Is it soup yet? Andy Warhol opera in progress

It looks something like this: Sean Lally, who plays a Warhol scholar, is hoisted in the air during a rehearsal of "Andy: A Popera" at the Wilma.
It looks something like this: Sean Lally, who plays a Warhol scholar, is hoisted in the air during a rehearsal of "Andy: A Popera" at the Wilma. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 18, 2014

On May 2, John Miles began the evening swathed in blue plastic, belting out Velvet Underground lyrics, and quoting Andy Warhol ("Oh wow! Oh gee!") at a pop-up performance with the Bearded Ladies Cabaret at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. At intermission, he left - and sped toward the Academy of Music in Friday evening traffic, to lend his baritone to the chorus in Opera Philadelphia's production of Mozart's Don Giovanni.

That's the type of creative conflict that was bound to arise when Opera Philadelphia partnered with the scrappy 4-year-old collaborative-theater Bearded Ladies Cabaret.

But the result - after months of in-studio improvisation, pop-up performances, and experimentation with props, music, and staging - is Stage 2 of Andy: A Popera, bridging both worlds in a jumble of pop-music tropes, comic gags, and classical opera voices. This hour-long cabaret iteration is playing in the Wilma Theater's lobby through next week - while Stage 3, a grander, more operatic Andy, will debut in March.

It's part of Opera Philadelphia's "From the Lab" initiative, which is also developing hip-hop and gospel crossovers. It launched in 2013 under the watch of company president David Devan, who confesses to having more trance music than opera on his iPod and recognizes the same diversity of tastes in his patrons.

"Going into projects where there's artistic tension and different ways of doing things is a healthy creative process," Devan said. "I really think that opera as a genre has so much to offer in our multimedia age, if we're flexible enough to allow artists of our day into it."

After Devan saw a Bearded Ladies production a few years ago, he befriended the troupe's artistic director, John Jarboe, and began brainstorming for a potential collaboration.

Jarboe said it was a natural fit: "The center of both of our work is music: We drive the story through music, and we're both really interested in virtuosity."

He saw potential to produce something new, "using the tension between . . . the pop cabaret voice and the classical sensibility to create not an opera, but a hybrid - a popera."

When the idea of focusing on Warhol came up, Jarboe said, everything clicked. After all, Warhol was a pop artist, who - like the Bearded Ladies - appropriated contemporary culture. But he was also an opera fan, known for playing Maria Callas recordings in his art-making "Factory."

"And then our costume designer was like, 'I really want to dress people in plastic,' " Jarboe added. "So, we said, 'Done.' "

Phase one of the collaboration began in December in the Bearded Ladies' studio, which soon came to evoke the Factory as performers, visual artists, and composer Heath Allen all experimented with costumes, props, music, and staging, feeding off of one another's ideas. Artist Colette Fu designed an oversize, pop-up Warhol wig that became a central set piece; Allen turned a soup can into a low-budget puppet that helped shape another scene.

"The devising process, rather than a playwright sitting in a room by himself and writing a play, allows other artistic forces to take the lead," Allen said.

Then came the pop-up performances - some planned, such as the ones at the Art Museum, others spontaneous, such as at the Clark Park farmer's market in West Philadelphia - where audience reactions could be gauged to, say, an Edie Sedgwick solo or a big production number of Campbell's soup cans confronting the inevitable emptiness that is their destiny.

"It's not just a marketing ploy, it's actually how we wanted to develop the piece . . . in conversation with the audience," Jarboe said.

Along the way, the performers discovered a sort of logic for the tension between the classical and cabaret singers: the four opera singers assume Warhol's voice, while the five cabaret members represent the objects and individuals in his orbit.

Once that became clear, Allen said, a songwriting process that had been a struggle was much easier.

Going forward, Allen will work with a composer commissioned by Opera Philadelphia for Stage 3 of the performance, which will likely see the cast doubled. Devan hopes to stage the piece in an empty art gallery somewhere in the city.

It will be the product of 15 months' worth of compromise, particularly on the project's tempo. For Bearded Ladies, whose development time for a project is typically about three months, that reflects an extraordinarily protracted process.

For the opera company, said Devan, "This is the most compressed thing we've ever done by a factor of four or five." In contrast, another original work in progress for Opera Philadelphia, Jennifer Higdon's Cold Mountain, was commissioned two years ago and will not premiere until February 2016.

But creatively, it turned out not to be much of a compromise at all, said Kristen Bailey, a Bearded Ladies performer.

"I was a little wary at first," she said. "We're used to making things from scratch and failing to find our way to the story, and we would be working with people who are used to having a very clear blueprint. But everyone has the same open, playful attitude, so it works."

For the Opera Philadelphia members who have been involved, it's been a new challenge to learn music on the spot - but a liberating one, said mezzo-soprano Karina Sweeney.

"Not knowing what's going to happen," she said, "and being able to influence where it does go - that's something I've never gotten to do before."


Andy: A Popera

Presented by Bearded Ladies Cabaret and Opera Philadelphia through July 27 at the Wilma Theater, 265 S. Broad St.

Tickets: $10-$25. Information: 215-546-7824 or



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