“This piece is hyper-risky. It is an opera, a cabaret and an art installation,” John Jarboe told The Daily Beast while standing in a cavernous warehouse in the Olde Kensington section of North Philadelphia. Jarboe, the leader of the experimental cabaret troupe The Bearded Ladies, is directing and co-created Opera Philadelphia’s Andy Warhol hybrid cabaret opera—ANDY: A Popera—which will have its world premiere on September 10.
With fears of opera audiences not only shrinking but literally dying off, Opera Philadelphia has been at the forefront of commissioning new operas with contemporary subject matter and an innovative, genre-blending sensibility to snare a younger audience and revitalize opera for the 21st century.
ANDY is their third co-commissioned new work to be presented this year. This past February, Opera Philadelphia presented the East Coast premiere of Oscar, an operatic retelling of Oscar Wilde’s jail sentence for “gross indecency,” and in June, the world premiere of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a jazz fusion opera reimagining the jazz great’s last hours on Earth.
Their latest production is described on Opera Philly’s website as “a musical mélange inspired by the life, fame, and the philosophy of Andy Warhol—ANDY: A Popera is…an artistic collision of cabaret and opera exploring what Warhol has become today. What happens when a man becomes a brand?”
Opera Philadelphia rented a large warehouse, “inspired by The Factory, Andy Warhol’s legendary studio,” purely for the production and to create “a den of pop iconography and absurdity for the World Premiere of ANDY: A Popera.”
Opera Philadelphia gave The Daily Beast exclusive access to a full company staging rehearsal. Jarboe, David Devan, Opera Philadelphia’s general director and president, and Heath Allen, The Bearded Ladies’ musical director and co-composer of ANDY, sat down before the rehearsal in a tiny room in the warehouse to discuss the atypical journey to this particular new work.
“We’re asking, why is Andy Warhol interesting now?” said Jarboe, “What is the phenomenon of Warhol now? Not then. Now. This is not a biopic. What would his Facebook world look like?
“We’ve tried to keep the integrity of these forms [cabaret and opera] but mash them up together or against one another. The resulting effect on an audience is going to be really fascinating, and I think some people will be shocked and some people may leave and some people are just going to be in a playground and I think that’s what’s exciting to me is how unafraid I think we are as a collaborative to take these risks in form and to do them well.”
Devan elaborated, “It makes it operatic but also [has] the intimacy of cabaret. What I think is great about ANDY and cabaret is exploring the appropriation of existing products—soup cans, but also popular music, and then marrying that with the virtuosity of opera and these parallel worlds is kinetically interesting.”
Devan and Jarboe conceived the idea of a fusion opera/Andy Warhol project over pizza and beer after a particularly “grueling” yoga class more than two years ago, “John brought up Andy Warhol and by the end of pizza and beer we were going to do a project together,” Devan said previously.
The project took form over more than two years, after the initial pizza-and-beer discussion. In late 2013 and early 2014, The Bearded Ladies did a series of pop-up performances throughout Philadelphia, including on street corners and at the Philadelphia Flower Show, involving singing and dancing soup cans, Marilyns and other Warholian iconography as they experimented with and created material for the piece. In July 2014, a full cabaret version of the material they had developed, with music by Heath Allen, was performed at The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Composer Dan Visconti was then brought in to compose additional music in pursuit of a full operatic-cabaret fusion. Almost every stage of development was viewed by the public and affected by that interaction. Stage three is the full production opening on September 10.
The live improvisational element in the creation of material is almost unheard of in traditional opera—as is the interactive audience participation aspect. At most traditional opera performances the audience is far removed from the action. Even sitting in the front row, the orchestra pit places an audience member at least 30 feet from the performers, usually far more as performers rarely stand on the outer edge of the stage. So no cabaret-style lap sitting or direct interaction and certainly the audience is almost never in a position to change or affect the process of creating the material or encouraged to change the performance itself.
Jarboe noted, “This is something that the Beards do as part of our practice because cabaret is not about what’s happening with me and the other actors onstage, it’s actually about what’s happening with me and you. So it has to be open and flexible as the piece will be changed by the audience. It will be different every time and more so than a traditional opera because we have these spaces for the audience built in…It’s like silk screening. It’s very Warhol.”
Heath Allen stated, “I kind of grew up thinking of [opera and cabaret] as arcane art forms that weren’t really available to me. So as a result I didn’t know the rules and I didn’t really know the audience and that’s really a wonderful thing because it becomes the Wild West where anything becomes possible creatively. That also has to do with Opera Philadelphia and where it is right now in the art world in the city and why it’s attracting a young excited audience—there is a generation that has forgotten the rules of opera or never had them, so there’s an anything-goes environment.”
Co-composer Dan Visconti said by phone, “I think that stretching both traditions to meet is a really good way to put it, because what’s special to me about the musical world of ANDY is that it does contain both the really ‘high’ and ‘low’ art traditions and a lot of their implications and they definitely meet but I’m not sure that they get mixed up and blended into something that’s a nice composite of the two.”
He added, “Opera Philadelphia has been one of the biggest leaders in the opera world in commissioning and supporting new works. I think it’s very easy to commission a new work relatively, I think it’s really hard to come up with the funding, but that doesn’t take a lot of courage. What takes a lot of courage is to support a new work with a structure that really allows it to become what it needs to be and to feature that work in a really prominent and daring way.”
On that note, Opera Philadelphia’s website page for ANDY contains this eye-catching and prominent warning: “This production includes explicit language, sudden loud noises, sexual content, and nudity…. By attending the show, you are consenting to being filmed and photographed, which may be included as part of the evening’s performance.”
David Devan explains the consent disclaimer, “We’ve developed an iPhone app that helps the show work. Andy worked a lot with film so we want to have video imagery that is live and unedited in the moment, and that meant we need to have the performers with multiple smart phones capturing images of the audience and then broadcasting them in real time on various surfaces onstage, and so we had an app developed by our resident technologist Youngmoo Kim for it. There’s a lot of moving parts to this piece.”
The synopsis of ANDY: A Popera on the Opera Philadelphia website ends with “Now it’s just you and the Andys. They look at you. Are you beautiful? Are you art?”
I very much look forward to finding out.