Bass-vocalist Brent Michael Smith is but a neophyte when it comes to Philadelphia, having moved here two years ago to go on “this journey of artistic growth at the Academy of Vocal Arts,” as he puts it.
The out singer is now not only a resident artist at the Academy, with two of its operas coming his way this spring, but also is making a prestigious debut with Opera Philadelphia for its colorful world premiere of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” The production, based on composer Benjamin Britten’s 1960 opera version, will be at the Academy of Music Feb. 8-17.
The opera melds Smith’s deep provocative vocals with some “Games of Thrones”-style play courtesy of the fairy Puck (a non-singing role played by Miltos Yerolemou, known for his portrayal of swordsman Syrio Forel in “GOT”).
Add to that a stage filled with flying beds and lots of green hair.
“Philadelphia now holds a dear place in my heart,” Smith said. “It feels like home. When I first moved here, though I had lived with two good friends and fellow singers, it felt lonely to be here. Then I met my partner, who has been my rock.”
The professional road, however, is less genteel. Smith said it’s a privilege and a joy to work within the halls of the Academy of Vocal Arts, despite that it’s hardcore work and learning environment. As a second-year AVA resident artist, Smith will go from singing the Don Alfonso role in “Così Fan Tutte” by Mozart (March 2, 5, 7, 9 and 12) to the Friar in “Roméo et Juliette,” (April 27 and 30 and May 2, 4 and 7) as part of the school’s four-year program for opera singers.
“I wouldn’t be making my debut at Opera Philadelphia without the help of AVA,” said Smith.
As Peter Quince — one of Midsummer’s six mechanicals of Athens, and the author of the play-within-an-opera “The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe” for the Duke Theseus and his wife Hippolyta — Smith is over the moon to be part of Opera Philadelphia’s new traditionalism and insistent invention.
“The kinds of works and the level of community engagement that the company has done is equally impressive and laudatory,” Smith said. “During a time when the importance of classical arts is being questioned, it’s important for companies to be innovative. And this kind of new traditionalism brings a timeless Shakespeare classic to the public and allows it to be a visual wonder that is so much fun.”
As for some explanation of the six mechanicals, or rustics, each one has a unique trade — and Quince, as a carpenter, is the most educated of the bunch.
“Despite this, he and the others are quite common folk,” Smith said. “One of them, Snug, does not know how to read. None of these men has any theatrical training or much artistic experience. Because of this, it’s quite touching that they delve into the complexities of writing and putting up a play for the Duke of Athens, no less! Imagine being asked by Queen Elizabeth II to write and put on a play for a royal wedding with no experience. These humble men have quite the feat ahead of them and are rightfully both very excited and very nervous. Chiefly among them, Quince feels the weight of responsibility for things going well. He takes it upon himself to write the play, gather the players and assign the parts. The hilarity ensues as they devise ways to make the play work. Suffice it to say, the play will be outrageous.”
Smith came out in 2011. Before then, he said, he was more reserved in his physical and emotional expression in life and also on stage.
“Coming out helped me to release the inner power of instinct and creativity that I had bottled up for fear of being found out as gay. As an artistic transition, I went from being nervous about accessing all that a character could offer to discovering the authenticity that comes with becoming a character through self-awareness.”
Then there’s the LGBTQ presence within modern opera, and how Smith, as a gay man, personifies such commanding presence.
“Well, this is a loaded question. Opera has long been a gay obsession. If anyone has not yet read Wayne Koestenbaum’s ‘The Queens’ Throat,’ I recommend it. Essays by Susan Sontag are also great windows into what opera was in the mid-20th century to gay men.
“I think most modern opera has diminished the camp that has long made it a staple of LGBTQIA+ culture,” Smith said. “Furthermore, our community has lost touch with our subcultural roots of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, as we have won more equality on the national political stage. However, when our rights are being threatened more and more everyday under this administration, it’s important that we unite together. One of the ways we can unite is through our celebration of the arts and particularly of what we find whacky and queer.”
Smith said that while the LGBTQIA+ community has long been at the forefront of artistic creativity and innovation, he believes Opera Philadelphia is finding a good balance between accessibility to all people while honoring this queer heritage.
“Just think of out-international star counter-tenor Anthony Roth Constanzo’s one-queer-person show that was a highlight of the O18 festival last year, or queer ally Stephanie Blythe’s genderfuck cabaret performances during that same festival,” Smith said. “‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is such a unique combination of high art and low art, which ultimately delivers that campy element. Britten, the composer, was gay. He wrote the part of Flute, one of the Rustics, for his life partner Peter Pears. The fact that Flute dresses up like a woman in the play, while historically accurate, takes on a whole new meaning with the advent of drag in the 60s, when the show premiered. It’s so amazing to see the work of a queer composer of the mid-20th century continue to be performed. It says something about the genius that comes with being LGBTQIA+.”