After finishing the last vestiges of costume fitting, Stephanie Blythe — one of the opera world’s finest singers and recitalists, to say nothing of her reach into contemporary popera — is ready to discuss putting on the pants of Tancredi. The title character of Rossini’s work is a love-struck young solider exiled from his troops during World War I, and in love with a woman sentenced to die for a crime she did not commit.
To take on the role, the mezzo-soprano examines the lower ranges of her immense voice, something she rarely has the opportunity to do. Blythe has also successfully portrayed LGBT icon Gertrude Stein in last year’s “27,” and has spent the last several years touring behind her Kate Smith tribute with pianist Clark Terry.
Luckily, Blythe will stay boyish and remain in Philly beyond the Feb. 10-18 run of “Tancredi” at the Academy of Music, staged through Opera Philadelphia, when she joins local drag doyenne Martha Graham Cracker and Bearded Ladies’ John Jarboe for the Feb. 24 “Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night” at Theatre of Living Arts for an immersive, one-night-only drag-cabaret rock-and-opera mash-up.
PGN: You started off wanting to be a musical-theater singer?
SB: I wanted to be a Broadway baby like Ethel Merman. I had a big voice so that seemed attainable.
PGN: Why the switch to opera?
SB: I have a similar background as my dad, who was a retired jazz musician. Mostly, I just had a varied musical-listening background and a very fine music department at the school I went to in Monticello, N.Y. We did plays, and I was in band and chorus. But it was my vocal training that pushed me toward opera. It seemed to suit me, and I enjoyed it. Then again, I enjoy everything that I do. Opera spoke to me in a very profound way, so full and so round. I loved the drama of it.
PGN: So, a quick crossover question: You’ve been doing Kate Smith songs in a piece you have written dedicated to her with genius pianist Craig Terry titled “We’ll Meet Again,” with an album to boot, “As Long as There is Song.” What drew you to her?
SB: I am a big fan of singers of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, especially those not normally part of the dialogue. She had one of the most natural techniques — an easy, natural performer — and also she’s a big woman. I was turned on by her persona, and she was so representative of our culture and our country for so long. She is so connected with one thing, “God Bless America,” but did so much more — like recorded 2,200 songs, hosted programs on early television and was a queen of radio.
PGN: You played Gertrude Stein last year in “27,” one of the LGBT community’s true icons. Was there a different sort of responsibility in playing her?
SB: She was special. She was born in Pittsburgh but was the carrier of our culture abroad, as well as for her life. She was the catalyst for some of the world’s greatest artists and greatest artworks. She loved life and living free. She was a collector of souls. And she did all of this while surviving two world wars and living and loving as an out woman. She and Alice B. Toklas never hid their sexuality, and for that they were very much a hallmark of French society at a time when artists and social cultivators were out and about too. She was a Jew and a lesbian living a lap of luxury cultivating great art works. I mean, c’mon … such a wonderful role to explore.
PGN: You started your career singing Rossini. How has that composer’s work grown for you?
SB: It feels wonderful, like coming home. I always love doing bel canto and early music. And I always wanted to play Tancredi; it was on my bucket list. When I was doing Handel with the Philadelphia Orchestra two years ago, David Devan asked me what I wanted to do next. I told him “Tancredi” and he made that happen. I had never sung serious Rossini operas in the past, only the comic ones. And with this role, I can stretch out the bottom edges of my voice with this sort of role. Not a lot of parts allow me to do that. Plus, it is a wonderful drama.
PGN: Are you cool with this being a trouser role?
SB: Oh, yes. I enjoy playing men. It is a shame that male opera singers don’t have the same opportunity to explore characters on the female side. When they do — play a woman — it is comic. When women play men, it is cool.
PGN: So how do you know Dito van Reigersberg, the man behind the woman that is Martha Graham Cracker?
SB: Guess what? I only met him for the first time recently. My relationship starts with his family — his parents — who were my host family when I was at Wolf Trap back in 1995. I have been close with them ever since, but I only knew about Dito. They are a second family to me and they are immensely proud of his work. As for meeting Martha, I was blown away by that persona and that voice by seeing it on YouTube.
PGN: How did this dueling drag show between you come about?
SB: Last spring when I was here with the Philly Orchestra, I went to see a Martha show and he also came to see me, with John Jarboe. We started a conversation and I told David Devan, the head of Opera Philadelphia, my dream: a show with Martha and me to benefit Opera Philadelphia. I asked Devan if he could make it happen and he did.
PGN: So what are we going to see? I can only imagine with those two.
SB: Jarboe is writing and directing and he is a genius. Such brains and heart; he really led us through this experiment, this mash-up of opera and rock n’ roll. It is a beautiful love affair between the two forms, a totally immersive show, a full-contact musical-experimental extravaganza, full of joy, love, laughter and many costume changes. Everything is improvised so far too. Think a really good 1970s variety show, only in drag. If you have seen that YouTube video of Kate Smith and Tina Turner on the Cher show, that’s what we’re going for.
“Tancredi” runs Feb. 10-18 at Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For tickets or more information, visit https://www.operaphila.org/whats-on/on-stage-2016-2017/tancredi/.
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