Having recently announced a new opera on the unlikely subject of Charlie Parker, Opera Philadelphia goes a step further with a new work about a cultural icon who was a remote, chilly presence, and famously predicted that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame: Andy Warhol.
Andy: A Popera was announced Friday in anticipation of a 2015 premiere, in a collaboration between Opera Philadelphia and the cabaret group the Bearded Ladies.
It's not a joke.
"Do we make people famous, or does their work make them famous? In our land of celebrity, there could be something important to say," said David B. Devan, Opera Philadelphia general director.
The Bearded Ladies, which utilizes cross-dressing but includes biological women in its performances, has long been a cabaret troupe with much on its mind, often with satirical social commentary in the spirit of Germany's Weimar Republic. The idea was sparked by the disparity between Warhol's status as a groundbreaking artist and his remarkably mundane diaries that were published after his death.
"The central question we are exploring through Andy's life and art is 'Is immortality worth dying for?' " said Bearded Ladies artistic director John Jarboe. (At one point, Warhol was shot by a member of his circle suffering from mental illness.)
The collaboration isn't unprecedented: In 1971, the San Francisco Opera featured a gender-bending group known as the Cockettes in a production of Don Pasquale. Less precedented is the development process. The opera will evolve through a series of performances, much in the fashion of organically developed pieces in the Philly Fringe.
"Working with a devised theater troupe means that I know what it's going to be and I don't know what it's going to be - all at the same time," said Devan.
Initially, the piece will be presented in a sort of pre-operatic version: Scenes in progress will be seen in formal performances, starting Friday in the Art After 5 series at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and an hour-long cabaret version at the Wilma Theater July 16 to 27. Pop-up performances will also happen in public places, from street corners to grocery stores.
Only later will music be added, partly by the group's resident composer, Heath Allen, but also in collaboration with a composer to be determined. "We're interested in exploring classically minded composers working in electronic music," Devan said. "There's a syntheticness to all of Andy's work. Is there a way to find a sophisticated sound that's more synthetic?"
The project was spearheaded partly by a chance meeting between Devan and Jarboe at a yoga class. Also, Opera Philadelphia's American Repertoire Council includes actor David Hyde Pierce, whose past includes cutting-edge Off-Broadway plays prior to his TV career, and has been encouraging Opera Philadelphia toward "a process from experimental theater," Devan said.
But will Andy: A Popera be, in fact, an opera?
"Opera has to do two things," said Devan. "Music must propel the story, and it has to be performed by classically trained singers. That's what we're bringing to the party. It will take the form of cabaret, but telling a story we can flip so that it's a musical narrative that moves the story forward."