Opera Philadelphia Has Found Its Queer Beard

The Bearded Ladies have never had a conventional approach to things. Neither has Opera Philadelphia.

John Jarboe

John Jarboe

“I bought some nail polish, so if you’re stressed, you can do your hands and do your toes.”

This is what Opera Philadelphia‘s newest director said to his cast before a tech rehearsal. He’s dressed in camouflage cargo shorts, green sneakers, and a silver and white iridescent sparkly tank top. He indeed took his own advice: His nails were painted and very glittery.

This doesn’t sound like the typical director that a major opera company would hire to mount the start of their season, but one might argue that Opera Philadelphia isn’t typical. John Jarboe is the nail polish-donning man at the helm of the company’s first show of the year, ANDY: A Popera, based loosely on the life of Andy Warhol.

Now, that’s gay.

The artistic director of the popular avant-garde queer cabaret cohort, The Bearded Ladies, Jarboe makes no qualms what he thinks about those patrons who might not be thrilled with Opera Philadelphia’s choice of staging a new opera in a warehouse in the middle of Northern Liberties.

“We need new work,” he said, and added, “If they want to see old works, they might as well be dead. Seriously!”

ANDY is clearly not one of those old works, and the partnership between Jarboe’s The Bearded Ladies and Opera Philadelphia is atypical to say the least. Jarboe and the opera company’s general manager, David Devan, are friends (“I admire just about everything David does,” Jarboe told me), and the project came about after the two took a yoga class and had pizza and beer after.

It’s a show that’s progressed at warp speed, at least in the world of opera: From inception to staging, it’s been about two and a half years.  Keep in mind, most opera productions take years and years to plan, and new operas often take a heck of a lot longer to orchestrate. But for Jarboe, who is used to directing cabaret works, the process seems almost glacial.

“We’re moving super fast in terms of opera, but it’s so, so slow when it comes to the Beards,” Jarboe said, adding that one of the most challenging elements of the project has been adapting to the “tradition” of the operatic process, of unions, of singers, of funding.

“We approach every collaborator as an artist,” he said. “The Beards have had to do a lot of their own work on their own terms.”

And, no doubt, as I sat through a tech rehearsal at the Northern Liberties warehouse that has been converted into a found theatrical space, the Beards are doing things on their own terms: There are hundreds of cardboard boxes all over the stage and ramshackle vintage couches that will serve as “table seating” for audience members. Clearly, this is not the setting of your grandmother’s production of Aida.

I could smell lacquer. Sure enough, Jarboe was painting his nails again while giving instructions to one of his performers, the extremely talented Mary Tuomanen. She was dressed in flesh-colored tights, red striped male briefs underwear, and a short sleeved button down shirt.

“Half-tuck the shirt in,” Jarboe said. She did. He then laughed one of his very loud signature chuckles that always sounds like he’s reacting to the funniest thing he’s ever heard. “Maybe tuck it in a little less.”

There was a giant screen projecting images of chorus members as Marilyn Monroe behind the set. The pictures kept morphing from one chorus member to the next, changing almost as if a part of the Michael Jackson “Black or White” music video.

“Your face is all over the Opera Philadelphia website,” I said. “What’s that like for you?”

“It’s really, really strange,” Jarboe said.

“When it is all done, and it’s opening night, and the cast takes their bows and everyone applauds, what are you going to do?” I asked.

“I’m going to drink?” he replied.

ANDY: A Popera runs at 1526 North American Street from September 10th through the 20th. For tickets and more information, click here.