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On Stage: camp hits a high note

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There are sopranos, and then there are divas. The great ones' names evoke a thrilling heritage: Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, Nellie Melba and Zinka Milanov, Emmy Destinnova and Amelita Galli-Curci, Galina Vishnevskaya and Vera Galupe-Borszkh . . .

Vera Galupe-Borszkh? Reviled--er, revered--as "La Dementia" by those in the know, this Russian star's unique mastery of both bel canto and can belto has elevated her above soprano drammatico to a new category, "soprano traummatico." She's internationally notorious as the artistic director and prima donna of La Gran Scena Opera Company, which comes to town for four shows next week. The group has toured Europe and the U.S. with an ensemble of some of classical music's most unusual practitioners. Among them are the mighty mezzo Carmelita Della Vaca-Browne, a dairy heiress from Naguabo, Puerto Rico; the "elegant but midpriced" baritone Fodor Szedan; and onetime Miss America contestant Philene Wannelle, renowned for creating the trouser role of Stanley Kowalski in Pasmaitiara's Un Tram si Chiama Desiderio. "It is great privilege to vork vith slightly lesser artists," says Madame Galupe-Borszkh in the demurely mousy manner her colleagues long ago learned to distrust. Providing stalwart piano accompaniment is maestro Lorenzo Costalotta-Denaro, the former protege of Galupe-Borszkh's late husband, the castrato Manuel Galupe. "I've always felt in a marriage one person vith balls is quite enough," La Dementia explains, "and I vas happy to be that person."

OK, OK. There is no Vera Galupe-Borszkh: she's the creation and alter ego of Ira Siff, a New York musical-comedy actor and operatic vocal coach. But then, every great diva is self-invented; why should Vera be any different just because she's a man in drag?

Inspired by the cross-dressing Camille of his friend Charles Ludlam and the toe-shoe travesties of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Siff founded La Gran Scena in 1981 both to parody and honor a fading style of operatic performance--extravagant, sometimes grotesque, but always fascinating in its mixture of beauty and absurdity. Now 49, the Brooklyn-bred Siff grew up in awe of singers like Maria Callas, whom he saw at the Metropolitan Opera toward the end of her career. "I had to stand in line for three days, including two nights sleeping in the street, to see her final two shows at the Met. I got the flu, but I got to see Callas," Siff says. "I started La Gran Scena to create the grand style that I had seen the tail end of, so to speak. By then, opera had become more generic and packaged, performed by singers who pursue international careers by singing in any idiom, any style. They record beautifully and make lovely CDs, but you have no idea who they are as artists. They put absolutely no stamp on their roles."

That certainly isn't true of La Gran Scena; once you've seen this herd of Hornes storm through "The Ride of the Valkyries," dangerously brandishing spears while wearing some truly remarkable evening gowns, you'll never think of Wagner the same way again. Likewise Verdi--the judgment scene from Aida has Della Vaca-Browne as Amneris and titanic tenor Alfredo Sorta-Pudgi as Radames doing their imitation of Egyptian wall paintings while Galupe-Borszkh as Aida lurks in the background, dusting the palm trees. ("Imagine, a walk-on. How humiliating! But anything to save money," simpers the proud but penny-wise diva/director.)

Siff says that Galupe-Borzskh is delighted to be making her long avoided--er, awaited--Chicago debut. "She was very attracted to the Lyric," he explains, "because they don't allow Pavarotti." Next week's program will roast chestnuts like Tosca and Il trovatore--none of the experimental stuff, like the company's outrageous "postmodern deconstructionist" Der Rosenkavalier, directed by "Peter Sellout" and set in a shopping mall in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The evening's selections will be introduced by the mischievously malapropistic emcee Sylvia Bills, "America's most beloved retired diva," whose commentaries suggest the loving but skeptical humor of classical-music comedienne Anna Russell crossed with the gender-bent glee of Dame Edna Everage.

The key to La Gran Scena's longevity--last year the company turned 13 with a gala "bar mitzvah tour"--is that the singing is no joke, even if the wigs and costumes are. The ensemble boasts an impressive set of classical and theatrical credits--including Siff, who began his career 25 years ago in the brilliant musicals of off-Broadway composer-director Al Carmines. A gifted clown whose Galupe-Borszkh recalls a Fanny Brice caricature in its detailed delicacy, Siff invests his alter ego with an eerily beautiful soprano that affirms falsetto as a legitimate art form--even if Siff's high note is a C unnatural.

Since its beginnings in the mid-1500s, opera has always featured male sopranos, of course; castrati dominated the scene in the days of Monteverdi and Handel. La Gran Scena's divas haven't given their all for their art--this is opera without the operation--but their falsettos are the real thing. When Gabriella Tonnoziti-Casseruola, the 105-year-old diva whose "surprise appearance" is a highlight of the show, sings her quavery but exquisitely phrased rendition of "Home Sweet Home," you'd swear you were listening to an antique 78 rpm recording--scratchy but beautiful and touching in a way no digitally mastered diva could ever be.

"Consistent falsetto, like expert drag, can give the illusion of truth," writes Wayne Koestenbaum in his book The Queen's Throat. Expert at both drag and falsetto, Siff takes the idea one step further: "Opera is larger-than-life truth--more true than naturalistic truth, I think. La Gran Scena is simply larger-than-life opera."

La Gran Scena Opera Company opens at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, on Thursday, December 7, at 7:30 PM. Shows continue Friday at 8:30 and Saturday at 7 and 10:30. Tickets are $24 to $34; for more information, call Performing Arts Chicago at 722-5463 or 663-1628.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/C.M. Hardt, Hashimoto.

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