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Death Defying Divas

For the male sopranos of La Gran Scena, opera is murder.

By New York City
Ira Siff as Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh
Ira Siff as Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh
<(Photo by Robert Milazzo)
Murder, she sang...

"We love blood and guts!" says Ira Siff, artistic director of La Gran Scena, the world's only all-male opera company. Whether it's death by drinking poison from a ring, jumping into a volcano, kissing venom-smeared lips, smelling tainted violets, being strangled by one's own hair, or simply singing to death, opera librettists have invented lots of distinctive ways to expire. "Opera is full of raw emotion!" exclaims Siff. To emphasize the art form's evil deeds and fatal misdemeanors, La Gran Scena has created Murder Most Melodious, "an evening of operatic murders, attempted murders...and songs that are just murder to sing!" The program may be seen at Town Hall on May 13 and 14.

Aside from death scenes, Murder Most Melodious features humor, gorgeous countertenors, and men in diva couture. "It's not just about the drag," confides Siff who performs as "traumatic soprano" Madame Vera Galupe-Borszkh. "If the costume brings out the alter-ego, that's great--but there needs to be a reason why we're wearing women's clothing. I want to show the strength behind the dress." Drag, according to Siff, is just one way to demonstrate that opera can be fun and accessible to all theatergoers. "This is not a show just for opera people," he promises. "It's not some snob affair!"

Guiding audiences through the murder and mayhem is America's most beloved retired diva, Miss Sylvia Bills (played by When Pigs Fly star James Heatherly). Sylvia, who bears a slight resemblance to real-life retired diva Beverly Sills, narrates the evening in her own inimitable fashion, mixing plot lines and pratfalls. "Miss Bills is the link between the material and people who may not be knowledgeable of opera," explains Siff. "Some of our audience wouldn't dare step into an opera house." Murder Most Melodious includes sequences from Handel's Semele, Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila, and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (the original spaghetti western).

La Gran Scena Opera Company(Photo by Robert Milazzo)
La Gran Scena Opera Company
(Photo by Robert Milazzo)
Joining Madame Vera and Miss Bills are soprano Kavatina Turner (Kyle Church Cheseborough), tenor Alfredo Costa-Plenti (Conrad Ekkens), star mezzo Philene Wannelle (Philip Koch), and "The World's Oldest Living Divas," Gabrillea Tonnoziti-Casseruola (Keith Jurosko) and Helen Back (Johnny Maldonado). "Kavatina is a young, gifted African soprano," says Siff. "She takes after a certain temperamental black diva who doesn't get along with anyone," he adds, declining to name names...

Murder Most Melodious is one of the meatiest programs in the company's 19-year history; other compilations of scenes and arias have taken Siff and La Gran Scena throughout the world. To critical acclaim, the company has played the Opera House in Weisbaden, Germany, London's Bloomsbury Theatre, and the Brisbane Biennial Festival in Australia, as well as venues all over the United States. "I never imagined it would last this long," remarks Siff.

In 1980, when La Gran Scena premiered, the company was on the cutting edge of an art form; this group of men with trained falsetto voices performing in drag was unique. Quickly, La Gran Scena attracted the attention of the opera community, claiming such divas as Sills, Leontyne Price, and Joan Sutherland as fans. Two decades later, Siff views La Gran Scena as more mainstream. "We're no longer just a cult show for a cult audience," he insists.

Siff became interested in opera at the age of 15. A few years later, he was introduced to the high-camp theatrical artistry of The Ridiculous Theater and its founder, Charles Ludlam, through a performance of Camille. "That production made me realize that a man could be beautiful and ugly, funny and serious as a woman," recalls Siff. He credits Ludlam's work as his inspiration for La Gran Scena, and admits: "I was more nervous when Charles came to see one of our shows than when Joan Sutherland did!"

When not performing with La Gran Scena, Siff coaches vocalists. "More people today have the notes," he says of the new crop of performers, "but fewer have the style." Working with a variety of singers, Siff has witnessed a broad spectrum of talent. "Vocalists today are trained to be safe," he says. "I encourage singers to take risks and find the dramatic sense within themselves. So much of what we hear on stage today is soulless and has no content."

Siff's soulful philosophy is mirrored in his alter-ego, Madame Vera. In the liner notes of her 2-CD set Forgeef Me My Engklish, a collection of monologues from her appearances on WNYC-FM's Weekend Music with Margaret Juntwait, it is written: "Madame Vera is one of the old-school singing actresses. In fact, she may be the only one still registered at that school." Having performed umpteen farewell recitals as Vera, Siff confesses that he would like to continue for a few more years. His next ambition is to direct. "I have ideas that are funny on paper," he says. "And, hopefully, the ones that aren't funny on stage will get discarded during rehearsals!"

Noël Coward famously opined that "People are wrong when they say opera isn't what it used to be. It is what is used to be. That's what's wrong with it." If Coward could see Murder Most Melodious, he'd surely change his tune. The countless fans of La Gran Scena can't be wrong.


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