Box Burners: Heartbeat Opera
Heartbeat Opera takes a 400-year-old art form out of its box – 6-inch heels required. Join the cast and crew of Heartbeat’s annual drag opera extravaganza – this year titled, “Dragus Maximus.” Artists, writers, producers and performers of the young opera company are encouraged to examine traditional boundaries and flex their creative muscles, all to excite new and old opera audiences alike.
Heard: It's really about taking
these beautiful works down off their pedestal,
showing that something can be sublimely beautiful
but also mischievous and fun.
[ Indistinct conversations ]
Man: Yeah, that's great.
Proske: We live in very extreme times, and opera is very extreme.
It doesn't go halfway in the stories.
It tells, usually, of the worst or the best -- the most joyful,
the most intense moment of a character's life.
Opera singers are larger than life. [ Lip-syncing ]
They create these superhuman sounds.
And drag performers are larger than life.
So there's really a lot of shared artistry between the two.
[ Lip-syncing ]
This is our fifth annual Halloween Drag Extravaganza.
It started as a benefit in Williamsburg,
and it was kind of an experiment.
We wanted to see what would happen if we mixed avant-garde
Brooklyn drag with opera.
And something really ignited for us that night.
Our drag shows have a script.
They're a pastiche of music from many sources.
And this year, with our Greco-Roman theme,
it's really fun to create just a new piece.
Opera has drag in its tradition, with pants roles,
Personally, I'm a queer artist.
I love the opportunity to play with gender
and sexuality onstage and design.
Opera is incredibly queer to start with.
I'm a Baroque specialist, and in those operas,
it's a very fluid environment.
So I would actually say that it lends itself
pretty naturally to drag.
[ Lip-synching ]
I was working at a makeup store,
and I was watching "RuPaul's Drag Race,"
as everyone did.
So, I was just like, "Let me just try to see
what I would look like if I did these things
that these queens did on TV."
So, just, like, this curiosity.
It was like, "How beautiful can I make myself?"
I eventually got to the point
where I felt confident enough to go somewhere
and, like, do a show, and people really loved it,
and I really loved it in the way that it, like,
made me feel immediately present in a room.
With drag, it's really just, like, "Look at my face.
Look at my body. Look at my beauty."
You can't deny what you see.
For me, it's always incredible watching a drag queen
lip-sync to opera.
It's like, instead of Céline Dion, you have Cecilia Bartoli,
and especially in this one, "Pearl Harbor" --
it's just unbelievable.
It's a lot of negotiating control and then mania
and then control and mania and then faux whispering,
turning on a dime to just express pure joy
and then pure pain.
Yeah, I think it's -- Those are the basic elements of drag.
[ Lip-syncing ]
Another thing that we do is creating new arrangements
of these classic scores, so audiences get to hear
these very, very familiar pieces in very different ways.
For this show, for instance --
for the drag show we have this year is "Dragvs Maximvs,"
we need people that are flexible on their toes
and can play four different centuries worth of music.
It's refreshing and it's freeing to step
outside of your comfort zone,
whether it's like, "I think I'll have a bare ass
in this show, or, like, getting stripped
almost naked onstage or something like that.
Singing is entirely physical.
I mean, I like to think of it as getting to show an audience
an imprint of my insides in sound.
So, no matter how many clothes I'm wearing,
I'm still, in a sense, if I'm singing,
laying it all out there.
[ Vocalizing ]
That was one really wonderful and striking thing
the very first day of rehearsal.
The opera singers were there,
and they, like, blew my face off.
[ Vocalizing ]
What this company is doing is making opera
this accessible thing in the same way that, like,
the myths are becoming a successful thing.
We talk about the drag show for our audience
as being kind of a gateway drug to the fuller productions.
For us, it's kind of somewhere
where we get to really play around and workshop,
and a lot of the stuff that we do in drag shows
ends up coming out in our fuller productions.
Proske: The full spring productions that we do are very strict
in their guiding principles.
So, the drag show is sort of the place where we can go crazy.
This is very special about the drag show
is that it never comes together until the day of,
and sometimes the designers will still be backstage
sewing on the final... Sequins.
Ward: It's a total sumptuous feast for your eyes, your ears.
You'll have a drink. It's just a good evening,
which is what art should be about.
And I see queer people in the audience.
I see allies.
I just see the community smiling, appreciative,
genuinely moved to feel seen and included and mentioned.
It was very touching to present these ideas of queerness
that so many of us have embraced
for a long time in marginalized communities,
and to have, like, a bigger audience -- see it,
and to also have young queer people be able
to see themselves reflected in these large stories,
I think these stories have always been there.
They just haven't been told.
I think more queer stuff in the world is great,
whether it's in art or just in life, generally.
Campbell: You know, it's good to have something that
brings people together and also has this
sort of radical queerness that's like,
"This is what life is. This is normal life.
Let's live it."
[ Laughs ]
Yeah, this is normal life, but in drag.
[ Cheers and applause ]
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