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Superstar Divas Brenda Rae and Stephanie Blythe Headline Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival
Source: 21c
06/09/2018

Opera Philadelphia – “one of the most creative and ambitious companies in this country” (New York Times) – is set to take the opera world by storm once again, as it looks forward to O18, the second installment of its pioneering Festival O, with the “spirit ... not to follow taste but to lead it” (Philadelphia Inquirer). Festival 018comprises five operatic happenings – two world premieres, two new productions, and a three-part cabaret event – at multiple venues across the city from September 20-30, and features two superstar opera divas: coloratura soprano Brenda Rae and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, co-stars of Opera Philadelphia’s acclaimed spring 2017 production of Rossini’s Tancredi. Rae headlines a new production of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoorfrom celebrated director and designer Laurent Pelly that anchors both the O18 festival and the company’s year-round Opera at the Academy series. Blythe (aka Blythely Oratonio) takes the stage at Philadelphia’s Theatre of Living Arts (TLA) for a three-night, three-part cabaret takeover titled Queens of the Night, along with self-described “drag queen king” Dito van Reigersberg (aka Martha Graham Cracker). It all leads up to a reprise performance of Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night, Opera Philadelphia’s 2017 cabaret-play spectacular, which was hailed as “smart and bubbly in all the right places” (Philadelphia Inquirer). The two divas even perform together on the TLA stage, when Rae makes a special guest appearance opposite Blythe, comedically echoing the tragic lovers of Tancredi

Brenda Rae in Lucia di Lammermoor

Grammy-nominated soprano Brenda Rae, widely praised for her “tireless, golden soprano” (The Times of London), “dazzling, pinpoint coloratura” (Opera News), and “breathtaking mastery” (Frankfurter Rundschau), has established herself as a fixture at prestigious opera houses around the world. Her impressively broad operatic repertoire ranges from Mozart’s Queen of the Night to Berg’s Lulu, which was the vehicle for her debut with the English National Opera in William Kentridge’s celebrated production two seasons ago. Her company and role debut as Amenaide in the Opera Philadelphia production of Rossini’s Tancredi in 2017, opposite Stephanie Blythe in the title role, elicited a host of glowing reviews, exemplified by DC Metro Theater Arts:
“A stellar performance by soprano Brenda Rae, in both her company and role debut as Amenaide, affirms her consummate mastery of Rossini’s elaborate ornamentations and her engaging acting skills, as she constantly astonishes with her pure mellifluous voice, flawless execution of extended passages of coloratura, and profound emotional commitment to the compelling role of an honorable woman who would sooner give up her own life than betray her true love.” 
Rae returns to Opera Philadelphia to star as the title character in a dreamlike, ethereal Lucia di Lammermoor at the Academy of Music (Sep 21-30), directed by “A-plus director” (Philadelphia InquirerLaurent Pelly, named Best Director at the 2016 International Opera Awards. After debuting in Philadelphia, the production – co-produced with Wiener Staatsoper – moves on to Vienna in 2019. Rae credits Lucia with inspiring the direction of her career. “I would just listen over and over again, I was so in love with it,” she says. “Whenever I sing this piece, it reminds me of why I decided to focus on being an opera singer.”
 
This new production marks the return of Donizetti’s bel canto classic to the Opera Philadelphia stage for the first time in more than two decades, and features a crucial instrumental element: the glass harmonica that was Donizetti’s original intention to illustrate Lucia’s madness, before he lost his player at the eleventh hour and had to substitute a flute solo. As Rae describes the effect of the instrument: “It’s so ghostly. If people are thinking ‘I’ve seen Lucia before, so I don’t need to go’ - this changes the mad scene completely.” Baritone Troy Cook brings his “dynamic elegance” (Opera News) to the role of Lucia’s brother, Enrico, alongside tenor Michael Spyres, known for his “limitless grace and vocal purity” (The Guardian), in his company debut as Edgardo. Maestro Corrado Rovaris – a master of the Donizetti tradition and a native, like the composer, of Bergamo, Italy – leads the Opera Philadelphia Orchestra and Chorus.

Stephanie Blythe in Queens of the Night

Opera News Award-winning mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe shifts effortlessly between opera and recital settings and from the European tradition to classic Americana. She starred in the Metropolitan Opera’s live HD broadcasts of Orfeo ed Euridice, Il Trittico, Rodelinda, and Wagner’s complete Ring Cycle, and appeared in PBS's Live From Lincoln Center broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic's performance of Carousel and her own acclaimed show, We'll Meet Again: The Songs of Kate Smith. She was named Musical America's Vocalist of the Year in 2009, received an Opera News Award in 2007 and won the Tucker Award in 1999. When she sang the title role in Opera Philadelphia’s 2017 production of Tancredi, “the unequaled richness of her lower and middle registers proved a constant joy” (Opera News), and “her voice played like a majestic organ, swelling with rich tone and huge volume. … From her highest notes to her lowest, her voice was seamless, with no shifting of gears” (Broad Street Review).
 
A few days after the final performance of Tancredi in 2017, Blythe joined Dito van Reigersberg (aka Martha Graham Cracker) at the Theatre of Living Arts (TLA) for a genre- and gender-bending cabaret-play spectacular called Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night, about which the Philadelphia Inquirer marveled: “For a night, anyway, Philadelphia managed to put what seemed like one of everyone into a single room – gay, straight, young, slacker, and establishment types – and the world was a loving, funny place.” For Festival 018, that show returns in expanded form as Queens of the Night, a highly improvisational “three-night, three-part cabaret takeover” at the TLA. Both announced and unannounced guests are expected to stop by, one of the former being none other than Brenda Rae, who takes a break from her Lucia performances to reunite with her still-cross-dressing Tancredi co-star. Other featured guests include Patricia Racette, who stars in Festival 018’s Ne Quittez Pas, and Tony Award-nominee Mx. Justin Vivian Bond.
 
The first night, Blythely After Hours, is hosted by Blythe in the guise of world-famous tenor Blythely Oratonio. He finds himself swooning over the hirsute charms of Martha Graham Cracker, and seeks the help of a few friends to transform him into the rock-god of Martha’s dreams. The second night, Fauréplay, is in turn hosted by Martha, as she collects a coterie of assistants to help transform her from a rock-and-roll drag queen into a classical diva for her first date with Blythely. The third-night collision of these two larger-than-life personalities is the cabaret-play, concert and dance party Dito & Aeneas: Two Queens, One Night.
 
Queens of the Night writer and director John Jarboe (Bearded Ladies Cabaret), who also directed and headed up the collaborative libretto-writing team for the 2015 world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s ANDY: A Popera, explains:
“Cabaret is form of wish fulfillment. In 1881 Paris, when the form first took hold, the cabaret was a space where artists and audiences of all stripes came to experiment, commune, and shed the pretense of high art and high class. Cabaret was space where expectations subverted, different classes mocked and mingled, and old artistic forms became something new. Artists could experiment with saying, composing, and singing what was forbidden or uncouth in more established institutions.”
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