A funny thing happened on the way to the opera: a cabaret about Andy Warhol [photos]

This season, Opera Philadelphia transports audiences to exotic locations; the Baroque Paris salon of La Traviata, the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Civil War in Cold Mountain.

This season, Opera Philadelphia transports audiences to exotic locations; the Baroque Paris salon of La Traviata, the Blue Ridge Mountains of the Civil War in Cold Mountain.

But for “Andy: A POPera,” it transports audiences to a warehouse space in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood.

“You’re in a warehouse,” said the show’s director and librettist, John Jarboe. “You’re in a warehouse on North American Street. You are where you are.”

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Jarboe’s low-budget Bearded Ladies Cabaret has partnered with the highbrow Philadelphia Opera to develop a new how that ends up somewhere in the middle. The costumes are made of paper, the set is made of cardboard. There is a mixture of cabaret singers and trained opera singers. There is a live, 5-piece band inside a warehouse where nothing has been changed to disguise its industrial design.

“Andy: A POPera” is about Andy Warhol, the godfather of mid-century pop art and enigmatic cipher of American consumerism. The show will not explain who Warhol was, but who he is now.

“It’s taking cabaret and opera to a place where you play with traditions. High art clashes with low art, with the pop realm and classical realm, in a way that Warhol did,” said Jarboe. “But really the Beards were drawn to Andy Warhol because we think he’s still alive, moreso than he was when he was actually alive.”

Jarboe is talking about social media, about selfies instantly uploaded to Facebook, about Tweeting and Periscoping and Instagramming yourself into a digital avatar removed from your real life. That is what Warhol did to Marilyn Monroe, when he silk-screened her image over and over she had died.

In one scene, six Marilyn Monroes are each played by six cabaret performers, each in a different colored dress. They are not playing the star herself, but the image Warhol made in multiples.

“What did you do to me?,” ask the Marilyns, grilling Warhol in offset unison.”You’re famous,” replies Warhol, played by Mary Tuomonen.”I already was famous.””But now you’re dead-famous,” Warhol insists. “You’re art.”

The music is a mixture of cabaret and opera. Composer and bandleader Heath Allen wrote the cabaret parts, composer Dan Visconti wrote the opera parts. They stay pretty distinct: the two music traditions are not blended, but juxtaposed.

“This is a Warhol inspired idea,” said Allen. “He would often print silkscreen images and let them lie side by side. Somewhat intertwined but with each its own integral image. We’re trying to do the same thing where opera and cabaret exist side-by-side, but not mushed.”

Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret have been collaborating on “Andy: A POPera” for over two years. It’s a big change for both entities. The small cabaret company normally creates work organically, together as an ensemble, often getting messy with improvisation. Opera Philadelphia commissions and develops large-scale work with union singers and schedules worked out years in advance.

“One of the wonderful things about opera and cabaret – they are both somewhat arcane art forms in the second half of the 20th century,” said Allen. “They were both unavailable to a person like me, for financial reasons. As a result I don’t know the rules very well, and I don’t think the audience knows the rules very well. It becomes tabula rasa, it’s like the wild west.”

The director of Opera Philadelphia, David Devan, says he working outside his comfort zone with the Beards will keep opera nimble into the 21st century.

“Cabaret is very sophisticated. It’s intelligent. To work, there’s an artistic intelligence and virtuosity,” said Devan. “Are we making it different? Absolutely. At the same time, if we were only doing that, and not Traviata, I could be accused of changing opera in totality. I’m not. We are trying to change a range of experiences.”

Opera Philadelphia will open its regular subscription season in October with the La Traviata at the Academy of Music, accompanied by a season gala on Broad Street. In contrast, “Andy: A POPera” premieres this week in a Kensington warehouse as part of the Fringe Festival.

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