Drag Queens And Gateway Drugs: How Heartbeat Opera Is Breathing Life Into The Classics
There’s nothing like the powdered wig era to remind us that any set of gender norms is temporary. Louisa Proske, Heartbeat Opera’s co-Artistic Director, tells us why we shouldn’t be sleeping on opera, especially when it’s in drag.
“Lick me in the ass,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once said in the six-voice canon he composed in 1782. “Leck mich im Arsh” was the original title of his scatological hit, which included a resounding chorus of “lick me in the ass, quickly, quickly” before his publishers cleaned up the language and retitled the song to “Laßt froh uns sein,” or “Let us be glad.” But any attempts to censor Wolfie were futile: his potty mouth would live on in other recreational compositions, which he’d perform over drinks with his closest buddies. And though it was originally attributed to him, Mozart may have inspired one of his contemporaries Wenzel Trnka to compose a similar jam titled, “Leck mir den Arsch fein recht schön sauber” or, “Lick my ass nice and clean.”
There was a time when Mozart’s operas were a little bit raunchy, satirical, and perhaps most importantly, relevant. But somewhere along the lines, the classical genre was crystallized by ornate set designs and steep ticket prices, leaving behind its context to become an elitist vehicle and a student’s least favorite class trip. But Heartbeat Opera is changing that. Blending the music of opera with the aesthetics of drag, this team of artists created an opera space that more closely resembles the original. They breathe life into what had become a stagnant artform, allowing opera to once again become funny, frivolous, but also forward thinking.
The earliest ideas for Heartbeat Opera came at Yale School of Drama when Louisa Proske, an opera and theatre director from Germany, met fellow director Ethan Heard, an acting teacher and drag performer. “I wanted to learn more about drag,” Louisa told me, and what better way to do than go to drag shows with Ethan, who created the Yale School of Drag when he was Artistic Director of Yale Cabaret. Daniel Schlosberg and Jacob Ashworth, also School of Music alums, would become co-music directors, and with their powers combined they created hour long drag extravaganzas that paid tribute to a different classical composer each year. For the last three years, the team has arranged operatic arias with the emotional integrity it once had centuries ago, ditching the pomp and pretension for a DIY version of opera, using minimalist spaces and gender-bending fun.
There’s nothing like the powdered wig era to remind us that today’s gender norms are temporary. “From the start of the artform,” co-director Louisa explained, “there was a fluid conception of gender and the possibility of men playing women and women playing men, but in all kinds of shades of what that would mean.” Opera was long overdue to bring back that versatility, and it will be celebrated this Halloween at National Sawdust, where the group will be performing Mozart in Space: Queen of the Night. With their resident band Cantana Profana and a few wicked sopranos in tow, Heartbeat will be dragging Mozart out of his ass-licking white tights and into the future. While prepping for the two performances on Halloween, co-Artistic Director Louisa Proske explained why we shouldn’t be sleeping on opera, especially when it’s in drag.
Daily Pnut: Where did the idea come from to blend a drag show with an opera?
Louisa Proske: I would say it was a crossing of a couple of different influences. Ethan, my co-artistic director, is sometimes a drag queen himself and instigated the Yale School of Drag. We met at Yale School of Drama and he was already in my mind kind of a drag expert and I always loved that side of him. I wasn’t so familiar with it, so I really pushed at the beginning. I was like, “Let’s go to a drag show” because I wanted to learn more about drag. But I should say that our interpretation of drag is not so much male/female impersonation, but a kind of explosion of gender and normativity around gender. It’s joyful and exuberant and over the top. It gives us an opportunity to explore our wildest sides as designers and directors.
Was that wild side missing from opera, in your experience?
Ethan and I talked a lot about the crisis in opera, especially the crisis of bringing in new and young audiences. We wanted to do full productions of great classics, but we also wanted to create an event that would be kind of a gateway drug where people who might be, for various reasons, intimidated by the idea of opera, but would come to a costume party, or a drag show or a weird new performance.
There’s amazing opera singing there and they get roped in and then come back for a production. And that’s actually exactly how it’s worked. It’s definitely our most diverse and young audience that we get for the drag shows and they’ll love it. We hear things all the time like, “I never thought I could enjoy an opera like that” or “I never thought opera was like that” and so then they’ll come back. That’s exactly what we want.
So what was your personal “gateway drug” into opera, if it wasn’t drag?
It goes so far back. In fact three of the four leaders: Ethan, our co-music director Jacob and I were all choir children in various opera houses. We were on the opera stage at the age of seven or eight, so we had a really long, deep roots in opera. I assistant directed opera right out of high school in Germany for awhile, then did more theater for almost eight to ten years and then came back to opera.
What are the biggest challenges in making the opera more accessible to a young generation that would normally avoid it?
There are a couple. I think one is a stigma around opera that it’s elitist, that it’s inaccessible, that it’s expensive — which is often true — or that it’s simply “not for me.” I also think a lot of opera that we see is done in a very ornate, decorative, often conservative way where it feels like there’s so much stuff on top of the stories and it’s often done in the way that every “Carmen” before it has been done or every “Lucia” before it has been done.
It feels like there’s not a lot of room for really radical new visions for pieces that are still interested in the essence of the stories. We’re not interested in random auteurship, but a retelling from the core of the story. That’s what we do.
Do you feel the minimalist designs you create help make these productions more accessible?
Yeah, that’s a really good question. One of the impulses was that a lot of opera we observed felt unnecessarily ornate or decorative. We wanted to get back to what we call the essence or the thing without which opera cannot be, which is this superhuman human voice coming out of bodies who are moving in space and telling a story. There was something radical to us about putting that at the center of the work.
Accessibility, I would say relates to the audience, but it also relates to the company itself because we have an unusually collaborative process. Often from day one, the musicians will be in the room, which is unheard of in most operatic contexts where there’s maybe one orchestra rehearsal at the end. It’s normally kind of thrown together, whereas we always say we take the musicians out of the orchestra pit and into the process.
How does that influence the storytelling in your next show Mozart in Space?
The orchestra can often become characters in the story or they’re somehow visually part of the landscape. In Mozart in Space, the band will be kind of the engine of the spaceship in which we’re all riding to outer space. The work with the singers is very much informed by Ethan and my theater background. We work with them as actors with objectives and actions and the specificity that you would expect of great theater acting that we demand of the singers. And I think that relates back to accessibility. There’s a kind of extreme collaboration happening within the company that you experience as the audience. A lot of young people are coming to our productions and maybe not knowing an awful lot about opera, but there are stories that speak very immediately to them. It’s fully embodied storytelling where every element is integrated.
There’s a kind of extreme collaboration happening within the company that you experience as the audience. A lot of young people are coming to our productions who might not know an awful lot about opera, but there are stories that speak very immediately to them.
I love the concept of Mozart and drag because his audiences loved gender-bending and dirty jokes anyway. What inspired you to throw that into outer space?
I would say two things. Since our first drag show, we’ve been covering one composer each time. In our second year, we did “Miss Handel.”
Wait, did you do anything from Handel’s “Messiah”?
Yes! There was a very naughty reinterpretation of “Every Valley” that, to us, meant every valley of the body, instead of every valley in the land of Christ.
I need this in time for Christmas.
I will send you some footage! But we always wanted to do Mozart, picking and choosing arias and pieces from his oeuvre and weaving together our own narrative in the style of a mass or a drag show.
Mass or drag show?
One or the other. We knew we wanted to do Mozart when National Sawdust invited us to use their space. It’s this weird, wonderful new space that’s very modern. It’s white and then it has these aggressive diagonal black lines everywhere. We set foot in there and were immediately like, “This looks like a spaceship.” And that got us thinking, Mozart’s genius is cosmic and maybe Mozart is still out there somewhere. Maybe this could be a quest to search for Mozart. I think every year, we try to do more story, more spectacle, more narrative for the audience, and this space is perfect for that.
You have a long history of bringing great pieces of art, especially those that showcase LGBTQ+ voices, to a wider audience. You once translated Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s In a Year with 13 Moons, the 1978 film about a transgender woman in West Germany, and produced its stage adaptation for Yale. When did this passion begin?
That’s such a good question. I would say from an early time in my directing career, I grappled with a question of, “How do I make this text that I love and believe in immediately understandable to an audience? How can it be spoken in a way where even if you don’t understand every word, you understand the drift of the thought or you understand a joke, somehow it lands on you in a more visceral way?”
With opera, it’s so similar because first of all, you’re almost always dealing with a foreign language. Yes, we have subtitles, but really my aim is always to make the acting so clear that you could even not look at the subtitles and understand what’s going on, basically. I think in that way it has been a really central quest. Bringing Fassbinder’s work to the US was a collaboration with my great mentor, Robert Woodruff, who directed that production. In his own way, Fassbinder had a company or very tight-knit group of collaborators that he worked with over and over again. I think there’s some parallels between that and Heartbeat, which very much leans on the passion and genius of the artists that we work with.
You mentioned earlier you wanted to point out that Heartbeat Opera wasn’t your typical male or female performative, it was more of a “queer explosion of heteronormativity.” When you were first began producing drag shows alongside opera, did you have any resistance from either of those communities?
We’re playing with gender in all kinds of ways, both light and serious, and I think that is like you said, very true to opera. Opera from the start was an artform where there were women in pants, boys and men who were singing women’s parts. From the start of the artform, there was a fluid conception of gender and the possibility of men playing women and women playing men, but in all kinds of shades of what that would mean.
Of course like you say, the era of Handel, the era of Mozart, there’s so much feminine in the way men dressed and vice versa. I think there’s plenty to draw from and then explode with all of our vocabulary that we have today. I think it’s playing with gender in a way that as I’m aware has delighted audiences or maybe challenged them.
When the audience leaves the spaceship on Halloween, what ideas about drag and about opera do you want them to take home?
I think one of the beautiful and dangerous things about art is that it doesn’t tell you what to think about itself. I think when it has a clear message, it becomes a political vehicle or essay or whatever, which is good, but I think there’s something about art that has to remain ambivalent about its own meaning. That being said, we hope people of any gender throw on a wig or some lipstick or just leave the confines of who they usually are in the outer world. I think we embrace and encourage that anarchy of experimenting with who you could be. I think the event is one of joy and celebration and experimentation.
I think we embrace and encourage that anarchy of experimenting with who you could be.
And as for opera, well, I want this to be your gateway drug. We hope people get hooked on the beauty and infinite possibility of these voices that come out of bodies that look just like you and me but they’re so big and rich that they can fill a space with thousands of people. At The Met, you sit so far away and maybe that’s beautiful, but I think what we can do what The Met can’t. We’re up close and could touch the audience. In a very scientific way, you feel the vibrations of the voice on your skin and entering your body. That really does something to you that I think is quite profound. Sound is the first thing we experience before anything else. Even when we’re still in the womb, we hear sound.
I think in some way it is the most ancient of the senses and we have a very visceral way of responding to vibrations. I think opera when it’s stripped of all the conservative bullshit is appealing to that sense of miracle or sense of human connection that we feel through sound. Once you try it, you’ll keep coming back.
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