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August 26, 2005


La Dementia

An accomplished opera director produces the works he loves, with a twist

Opera and drag have long been bedfellows. In 1786 Mozart composed the role of Cherubino, an adolescent male, for a woman. Ever since, opera has been full of women performing as men.

The opposite was not as common, however--at least on stage. Some directors did Hansel and Gretel with a male in drag as the Witch. The Love for Three Oranges managed a few of its too-infrequent outings with a man in a dress as the Cook. But male drag remained limited to rare appearances, minor roles, and broad comedy.

Then came Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh.

For two decades now, “La Dementia” has been capturing the spotlight, and audiences, in New York, Washington, and San Francisco--not to mention Europe and South America--with a combination of borscht-belt humor and some of the funniest but also most knowledgeable and sometimes moving musical parody you are ever likely to enjoy.

In other words, don’t imagine a guy in a bad dress and a fright wig lip-synching to recordings while strutting back and forth in high heels he has not quite learned to negotiate.

Instead, imagine Ira Siff, a highly-accomplished and credentialed opera coach and director, indulging any opera fanatic’s greatest musical fantasy: producing the works he loves as he dreams of them being performed, with musical and emotional expressivity--albeit with a twist.

It began in the early 1980s when Siff, then doing cabaret in New York, saw an evening of opera parody at a private soirée. The possibilities got the better of him. Inspired by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theater, which mixed comedy and drama in informed parody, he founded La Gran Scena Opera Company.

The original scheduled run of four performances at the Orpheum Theater was such a hit it had to be extended to twelve. As season after season followed, Siff’s own character, Madame Vera, developed. At first a parody of Zinka Milanov and Renata Scotto, over time she became an individual with her own personality. Now Siff no longer parodies specific singers, but rather does what he knows Vera would do.

Some of that, especially in the monologues that connect the numbers, is broad comedy, bad puns and clever double-entendres. Siff delivers them in a thick pseudo-Eastern European accent that recalls Fanny Brice as much as “Madame Milanov,” reminding the audience that the Metropolitan Opera used to be on Broadway.

Some of the musical humor is equally broad. Wild register shifts and exaggerated chest tones done to be dramatic, with no (apparent) awareness of their ludicrous effect, come off as subtle as Judy Canova.

But then there are the moments when Vera astounds with her phrasing and breath control, as in Poulenc’s “Le Chemin de l’amour,” or delights as Offenbach’s Grand Duchess with her just short of lascivious patter praise of military men--that much funnier because we know Siff might find those moustachioed soldiers equally appealing.

Score, Cleveland Opera’s new organization for small and medium-sized corporations and entrepreneurs, brought Madame Vera and her accompanyist, Maestro Sergio Zawa (Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor Lucy Arner, Baldwin-Wallace graduate and font of fascinating operatic knowledge in her own right) as the star attraction of their first annual benefit August 20.

Northeast Ohio’s gay community, as well as the rest of its inhabitants, can only thank them for letting us enjoy what the other coasts have been loving for the last two decades. One can only hope that Cleveland Opera will make repeated use of Siff and Arner both in and out of costume, and that other organizations looking to sell a fund-raiser will think to bring them back for many repeated Farewell Recitals.

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