potatoes, beans, peas… with a 2 percent salt content…”  POP-ART-COMMERCE-OPERA.

The “orchestra” was more of a rock band of electric instruments, conducted on stage by Melissa Dunphy also performing on electric viola, guitar, keyboard, bass and drums, placed next to the “stage”.  Their “overture” seemed improvised from aleatoric motifs, but throughout, they performed in a style reminiscent of the psychedelic sixties.  The postlude was a cooking rock jam, featuring guitarist Greg Davis. The musicians were excellent and clearly enjoying themselves.  If hardly the usual opera orchestra, they were perfectly appropriate for this production.

On entering the Sala Bahdeebahdu art gallery, where Andy was staged in an industrial area of north Philadelphia, the audience is invited to don a Campbell’s Soup® costume for selfies.  This introduced the pop culture disdain for high art the production emphasized, and the mixing of 1960s and more current pop cultures.  Once inside the “theater”, the audience is surrounded by stacked boxes of different sizes as if we are in a factory or storage room.  Front row seats were fitted with bistro tables (sometimes in the form of cardboard boxes), where before the (P)opera, Opera Philadelphia General Director David Devan and other luminaries served us small cups of spiked punch.

To begin the performance (or at least the “stage” portion of the (P)opera, an audience member is directed to pull a rope to initiate a shocking opening of an enormous wooden box to reveal the central stage. It contained several mobile video screens and a large elevated cinema screen.  Up a set of metal stairs to the side, a secondary stage was dressed as Mrs. Warhola’s kitchen. 

The line between art and life is artificial, and in Andy we join Warhol in breaking through that line when after the intermission the audience returns through a backstage door decorated as a giant vagina, re-entering the theater/factory across the stage. We walk past Andy, who was shot by Valerie Solanas, the insane female lead and member of his collective at the end of the first act, splayed on a hospital bed surrounded by nurses.  History is theater, and Valerie, strongly enacted by Kate Raines, exceeds her 15 minutes of fame. As the audience enters for the second act, nurses surround us singing Donna nobis pacem a capella.

The vaginal entry surely represents something universal about humanity – famous and yet-to-be – and our common mode of entry into this world.  As the (P)opera proceeds, it presents an ironic tone where we consider our sexual brain as a banana and our inevitable nudity once peeled.  We have fun and laugh early until nearly crying as Sean Lally, in the role of Joe Dellasandro, peels his own banana in the first act.  We have been transformed into Andy’s own joke.

The music of Heath Allen and Dan Visconti seems closer to musical theater than traditional opera, with parts in recitative and songs with themes repeated as parody, producing an air of jollity before the tragedy.  Pop songs of the era are interspersed with the original music of the (P)opera.  We hear the song Sally Go Round the Roses as they did at The Factory. The singers are equipped with individual microphones. They sing in a pure modern American style, with minimal vibrato and with clear diction of the lyrics.

At the beginning the predominant colors are white and grey but later many different bright colors appear from Andy’s hand.  Reminiscent of his famous Marilyn portraits, his own portrait is duplicated in four so several Andys appear and accompany his aria with echoes and choral polyphony in what seems free improvisation.

 Among the singer/actors, Mary Tuomanen as Andrei (Andy) gives a very good performance and has a beautiful voice. Sensitively playing the transvestite starlet Candy Darling, Scott McPheeters appears initially from among the audience and acts well and sings with a beautiful and very expressive voice, and brings much emotion to his portrayal of Candy, especially in her dying aria (accompanied at her request by the audience’s flashing cell phone photos).

A pop singer, Kristen Bailey as Edie Sedgewick, has a fine voice, communicative and gorgeously imagined.  Sean Lally dresses (and peels) as a banana in a wonderful and uninhibited performance.  Playing an unstable and angry woman, Kate Raines, gives a wonderful performance and a strong voice, sometimes exaggerated and intentionally out of tune to portray her craziness.  As Andy’s Polish immigrant single mother, Malgorazata Kasprzycka as Julia Warhola gives a superb performance, very comic and communicative.

The leads are wonderful wonderful actors and singers mainly from the bearded Ladies Cabaret theater troupe, collaborating with the chorus singers of the Opera of Philadelphia, bringing to this city a new youthful and adventurous approach to opera and art.

They transmit new ideals of life, with the use of the multimedia, videos, mobile telephone, balloons and sex toys. Congratulations to everybody for such a great performance; bravo to Jorge Coisenau, video designer and bravo to Jason Pizzi, stage conductor, for an innovative and daringly unconventional artistic evening.

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