OPERA / Frock opera: Edward Seckerson on an evening of arias and graces with La Gran Scena

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The Independent Culture
Never mind three tenors, over at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London, we're talking six sopranos. And not just any sopranos. We're talking New York's finest, bejewelled luminaries of divadom, we're talking frocks and hair-dos (or even hair-don'ts) with a life of their own, we're talking serious lip-gloss. The wonder is that so distinguished a gathering of opera queens can still be assembled under one roof. And that's just the audience.

I think we're long past those malicious rumours that La Gran Scena is in fact a company of men in drag. Perish the thought. Hirsute howlers have no place on this stage, honey. Just think of the rivalry. One of the most heartwarming features of La Gran Scena's shows is the selflessness and professional generosity displayed by their fabulous leading ladies. Well, actually I lie. There are undercurrents - all right, tidal waves - of temperament and one-upmanship. From the moment that our divas sweep through the dry ice for their traditional curtain-raiser - Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries' (with 'Hojotohos' to have Wotan cowering for cover) - there's a certain jockeying for position. Head diva Vera Galupe-Borszkh (voice of Callas, hair of Tebaldi), a traumatic soprano known affectionately to her fans as 'La Dementia', gets the pink follow- spot. It was she, after all, who revolutionised opera with her Roman debut, she who 'butterflied as Tosca through the famed underwater production at the Baths of Caracalla'

But's what's a little jockeying for position between divas? Our hostess is America's Most Beloved Retired Diva, Miss Sylvia Bills, known to her friends as 'Silly' or 'Billy' (I wonder who she's modelled on). And if she doesn't mind me saying so, she needs a better script editor and a pacier delivery (honey, we could drive whole arias through your longer discourses). Her speciality is the bitchy slip of the tongue: 'the rotund, I mean renowned, spento, I mean spinto soprano'. She gets the Kathleen Battle jokes. But the real blood-letting (I think that's the phrase) is in the musical 'selections'. Some of the singing is actually quite (let's not go overboard here) average (pace those who speak of falsettos, leave alone marching ones - remember, these ladies sing what's written at original pitch). There's Philene Wannelle's felicitous rendition of 'Iris Hence Away' from Handel's Semele - with the added distraction of an Iris who has no intention of going anywhere but downstage-centre.

But the percentage of gags hitting their target has been higher. Operatic in-jokes are the life-blood of La Gran Scena. At best, they spring naturally (and affectionately) from the absurdities of the genre. Sure, I like their tackiness, bad taste. But camp - high or low - is never enough. There's definitely more mileage to be got from Act 3 of La Traviata - though I shall treasure the moment in Violetta's aria which finds our heroine recalling happier times with Alfredo while pulling handcuffs and a pair of old Y-fronts from her jewel box. And haven't we all been been waiting for the trio from Der Rosenkavalier set in a New Jersey shopping mall (the Marschallin now Marsha Lynne), replete with anarchic surtitles. Directed by Madam Galupe-Borszkh after workshops with Peter Sellout, the spectacle of an overweight, bleach-blonde Sophie shooting up (I'm talking outsize syringe here) for the climax is something opera-lovers may never see again. Earlier in the evening, Sylvia Bills, describing Manon as 'gay, pretty, and thoughtless,' added: 'How many of you can relate to that?' You said it, Sylvia.

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