For female opera singers, singing a male role is nothing out of the ordinary. Stephanie Blythe, however, thrives in the out-of-the-ordinary. That’s not to discount the majority of her career: Blythe has sung the coloratura lines of Handel and Rossini with whip-smart technique and brought a rioja-hued boldness to more orotund roles like Fricka in Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle.
What Blythe really loves, however, are tenor roles. Her already-rich mezzo deepened and darkened with age, and in 2017 she debuted her drag king alter ego, Blythely Oratonio. Across three cabaret shows, Blythely has tempered divo delusion with a repertoire equal parts Pavarotti and Freddie Mercury. And now he’s moving into the big house: This month, Stephanie Blythe as Blythely Oratonio will sing Don José to Jamie Barton’s Carmen at Chicago Opera Theater. (Blythe herself will sing the title role of “Gianni Schicchi” at San Diego Opera in the 2022-23 season.)
Over a Zoom call which featured cameos from her two dogs, Blythe spoke about being “a straight, cis woman with a genderfluid voice,” her psychological fascination with Don José, and how performing with drag queens has influenced her choices on the opera stage.
VAN: I’m always curious about origin stories. What is Blythely Oratonio’s?
Stephanie Blythe: He was born in the basement of an Episcopal church in Philadelphia on the Penn State campus. I was working with a wonderful group called the Bearded Ladies Cabaret, who are based in Philadelphia and have as their studio space the basement of this church. Upstairs is a day care for toddlers, so we’re downstairs singing rock and roll and opera, and the kids are upstairs screaming and playing Red Rover. And the bathrooms are all gender-neutral, so you’ve got drag queens using the same bathrooms as toddlers in this Episcopal church, which I think is wonderful and hilarious.
I was in Philadelphia doing a Mahler Eight with the Philadelphia Orchestra. David Devan, who runs Opera Philadelphia, was there. Also there was Dito van Reigersberg, an actor who performs as drag queen Martha Graham Cracker. He came backstage to see me with John Jarboe, the director of the Bearded Ladies, and John looked at me and said, “We should call this ‘Dito and Aeneas.’” And so I said to David Devan, “I’d love to do a concert to benefit Opera Philadelphia with Martha Graham Cracker. Will you make that happen?” And a year later, we did “Dito and Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night.”
How did that show come together?
The whole thing developed from two weeks of improvisation with music director Daniel Kazemi, where we just started singing together and created a story. A love story between Blythely and Martha, who were madly in love with each other from afar but separated by the fourth wall. We created two stages: Martha was out in the audience with a string quartet, and I was on the stage with a rock band. One of the things of Blythely that’s online is a number that we created for that show about meeting Martha for the first time in a Starbucks. That song was the beginning of this cabaret-opera-play. [If you’ve ever wondered what “M’appari” from Flotow’s “Martha” would sound like as part of a Meat Loaf arena show, this number answers that question.—Ed.]
Blythely became this character that enabled me, number one, to sing music that I’ve always wanted to sing: tenor roles and rock and roll. But he also gave my animus a voice. And this character has always been with me, probably since I was 10 or 11, and always male. He’s my raunchier side—Stephanie’s plenty raunchy, but he’s raunchier than me. He’s also not afraid to say things about the industry that I don’t necessarily want to say in public, but I will say through him. I’ll also talk about myself in a very vulnerable way through him; I’ll reveal things about myself as a singer through him that I won’t with other people.
“I was too big to be a rock star. ‘Why don’t you be an opera singer instead?’ Fuck you! … Then I thought, ‘I’ll do something really stupid: I’ll become an opera star. Yes. And I’ll use my large voice as my shield and buckler. And I’ll accept my wild, big, beautiful, voluptuous, Junoesque, magnificent body.’”Blythely Oratonio, Resonant Bodies Festival, 2019
Did you anticipate doing more with Blythely beyond cabaret?
My dream was that Blythely would actually have a career. The contract in Chicago happened because they asked me to do a Q and A, and Lidiya [Yankovskaya, Chicago Opera Theater’s music director] asked me about Blythely. And at one point she said, “Would you ever consider doing a tenor role?” And I said, “Of course! I’m dying to do one!” The one I really want to do is Mario Cavaradossi, that’s my dream.
But José is a fantastic role. To sing an opera where I’ve sung other roles… I’m very interested in doing this as someone who’s also sung Carmen. The only other show I’ve ever done like that is “Julius Caesar”: I’ve sung Caesar, Cornelia, and Tolomeo.
Does singing José require any adjustments in the score, or does it sit within your range?
Absolutely sits within my range. Both roles [Carmen and José] actually do. Schicchi is the same thing. This is just where my voice is. I’m a straight, cis woman with a genderfluid voice. That’s the best way I can explain it. This just happens to be the voice that’s developed over the years, aided by menopause—a lot of it is hormones. But there are a lot of women out there who are like me, who have sung mezzo/contralto repertoire, and at this point in their lives, what they go on to do is sing comprimario roles. Which is great, it’s a wonderful career. But I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t be part of it, too. Having sung Carmen before, I think it’s especially fascinating coming from that perspective.
Catherine Clément gave one of my favorite reads on Carmen from a feminist perspective, that she’s a woman who “refuses masculine yokes and who must pay for it with her life.” Having sung Carmen, has that shaped your approach to José’s character?
I’ve always been more interested in José than Carmen. I’ve sung characters that people consider unsavory, and I don’t apologize for them, because it’s the character, and I will defend them if need be. I’ve defended Fricka [from Wagner’s “Ring” Cycle] ’til the cows come home; I don’t care what anybody has to say about Fricka. She’s a terrific character and she’s a protagonist, not an antagonist. I think José is a very problematic character, but he’s also one of the only characters—if not the only character in the whole piece—that has an arc. Carmen doesn’t have an arc. She is exactly who she is at the end as she is in the beginning. She’s a woman who knows what she wants and will do what she wants, regardless of the consequences of her behavior.
I once made the mistake on social media of asking people what they thought about José, because I’ve always seen in him someone who is disintegrating through the piece, and I still believe that. And man, [sighs] he’s not a popular character at all. People were like, “NO. NO. NO.”… For me, his “tell” is the aria. It’s the aria that says who he is, how confused he is.
If you look at the aria, the way it’s actually written, it’s piano. That entire role is mostly soft, and the aria in particular is pianissimo from beginning to end, with one forte towards the end. That’s it. And it ends softly. To me, that says this is a guy who is either incredibly shy, or incredibly dark. Keeping everything just below the surface, never exploding. And then, when you get to the end, you see that this is a guy who’s been on a slow burn from the minute she says to him: “You don’t love me.” He sings this incredibly beautiful aria, and then she looks at him and goes, “Non, tu ne m’aimes pas.” Really!? Why does she do that? That’s my question: She gets him exactly where she wants him, and then once he says, “I love you,” she says, “No you don’t.” You’re talking about two people who are playing each other.
When it comes to Carmen, her soft moment is the Card Trio. That’s her tell. That is her aria, more than anything else. And it’s exactly like the Flower Song. I think the Card Aria is one of the most perfect arias ever written: It’s one crescendo; one raised line just going up. It’s perfect. It’s got an incredible musical economy: It says exactly what it needs to say in as few notes and words as possible. The moments that are the most telling are the softest, most reserved moments.
I agree with everyone who says that José is twisted. He is twisted, absolutely, and the final scene is ridiculous. But you can see a man who is desperate to keep what has re-identified him. If he lets her go, then he’s saying, “I gave up everything for nothing.”… It’s a function of literature. It would not be in our literary canon if it wasn’t born somewhere in the psyche. I don’t want to make excuses for the character, but I do get where the impulse comes from. It would be great if he could say, “Well, you know, obviously you don’t want me.” But he re-identified. And in that respect, he can’t let go because if he does, his life has no meaning.… It’s a very interesting dichotomy and a brilliant opera. It’s just overdone.
“I love opera. Who doesn’t love a ‘let me warm your tiny cold hands’ number? Who doesn’t get jazzed watching a soprano sing herself to death for 15 minutes on a Kool-Aid-stained Vera Wang bedsheet? But that’s all been done… to death.”Blythely Oratonio, Resonant Bodies Festival, 2019
Overdone in terms of production values or in terms of frequency?
Both. It’s a very simple story. I think most opera is overdone. I think it’s a misnomer when we think about grand opera and we think about big sets. I grew up at the Met, with the smoke coming out of the chimneys in “Bohème,” and there’s absolutely a place for that. But I think that, when you do something smaller with it, then people have to really look at the animal; they’re not just looking at the surroundings. To see opera in that way, it’s a good thing. But I also think that “Carmen” is done so often that it’s seen as a warhorse, and because of that there are times where the piece isn’t examined as closely as it should be. It’s full of stereotypes, and it’s full of opera stereotypes that people are perfectly happy to continue. [Stagings are often] all about Carmen being able to pick up her skirt with her teeth, and that’s not what it’s about—any more than “Falstaff” is about a fat suit. It’s not about that. It’s about feelings and thoughts and instincts and identity.
You once said: “No matter how much we want to own a role, we can’t own a role. Basically we’re renting it.” Is it more challenging as a performer to sing a role like Carmen or Fricka versus something a little less overdone—like an Eduige in “Rodelinda” or Mignon?
Totally. Ghosts are very difficult. That’s one of the reasons I love singing new music so much: to create something and be the start of something. There’s a kind of stigma that goes away when you don’t have to deal with, Well, she doesn’t sound like… Blah, blah, blah. It’s one of the hardest things about opera. It’s one of the worst parts about opera. And it’s inevitable. You can’t help but compare one person to the person you saw do it before, it’s human nature. My favorite Falstaff of all time is Paul Plishka, because Paul is the first video I saw of it, and the first Falstaff I ever sang with. That’s the person for me, that is the gold standard. So we’re always going to have to deal with things like that. It’s one of the reasons that I have not listened to a lot of mezzos in my life. I’ve listened to a lot of tenors, and I’ve always been drawn to baritones more than anything. I don’t have a lot of emotional energy tied up in particular women’s voices or the mezzo repertoire. That also gave birth to Blythely in a big way. I enjoy my colleagues very much, but working with drag artists has been some of the most transformative musical experiences I’ve had. It’s made me look at opera in a new way that goes beyond character.
Can you say more about that?
I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the drag grandeur, I haven’t a clue. But there’s just something… there’s an honesty that I find in a lot of the performers that I’ve worked with that I think we really need more of in opera. There’s a beautiful humanity and there’s a desire to connect with the audience in a more personal way. And that’s been my life’s goal as a performer, is to really connect with the audience in a very personal way. Which is very difficult to do in opera, because they don’t want you to do that. They don’t want you to break that wall. I think it’s a huge mistake. Especially now.
“Have you ever been doing some daily chore, you know, like tweezing, or holding an expiring soprano while you hold a high ‘D’? Something mundane like that? And then you ask yourself, ‘What am I doing with my life? What even—What even is this? Is this vital? Who am I? Am I relevant?’”Blythely Oratonio
I’ve had very specific experiences that were incredibly telling: When we did “27” at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis a few years back, [director] Jim Robinson encouraged us to connect to that audience. We sang to them like they were sitting right there in the parlor, because they were. I’ve had other experiences where we had that kind of connection to the audience physically, or the audience was right on top of us, and I was told specifically not to look at them.… Even though the first person is six feet away from you, don’t look at them. And I’m like, Why? You are turning down an opportunity to give an audience member a visceral experience by having them become part of the fabric of the piece. Why wouldn’t you do that? Why do you have to pretend? I’ve been doing recitals for the last 10 years; I talk in all of my recitals now. I do recitations of poetry and I talk about the pieces like I’m in a cabaret. Basically I do cabaret recitals. When you get the audience involved, there’s a different level of understanding that is palpable in the room. And it makes people want to come back."There’s an honesty that I find in a lot of the [drag] performers that I’ve worked with that I think we really need more of in opera." @blythemezzo in @vanmagazine Click To Tweet
To go back to your need to understand Don José, that reminds me of a production of “Hamlet” I saw in a tiny studio theater in New York. I made eye-contact with the actor playing Claudius in the moment where everything is falling apart in the plot, and it was so emotionally disemboweling. I felt the chaos of the scene; I felt his fear. I also felt implicated in his plot.
The audience will be touched if you can show them themselves in the piece. But this is what we always struggle with in opera. This is a total generality, but it’s like people want opera to be held at a distance because it’s an otherworldly art form. It’s not an otherworldly art form because of the physicality of the production. The otherworldly part of opera is the voice. It’s the continuo group. It’s that solo flute. That’s the visceral thing. That’s one of the things that has been a gift to me from the drag community, from watching artists like Martha Graham Cracker or Sapphira Cristál or Cookie Diorio. These wonderful artists will go into an audience and not be afraid to look them in the eye or sit on their lap. I’m not saying we need to go out in the audience and sit on their laps, but wouldn’t it be amazing if you could see the audience? And the audience could see you looking at them?
Why is it, at the end of “Falstaff,” that it is completely universal that the fugue is done with the lights up? Because at the end of the fugue, everyone says “tutti gabbati” [“everyone is fooled”]. The whole idea is that you are like me. Or you are like us. And I would love to see more of that. I’d love to see a whole “Don Giovanni,” for instance, that is done with no fourth wall. And all-women. That’s my next goal, is to produce an all-female “Don Giovanni.” I think it would be fabulous. ¶