When superstar mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe sings tenor in male drag (“that’s Blythely Oratonio to you”) for Opera Fest 2018, it will be more than just an auspicious meeting of the minds, wigs and muse, scriptwriter John Jarboe.
The three-night cabaret “Queens of the Night” with Philly’s Dito van Reigersberg (Martha Graham Cracker to you) is the natural conclusion of a relationship that started when Jarboe took van Reigersberg to see Blythe sing Mahler’s “Symphony No. 8” (often known as the “Symphony of a Thousand”) at the Academy of Music in 2016, with Opera Philadelphia’s David B. Devan sitting a row ahead of them.
At the same time, Blythe — who actually lived with van Reigersberg’s parents when she studied at Wolf Trap in 1995, but never met the young Dito — had grown to become quite the massive Graham Cracker fan.
“I’ve watched and loved Martha’s stuff,” said Blythe.
So when Jarboe and van Reigersberg appeared backstage at that same Mahler program, with Devan behind them, she had her own ideas about collaboration. While planning an appearance for Opera Philadelphia’s 2017 season in “Tancredi,” as the titular trouser role, Blythe asked Devan, “Could you make something happen through Opera Philadelphia for me and Martha?”
Kismet. Or maybe don’t sit too close to Devan if you have any bright ideas, as the resulting “Dito & Aeneas” of 2017 found van Reigersberg and Blythe battling it out on opera, rock and soul songs.
The upcoming “Queens of the Night” opera cabarets for O18 — created, written and directed by Jarboe as a single-story show, its sequel and its prequel — are about two characters, Martha and Blythely, looking for each other, seeking a someone they only knew existed in the abstract. When they meet, it is an occasion of celebration in opera classics, ’80s pop songs and role reversals.
“You know how at the end of ‘Grease’ where Sandy and Danny become more like the other?” asked van Reigersberg. “She’s the tough one and he’s the good guy and they engage and seduce the other? Well, by the end of the three ‘Queens of the Night,’ Martha tries to become more classical and Blythely Oratonio becomes more pop until they meet in the middle of this fanciful co-mingling of music.”
It is, then, an experiment in how each musical form can be rendered anew in the present day. Plus, it offers each singer a chance to, in van Reigersberg’s words, “sing our faces off — and if it is anything like we did last year, it will be moving, goofy and cathartic as well. Because there is love there.”
And ’80s music, notes Blythe, is a total creature of that decade. “Working on this music for ‘Queens of the Night’ is me keying into the teenager in me singing into her hairbrush in the mirror.”
Along with gender-switching trouser roles in works such as “Tancredi” and the gender-blurring lines of “Queens,” Blythe has performed as LGBTQ standard-bearer Gertrude Stein in the world premiere of “27,” an opera composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with libretto by Royce Vavrek. She sees her work as devoted to stretching all boundaries, as it allows “Blythely to come out,” and changed the singer in how she identifies.
“I used to be an opera singer who could cross over. Now, I see myself as an entertainer. How we identify ourselves to the world is an important thing. I can be a man, a gay woman, a goddess — whatever I want. That is one of the greatest gifts that the LGBTQ community has given all of us. Opera needs to embrace everyone and everything and be embraced by everyone and everything.”
O18’s “Queens of the Night” plays Sept. 24, 25 and 28 at 8 p.m. at Theatre of Living Arts, 334 South St.; www.operaphila.org.