*Messy Messiah,* Dec 16. 2021
I saw Heartbeat Opera do *Messy Messiah* on Dec 16, 2021. I discovered Heartbeat during the first wave of the pandemic - - their online production of *Lady M* was one of the most brilliant things I saw online during that period. I checked out a few other Heartbeat productions online and found them uneven but always ambitious and insightful. This was my first chance to see them do something live onstage.
They're a scrappy chamber opera company founded in 2014. They've done a drag-infused show for Halloween every year but they decided to put that off this year and do a drag-infused holiday show instead. I anticipated it would be counter-programming for the holiday, appealing to a certain segment of their audience, sort of like TCM showing *Auntie Mame* during the Super Bowl a few years ago. Come to think of it, they might be aiming at the same audience...
I'm not sure this was officially written into the Bylaws of cultural institutions here in the city, but it seems like a few years ago there was a shift about start times for shows. On a weeknight, the start time would be 7:30pm rather than 8pm. Especially when the show was in Brooklyn. This show had a start time of 8pm but didn't actually start until 8:25pm. I was not happy about that. I'm just sayin'.
The orchestra entered through the fireplace, that was a cute touch. The overture was a mash-up of Prokofiev's *Lieutenant Kijé,* "White Christmas," "Christmastime Is Here," "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," "All I Want For Christmas Is You," "Carol of the Bells," and the big waltz theme from *Die Fledermaus.* The orchestra was string quartet, oboe, trumpet, and piano/harpsichord, playing witty arrangements by Daniel Schlossberg.
Tenor Elliott Paige started the show with "Comfort Ye" from *Messiah.* He set the tone at the end of the recit - - rather than saying, "Make straight in the desert a highway for our God" he said, "Make straight in the desert a runway for the queen." And he strutted around and snapped a large fan. Werk it, grrrl! His attitude was amusing but I have to say his singing was not stellar.
Soprano Samarie Alicea got things back on track with a marvelously sung "Mein Herr, marquis" from *Fledermaus,* sung in English. She's the real deal, she really held the stage.
Mezzo Alissa Anderson sang "Must the winter come so soon" from Barber's *Vanessa.* This is a stunning aria but not really the right thing for her. She needed more poise, her voice was a little wayward.
Bass-baritone John Taylor Ward sang a baroque aria I didn't know. I'd like to assume it's Handel but it could just as easily by Vivaldi or any number of other dudes. His singing was good but it was his physicality that impressed me. He was tall and skinny and festooned with tinsel. He was a living cartoon.
Ballerina Jourdan Epstein did the "Dance of the Snowflakes" from *Nutcracker,* with the singers supplying the wordless chorus. She was delightful. This was followed by the two female singers doing "How beautiful are the feet" from *Messiah," amusingly sung to the actual feet of the ballerina. I looked for a good performance of Epstein on YouTube and this is the best I can do. Girl needs to post some great vids!
Then the greatest thing in the show: they set up four large bottles of wine, placed in a row with an inch or two between them. The top of the bottle was flat and rather large, maybe about two inches wide. Epstein, the ballerina, got on the first bottle on point. She was handled by the two female singers, they held her hands and steadied her. And she "walked" forward on point and twirled a bit on those four bottles. She ended the number by letting go of their hands and standing for one or two seconds on point. I'm sure this routine was a hit on the vaudeville circuit a hundred years ago but holy crap I had never seen anything like it. My mouth was literally hanging open. I can't remember the last time that happened.
Epstein sneezed which led to the singers doing the "And we shall purify" chorus from *Messiah,* which of course became all about CoViD. Very funny. Epstein did the Sugarplum Fairy and Russian dance numbers from *Nutcracker,* they were delightful. If the previous number felt like vaudeville, this felt like burlesque. Nothing wrong with that. I want to see Epstein again, she has real star quality.
We had a surprise guest appearance by a counter tenor in gold gift wrap drag. He had a sort of veil/hood over his face so we couldn't see him. He sang a baroque aria I didn't know and I thought he sounded quite a lot like star counter tenor Anthony Roth Costanzo. After a minute or so I realized it really WAS ARC. Fantastic! He removed his veil and the audience went nutso.
He did a little spiel, he said that the Heartbeat, in all of their years of drag shows, had never had a counter tenor. So he was thrilled to be their first - - "I'm always happy to be someone's first." He sang "All that gold" from Menotti's *Amahl and the Night Visitors.* The lyrics were rewritten to encourage the audience to donate money to Heartbeat, that was cute. And ARC's last number was a racy version of "O Holy Night." "Fall on your knees" got a big laugh, you can fill in the blanks. The number ended with the two assisting singers flipping around the board they had been using as a prop - - it had a portrait of the late great drag queen Divine. Oh night Divine! Divine indeed.