I saw Stephanie Blythe as Blythely Oratonio at the American Songbook series on 1/30/20. Blythe is an A-list opera singer, a mezzo with a voice of great opulence and an unusual range of repertoire, everything from Handel to Wagner to Gilbert and Sullivan, and lots between and beyond. I've been an admirer of hers for many years, have heard her at the Met many times, and was fascinated to hear about Blythely Oratonio.
She created the character/alter ego Blythley Oratonio a few years ago, he's a tenor who sings opera arias, pop songs, show tunes. With a beard. Totally my jam. Here she is as Oratonio in Philadelphia:
She opened with “Nessun dorma” from *Turandot,* maybe the most famous and beloved tenor aria in the rep, thanks to those hacks, The Three Tenors. This was the only singing she did without a microphone, and I was shocked at how gorgeous it was. I was expecting her to beef up the sound to be more machismo and cheesy, and maybe she did a teensy bit of that, but mostly she sang it straight and sang it beautifully.
Her costume! She wore a feathered cape and feathered helmet, both unspeakably high glam and fabulous (pretty much what she was wearing in the YouTube clip). They were made by the one and only Machine Dazzle. It’s nice that he gets a gig away from Taylor Mac now and then, it keeps him flexible. She didn’t keep the cape on for long, she took that off pretty quick. Her outfit underneath was black and grungy with a little sparkle, bridging the gap between hard rock and glam rock. The plumed helmet seemed to be a reference to her illustrious predecessor, the one and only Marilyn Horne, who played the male lead in many a Handel or Vivaldi opera back in the 80s, usually in platform boots and a major plumed helmet, which collectively might have brought her height up to 5' 6".
Her next song was "I Want To Break Free." She sang it with such force of intention, I didn't recognize it as the song by Queen. It really seemed like she wanted to break free!
She did a little amusing banter. She said Opera News referred to her (him) as "the voice of the 23rd century." She also said, "They say that opera is dead. Opera isn't dead. [pause] But don't you think some of it should be?"
She sang Rick Springfield's "Jesse's Girl," and rather than pair it with an aria, she made a transition in the middle and sang it in the florid and mannered style of a Baroque aria. "Jesse's gir-hir-hil." A scream.
She took it down, she did an intense monologue, and the audience was silent. I’ll paraphrase: “The situation in the world, it’s so frightening. Continents on fire. Thousands of people protesting to deaf ears. And you look at yourself in your makeup mirror and you say…” And she sang “Vesti la giubba” from *Pagliacci,* another tenor chestnut. Richard calls it the “No more Rice Krispies!” aria, bless his heart. She paired this aria, naturally, with “Send In the Clowns.”
She sang “Could It Be Magic” by Barry Manilow, paired with “Recondita armonia” from *Tosca.* The most touching song in the show was her performance of “Changes” by David Bowie, which she sang accompanying herself on the ukulele. Again, the audience was completely silent, it was magical.
Her final song was “We Are the Champions,” which she started in Italian! She had us singing along (in English) at the end. And then her encore was “Don’t Stop Believin’.” And I will NOT stop believin’! She sounded a little ragged by the end of the show, which is entirely appropriate in this rep.
I have two wishes for Blythely Oratonio: I want her/him to play the Italian Singer in *Der Rosenkavalier* at the Met. This might sound ridiculous and a bit of a stunt, but that’s what it was when Pavarotti did it at the Met in the 80s, am I right? Here he is, he comes in at about 1:30, and the heart-stopping high C flat is at 2:55:
And I would LOVE to hear Oratonio share a program with the Wagnerian soprano Christine Goerke. I don’t know if Goerke is into rock, but just imagine her unleashing that voice into "Crazy On You."
I had two deeper reactions to the performance, both of which tap into my somewhat sketchy memory. As my best friend Karen once said, "Your memory is impressive, but it's not always accurate!" At least I think that's what she said...
First, I can't remember what PBS program it was, but I remember a talking head explaining the complexity of Al Jolson performing in blackface. Of course it's offensive that he was performing in blackface, but from Jolson's perspective, by putting on the persona of an African-American, he was able to express what it was like for him as a Russian Jewish immigrant. Blythe did something similar - - by putting on a beard and entering the character of Blythely Oratonio, she was able to express more personal truths than she ever could on the opera or recital stage.
And second, I'm not sure it's one of the tenets of Camp, but it seems like I remember reading somewhere (maybe it was at the Met Museum Costume Institute show on Camp) that there's a tipping point where you pile on so much artifice that you come out on the other side, it's so phony it's become its own truth. That was definitely the case with this performance.
One last bit before I sign off: