June 6, 2015

That time I sang "Voices of Spring" in drag

Dame Dorettina Louisa Seconda-Piatta
Sadly, the following memoir is 100% truthful. Just a straight-up, un-enhanced recounting of something that actually happened. To me.

I once performed in drag for a capacity audience at the Harrison Opera House.

Look, most of you Faithful Readers don't know me that well, right? You read the sentence above, and suddenly you're jumping to all sorts of salacious conclusions about me - I can feel it. But really, I'm pretty normal. Just an average fella.

Okay, check that; what I mean is "I'm not the kind of guy who goes around dressed in women's clothing". I watch sports on TV. I listen to ESPN radio. I drink beer. I read murder mysteries. I HATE the HGTV channel. I don't go around in drag.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Oh, hell, this is already getting complicated. I think I should just get on with telling the story, illustrated with several photographs to prove I'm not making it up.

My first season with Virginia Opera ended in the spring of 2005. With just ten months as a full-timer under my belt, I still felt like the new kid on the block, eager to please my superiors. One of these was Joe Walsh, who was Assistant Artistic Director at that time.

Joe was in charge of putting together the final event of the season, namely: an operatic program of arias and ensembles performed by the Emerging Artist young professionals. This was performed at the Harrison Opera House without charge to an invited audience of donors and volunteers as a "thank you" for their service. Pretty standard stuff.

With a couple of weeks to go, Joe approached me with an idea that had him all excited. He had an inspiration for a slam-bang finale: I would appear in heels, a dress, pearls and a wig, lip-syncing Johann Strauss's "Voices of Spring" waltz while soprano Rita Cohen sang it from the orchestra pit. (In case you need to refresh your memory about this tune, here's a video of a performance by Kathleen Battle.)

I was not what you'd call enthusiastic about this plan. God, no.

Why ME? What on earth had led Joe to presume that Glenn Winters, a (reasonably) dignified 52-year old man, would be suited for a performance in drag? Was he trying to ruin me? Humiliate me?

No, no, no, no, no. Surely this was NOT happening. I would wait a couple of days and find some way to wiggle out of this predicament. I'd have a heart-to-heart with Joe. I'd speak to my immediate supervisor and let HIM have the heart-to-heart.

Or I'd run away to Canada and hide.

But somehow, I was unable to summon up the nerve to rebel. There was no escape I could foresee; this was going to happen.

First was the costume fitting. We went to a local community theater to borrow some items. Sylvia Hutson, a member of the Opera Chorus, was in charge of tarting me up. We tried on dress after dress until settling on a blue number capacious enough to house my bulk without bursting like an exploding grenade. A red fright wig and a long white scarf completed the ensemble.

After some discussion, we settled on a name for the "character" I would portray: Dame Dorettina Louisa Seconda-Piatta. (The "Seconda-Piatta" was my contribution)

On to rehearsals. Understand: my attitude about this was so bad that I showed up to rehearse without having prepared at all. I had no plan; no ideas; nothin'. See, to think about it was to acknowledge its reality, and that I could not do.

So the rehearsal was really lame.In addition to Joe and Rita (who sang like an angel), my wife was there to lend her expert eye and make suggestions. (NOTE: she's an expert on performing in general, not performing in drag specifically.) So the rehearsal was a desultory exercise in futility. I kind of galumphed around like Dancing Bear from the old "Captain Kangaroo" TV show. We went our separate ways, all, no doubt, with our private concerns.

The dreaded day arrived. I was hoping the attendance would be poor, but CRAP - the place was packed. A full house of some 1,600. Great: within 90 minutes my reputation would be in ashes. And they'd probably all think it was my idea.

My daughter Kathleen and I waited in the wings. She was in high school then and had been recruited for two tasks. First, she would serve as Joe's page-turner at the keyboard. But most importantly, when the cadenza arrived, she would grab her flute and join me in one of those vocal cadenzas that amounts to a contest of "any scale you can toot I can sing screechier".

Rita was in the pit. Joe and Kathleen were at the piano. It was time to go on..

My friends, the population of the world consists of two groups: 1) those who are born to perform in public; and 2) those who aren't. Either you bloom when it's time to sing, speak, dance, act, play an instrument, or anything else before an audience, or you fade. You enjoy it or you don't.

I may not be the greatest performer in the world, but I AM a performer; my "Voices of Spring" that afternoon proved it again. Suddenly, I knew what to do. Dame Seconda-Piatta entered, just dripping with Matronly Dignity, carrying a parasol. As the music continued, I flounced; I skipped and frolicked, even though I hadn't even practiced in heels. I mugged. At one point, I used the parasol as a golf club, miming a Tiger Woodsian swing. I sashayed over to Joe and began flirting shamelessly, massaging his shoulders and cozying up to him on the bench. Playing along, he knocked me off and sent me sprawling to the floor. No matter! Remaining prone, I adopted the classic "soprano-singing-Vissi-d'arte-on-the-floor" attitude familiar to all devotees of Tosca, and I emoted. None of this had happened, or even been discussed, at rehearsal.

When the cadenza arrived, my kid and I milked it for every laugh. At one point Dame Seconda-Piatta became so enraged by her "rival" that I chased her around the piano, parasol raised like a saber.

Everything worked. We KILLED it. The audience was totally into it, and cheers greeted our curtain call.

You should know that Dame Dorettina Luisa Seconda-Piatta, from that day onward, has retreated into permanent retirement, never to appear again. Ruhe, ruhe, Liebchen. That was the shortest career as a drag queen in entertainment history.

Here are some more pics. To my friends: years from now when you talk about this - and you will - be kind. 

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