Thank heaven for Shequida! If it weren't for her, we unwashed masses who can neither afford the Met nor muster the enthusiasm to read an actual book on opera would never know the joys of the art form. And with Shequida, those joys abound. In Shequida's Opera For Dummies, thes diva guides the audience through the history of opera from 1600 right on to 20th century musical theater, singing famous arias and telling lots of fabulous anecdotes along the way.
Apparently the only drag opera star to be trained at Juilliard, Shequida boasts an impressive five-octave range, which she shows off throughout the evening. Some of her renditions are stunningly gorgeous ("Ombra mai fu" from Handel's Xerxes, for instance), while others -- no less wonderfully performed -- are done with a comic twist. Puccini's "O mio babbino caro" is accompanied by some surprising subtitles, and Massenet's "Adieu, notre petite table" is made ridiculous through the use of a makeshift prop. The show also includes a duet performed by Shequida with her "brother" (via satellite) and a guest appearance by a Spanish opera star that brings new meaning to the idea of contemporary opera, in addition to numerous other treats.
In between songs, Shequida gives some brief, humorous insights on the development of opera, covering not only the biggies like Verdi and Mozart but also covering lesser-known composers. She celebrates and pokes fun at the styles and personalities that make opera great, passing on performance secrets that every diva should know; her illustrations of "the opera laugh" (shrieking giggles), "the opera cry" (wailing), and "the opera cough" (cough, cough), exaggerated as they are, will be familiar to anyone who has ever experienced live opera and is aware of the preponderance of bad acting perpetrated there.
Not so much of a diva that she must hog the spotlight, Shequida brings tenor Chan Harris onstage to duet with her and to give demonstrations of male operatic singing styles. He offers some excellent solos (I especially enjoyed the jaunty bel canto tune that he performed), giving Shequida opportunity to duck backstage and change into some shimmering gowns at various points during the evening.
Though it is hardly opera in the traditional sense, a brief Bernstein interlude in the second half is nonetheless most welcome as Shequida and Harris sing two selections from West Side Story. Pointing out that an opera star need not sing show tunes in operatic style (unlike the unfortunate warblings of Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa on their recording of WSS with Bernstein conducting), Harris sings a slightly altered "Maria" that is surely one of the most glorious renditions of that tune ever heard. This, followed by Harris and Shequida singing a heart-tugging "One Hand, One Heart," makes one wish they would make their own album of that classic musical.
Blessed with a great voice and a sassy wit, Shequida is also lucky to have a skilled trio accompanying her. Musical director Steven Gross leads the group at the keys of a worn upright piano, with Edward A. Malavey and Robert Burkhart beside him on violin and cello, respectively. Their lush sounds complement the voices of Shequida and Harris perfectly, making this the ultimate in comic opera recitals.
Of course, some opera buffs may be less than impressed. Not only does Shequida insult the Diva of all Divas, Maria Callas, with a shrill though affectionate impersonation, she also sings with a microphone (a big no-no for opera singers). But this show isn't really for buffs, after all; it's for dummies. I don't know that we learned all that much during the evening. Still, a hilarious host plus lovely renditions of some incredibly gorgeous music is good enough for me. Brava!