There's a fascinating paradox at work in the series of drag shows Opera Philadelphia has been putting on this season and last.
As gay culture has gone mainstream over the last couple of decades, somewhat lost is part of the reason for drag shows in the first place — to be a safe space, a kind of preserve where performers and audience can be totally themselves. And yet, as a certain amount of hate has crept back into the outside world since the start of the Trump era, a safe place has never seemed more necessary.
Or cozy. Which is how it felt Monday night when a fabulously wise and empathetic (though hardly ego-shy) creature named Blythely Oratonio held forth in his dressing room, in a stentorian tenor, on matters musical, amorous, and miscellaneous.
And if you caught this bearded sage casting a motherly glow in your direction, you would not be off base. Oratonio is really Stephanie Blythe, the world-renowned mezzo-soprano, and the "dressing room" is the stage of the Theatre of Living Arts on South Street, where for the second year in a row this strangely riveting variety show has played out as part of Opera Philadelphia's still-new fall festival.
Oratonio could have been uttering a tagline for the company's entire Festival O18, closing this Sunday, when he told the TLA crowd: "Opera isn't dead. It just needs to have a tryst with another art form."
The tryst has now multiplied. This week was a follow-up to last year's Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night, when Blythe and Martha Graham Cracker (Dito van Reigersberg) took over the TLA with a program that, as Ms. Cracker put it, "strung together a bunch of songs and made them super-gay."
This year, Oratonio was back with a vengeance, casting a loose story line over three nights. Monday night, the Blythely character confessed to the audience his long-distance love for Ms. Cracker. Tuesday night in her own show, Ms. Cracker confided pretty much the same thing. Friday night, they finally meet, returning together to reprise last year's installment.
Banal? Yes. But there are great operas with thinner plots. The magic is in the details.
And the sequins and killer heels.
The music, too — pop tunes with little operatic references dropped in like so many flashes of name-that-tune. There was one head-spinning sequence sung by Ms. Cracker that went like this: Moonlight Sonata intro, something from Cats, "Vissi d'arte," a tune from Fame, a La traviata reference, music from the movie E.T., more from Cats, back to Fame, and a quick final alighting on Mozart's Queen of the Night. All in about four minutes.
It's true, there wasn't much actual opera (Rick Springfield and the Carpenters were represented), though when Blythe/Blythely sang, it was glorious. The two nights were a chance for opera to let its hair down, and a couple of other real-life opera stars stopped by to do just that. Monday night brought Brenda Rae, the coloratura soprano who has the title role in O18's Lucia di Lammermoor, apparently arriving directly from the Academy of Music still in her bloodstained white gown.
Tuesday night, Ms. Cracker got on the phone with Patricia Racette, the sole singer in O18's Poulenc La voix humaine, who came on over from only a half-block away — Jim's Steaks, or so she claimed — to give Ms. Cracker the master class treatment.
The problem for Ms. Cracker was a note that kept cracking, which she started to refer to as her "big crack."
"Let's delve into a song that exposes your crack," said Racette.
Funnier in person, but tame stuff still on the drag-queen humor curve. One of Martha Graham Cracker's best lines was when she said she was the daughter of a woman named Isadora Duncan Hines.
Drag queens are actually funnier when they're bitter, older, and mean. These two, Blythely and Cracker, like to tease, but you know they're really in your corner. Taken together, drag by Opera Philadelphia is slightly more Prairie Home Companion than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Anyway, they might not be making really mean drag queens anymore. "Drag is so nouveau and fashionable and on TV all the time. It's so old," said Ms. Cracker at one point. "Opera is so old it's actually become new again."
Or maybe it's just become a safe place to which we can all escape.