Sasha Velour from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ is now starring in an Opera Philadelphia digital production
The Season 9 winner of "RuPaul’s Drag Race" plays a benevolent spirit who helps explore mother/daughter relationships in composer Angélica Negrón's 11-minute opera film with director Matthew Placek.
“Some people don’t know what to do with drag artists except to put us in a party scene,” says drag superstar Sasha Velour. “I’d love to see film directors and opera directors who use drag performers as a source of ideas, creativity, and color.”
In the 11-minute Opera Philadelphia film The Island We Made, streaming digitally starting Friday, Velour visits a dreamlike, middle-class home dressed in a sunshine-yellow gown and foot-high platform shoes, and benevolently travels from room to room with thoughtful deliberation.
Her character is there to look after a woman who appears at a dining room table in different stages of life, from girl to senior citizen. Along with being the film’s visual focus, Velour lip-syncs occasionally to the ethereal, nonoperatic voice of Eliza Bagg.
Is Velour playing a ghost from some ancient past? Or a visitor from the distant future? Her character is clearly beyond gender, and she describes her role as being “outside of time.”
“I imagined myself as a spirit … that was in search of understanding” toward the other character, she says. “I’m making tea for her, caring for her across time. The moment is static … a space they keep returning to and reshaping.”
Velour, 33, is famously the Season 9 winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race and has long been a thoroughly distinctive drag artist — ornate to be sure, but often accomplished with jewels, rather than wigs, serving to draw people closer rather than standing back to marvel.
Her mother died of cancer five years ago, and she brings a quiet intensity to the mother/daughter relationship in The Island We Made. But the inner meaning of that relationship is open to wide interpretation, aided by the poetic ambiguity of composer Angélica Negrón and filmmaker Matthew Placek.
The project started with Puerto Rican-born, Brooklyn-based Negrón, 39, who thinks about opera in nonnarrative terms, and often composes music embracing the opposite extremes of authentic field recordings and artificially conjured electronic sound. And her idea of a dream team included Velour.
The centerpiece of Negrón’s atmospheric sound environment is her song “The Island We Made,” sung by Bagg, whose lyrics shift between mother and daughter viewpoints on how human beings mold each other. There are also ’90s micro-samples from the pop music that Negrón grew up with.
Also embedded in the score is a harp presence, played by Bridget Kibbey, that’s meant to bring a lullaby element to the overall textures.
“This comes from such a personal place,” says Negrón, “and it can be a very scary place to be, very vulnerable … but I love the creative process of just letting go and seeing what others make of it.”
The Placek film is hyper-real in ways that encourage new experiences with often-seen objects. Homey details include a tea set and close-ups of peanut butter spread on crackers, presented in a series of thoughtfully composed portraits in motion.
The interiors are bathed in what feels like an early-morning light — an effect created by lights placed outdoors and shining in the windows.
The shooting took place over one 14-hour day in a Staten Island home that had been prepared for a real estate sale. Negrón says she admired Velour’s stamina for wearing uncomfortable shoes for the duration.
With meticulous, elaborate makeup, eating was bound to be problematic. “On days like that,” says Velour, “I drink a lot of smoothies.”
The Island We Made is available on-demand Friday through May 31, either as part of a $99 season pass or as a seven-day rental for $10. Information: operaphila.org