Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Queen In Me – a passionate and entertaining plea for an end to stunted diversity in the world of opera (The MAC until Wednesday 19 as part of Belfast International Arts Festival) #BIAF22

For 231 years, The Magic Flute’s Queen of the Night has been going around in circles, with similar casting choices, similar direction. Stuck in a rut, the Queen is having no more of it. And so begins The Queen In Me, a 50-minute dissection of how opera has by-and-large become stuck in a whole series of ruts.

The curtain rises and Teiya Kasahara occupies the centre of the stage, wearing a distressed black dress with tarnished gold detailing that merges with the material bunched up around the podium below. Joanna Yu’s design – costume and set design are one and the same thing – adds long rubber sleeves, perhaps some six metres in length, that flow from the shoulders down to the ground, disguising the performer’s arms and hands for much of the show.

Behind the solo performer, Laura Warren’s video wall is gently pulsating, its animations supporting the words and the colour scheme setting the mood, picked up by the spotlighting that catches the Queen’s dress material so effectively. Visually, it’s quite a spectacle.

The iconic Der Hollë Rache aria from the second act of Mozart’s The Magic Flute – the one with the fast-running quavers that you’d be able to hum to – quickly establishes Kasahara’s talent and technique. But then Kasahara halts the song and the hilarious monologue starts to strip away the pretension and problems with the opera scene.

There’s the limited dramatic range of women’s roles in the traditional opera canon. By the end of the performance the main female character should expect to have been raped, pillaged, killed … or merely married off to someone twice their age. None of these frequent conclusions are fulfilling for the character or the cast member. There’s never a chance of someone being left to live a fulfilled singleton life.

But it’s not just about the characterisation. Certain looks are more likely to get a performer through to the other side of auditions to play these parts. Costumes and stage directions lazily cry out for a character to ‘be more sexy’. The monologue suggests that casting can be racist, ableist and filters out people with some sexual orientations. Many companies tend to be predominantly white, male, heteronormative and elitist.

Accompanied by pianist David Eliakis, the vocals are captivating with the included arias and excerpts – from works by Puccini, Verdi, Strauss and more – demonstrating Kasahara’s range and versatility. In the Q&A afterwards, Kasahara explained that many of those roles would not be regularly offered to them: so it’s a bit of a treat to build them into the show and perform them.

Kasahara’s bottom line is that there is a lack of imagination, inclusion, innovation in the world of opera. So expect a takedown of the worst aspects of opera – particularly, but not just limited to a performer’s perspective – and then expect a twist as Kasahara makes it personal and steps out from the dress that has thus far dominated proceedings.

As the Queen quips early on, don’t expect an expensive nap at this opera. The Queen In Me is fast-paced, entertaining, and aptly challenges the status quo of an artform that sometimes isolates more than it innovates. And it celebrates this Queen’s talent and potential in a way that is neither dismissive or dehumanising. Perfectly suited for opera lovers and opera loathers alike: everyone will get something out of the message and the performance.

You can catch the second performance of The Queen In Me on Wednesday 19 October in The MAC as part of Belfast International Arts Festival. It’s a co-production by Amplified Opera, Canadian Opera Company, Nightwood Theatre and Theatre Gargantua. Directed by Andrea Donaldson & Aria Umezawa.

Check out the preview post from a few weeks ago to find out what else the festival is serving up between now and 6 November.

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