I saw *Les Premiers Adieux de Miss Knife* at BAM on 9/20/17. Here's what BAM said about the piece and Miss Knife:
"A beguiling chanteuse with a voice of honey and barbed wire, Miss Knife oozes grit, glitz, and old-world glamour. Clad in stilettos and drenched in rhinestones, she’s also the alter-ego of polymathic artist and Festival d’Avignon director Olivier Py. Holding court with a four-piece jazz ensemble, she tears through a soul-baring suite of original French avant-cabaret, singing of life in the limelight and love in the shadows."
I read that in the Next Wave Festival brochure, and though I had never heard of Monsieur Py or Miss Knife, I knew I had to be there! Closer to the date BAM announced that Miss Knife would have special guests at each performance. My performance had Joey Arias, who I had seen in *Sisters Follies* in 2015 (you can dig up the review in the Musicals section of my archive).
May I put this performance in a somewhat quotidian context? I took the Q train out to Atlantic Terminal - - this is the subway station I've always gone to, when I've gone to BAM, but I've always taken the F to the D, I hadn't picked up on the fact that the Q goes there. The end of the Q just opened on New Year's, it's a godsend to many on the Upper East Side. I'm pretty jazzed up that it goes straight to BAM. I still have to take two trains going home (the D to the A), but taking one train there, that's a big lifestyle upgrade.
I go somewhere fancy for dinner when I go to BAM with friends, but when I'm alone, or if it's just me and Richard, I go to Subway. Because really, who am I trying to impress? I got a 6" tuna salad on Italian herbs and cheese with red onions, lettuce, provolone, and pickles. I also got the guacamole, and though I was told it cost 25 cents extra, the boy at the cashier was so distracted and made so little eye contact, I didn't point that out to him.
I walked out of the Atlantic Terminal mall, and the piped-in radio station was playing the absolutely perfect song, the perfect prelude to Miss Knife:
Thank you, Andrea True, for that disco classic. And thank you, youtube, for making it available to all of us.
Almost all of the songs that Py performed were originals with texts by him and music by pianist Stéphane Leach. There were two songs with texts by Py and music by Jean-Yves Rivaud, and two well-known Edith Piaf songs, "Padam" and "La vie en rose."
Py came out onstage, a thrilling visage of faded glamour. Let me describe the first costume: a gold sequined gown with a side slit up to the hoo ha, open in the back with a string of rhinestones holding it closed, a big rhinestone lavalier necklace, long rhinestone earrings, black tights stitched with tiny rhinestones, black heels, a shabby old white curly wig, and a tiny little tiara. This outfit and his whole razzle dazzle presentation made me think of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas. It's a tired old casino on the old strip, a run-down part of town, far from the sanitized flim flam of the new Vegas. Miss Knife had a similar dilapidated charm.
He threw off the wig in the middle of the third song and left it on the floor, revealing a striking head of jet black hair, cut in a modified gamine style. It was surprising what a change there was in his appearance when he took off the wig. He was still wearing the gold gown, black tights, heels, earrings, and full glam makeup, but just by taking off the wig, he was transformed from a vivacious 70-year-old woman to a sexy 50-year-old man.
His voice made me think of Taylor Mac, because with all of the high drag going on, it's a special bonus to hear such wondering SINGING. He could get away with not being such a good singer, but of course I was happy that he is.
Let's acknowledge the band, shall we? Composer Stéphane Leach on piano, Sébastien Maire on bass, Olivier Bernard on flute, clarinet, soprano sax, and alto sax, and Julien Jolly on drums. Delicious playing from all of them. The songs would have been better served with more variety in the arrangements - - why not do a song with just the bass, maybe the piano and drums coming in at the end? The bassist made the strongest impression on me. He had a long solo in one song, which he played pizzicato on the bass and wordlessly sang, in unison with himself, very high in his voice, sort of feathery.
Py did some clever commentary between songs. "I'm sitting on a stool during this song so the people over there can see my knickers. Ha! That was a joke. I'm not wearing knickers." Or how about this? "I would like to dedicate this next song to a group of people, a community that is more and more forgotten... The straight people. Do we have any here tonight?"
Py left the stage, the band did a little interlude, and he came back wearing a sequined pseudo harlequin concoction: the traditional harlequin diamond pattern in silver, hot pink, black, and royal blue sequins, in the most high style shape - - one piece, with long sleeves, pants gathered at the knee, and pointed extensions at the hips and shoulders. It was like a capital M over a < >. Divine. Still the black tights, and a pert little black top hat.
Joey Arias was the guest star in this performance - - the guest stars on other nights were Angélique Kidjo, Ute Lemper, and Jo Lampert. I kinda wish I had seen one of the others, I would've been especially happy to see Kidjo. Arias just plain didn't sing very well. He got off to a good start - - he and Py did a duet of "All of me," with Py singing and Arias singing and speaking commentary. Like this:
Py: All of me.
Arias: Oh yeah baby!
Py: Why not take all of me?
Arias: I could try, I'd be happy to try.
Py: Can't you see I'm no good without you?
Arias: Well, clearly THAT'S true.
That was charming, and showed them both off: Py showing off his vocal chops and Arias showing off his wry, sardonic attitude.
Py left the stage and Joey Arias sort of sang "Summertime." His performance had only the vaguest relation to the song we all know and love. He did a lot of interacting with the band, but it seemed less like collaboration and more like just plain bossiness. I felt a little bad for them, but they were well mannered.
Arias wandered in and out of the song and often did this truly horrific screeching. He could teach a seminar at Indiana University, "Vocal Abuse 201: Advanced Topics in Vocal Abuse." He was like Diamanda Galas but without the menace.
Years ago my dear friend Martha Fischer came to New York to perform in a recital at NYU. She was doing a project at the time studying the tradition of women simultaneously singing and playing the piano. She called it "playing with myself," which always got an anguished reaction from her teenage son. "MOM! Would you QUIT SAYING THAT!" That might be why she said it.
The song Martha performed at NYU was a Charles Ives song called "Like a Sick Eagle," and she joked to her friends back home that she was going to New York to sing like a sick eagle. This joke loses something in print, but you get the picture, right? Anyway, I bring this up because Arias, in his screeching, really did sound like a sick eagle.
Arias did eventually leave and Py came back and did a couple more songs, including "La vie en rose." They must have read my mind about the arrangements, because this song had a wonderfully inventive arrangement - - it started gauzy and tender and ended with a bump and grind, like we were in a 1952 burlesque house in central Pennsylvania (and who doesn't want to be there). This burlesque effect was heightened by Py's final costume: a little black leotard with bare shoulders and lots of feathers at the hem. The top hat again, and the black stockings and heels.
You can tell I was reeled in by the music and the performance, but there was something extra going on. Py wrote movingly in the program notes about how liberating it was do create the drag alter ego of Miss Knife, and I, as an audience member, was inspired by that joy and abandon.
Two movie quotes came to mind: one by Martin Balsam as O. J. Berman in *Breakfast at Tiffany's*: "She's a phony. But she's a real phony. You know why? Because she honestly believes all this phony junk that she believes." And by Antonia San Juan as Agrado in *All About My Mother*: "It costs a lot to be authentic, ma'am. And one can't be stingy with these things because you are more authentic the more you resemble what you've dreamed of being."