Andy is a production that Andy Warhol could have designed himself. It’s his sort of flamboyant imagery, presenting a group of odd characters in outrageous costumes. In some ways, it’s even better, since it adds dramatic narrative that Warhol’s paintings do not attempt.
I enjoyed myself, but some regular opera patrons fled at intermission, driving themselves or texting for an Uber pickup. Others stayed, but grumbled. “This isn’t opera,” some complained. “This isn’t where we want our money going,” others wailed.
One reason for patrons’ dismay was the intentionally grungy presentation created by the Philadelphia Opera and the Bearded Ladies. Instead of using a Center City theater, the producers chose a warehouse in Kensington, no doubt an homage to Warhol’s Manhattan studio, known as "The Factory." After presenting their tickets, attendees had their hands stamped, with blue ink for those who’d reserved sofa or a stage-side table, red for those up in the bleacher seating. This wasn’t about keeping freeloaders from sneaking in — this was not Times Square, full of passersby — it seemed to be a calculated attempt to appeal to people who attend concerts in sketchy venues.
First impressions may not last
Negative reactions, of course, are not a fair basis for judging a new opera — masterpieces sometimes draw hisses at their debuts. Nor can we adjudicate based on the type of characters shown on stage — first-nighters complained that the characters in La Bohème were too low-class. And we certainly can’t decide because of the inclusion of spoken dialogue — Magic Flute, Carmen, and Fidelio all have that.
A more valid argument could be made about the mix of musical styles in the score assembled by Heath Allen and Dan Visconti. Their music is virtually a textbook on eclecticism, mixing Middle European melodies (Andy’s family was Slovakian), snatches of opera (from Carmen and Rigoletto), psychedelic haze, and soft rock. At its best moments the mix added emotion to the story, but I’d like to hear the score again to see how it holds up.
He got more than 15 minutes
Andrei Warhola (1928-1987) was an illustrator of advertisements (most famously for women’s shoes) and decorator of store windows who became the most prominent leader of the 1960s pop art movement. He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, where a Warhol museum now showcases an interesting cross section of his work. Andy spotlights Warhol’s penchant for turning posters, commercial labels, and ads into works of art, especially through the repetition of images. Some still debate whether the repetitions reveal deep meaning or are mere entertainment.
The first act engrossingly revealed Warhol’s background and his development into an artist. Andy emerged from a box within a box, reminding us how he often used that image. Then he morphed into four replicas of himself. His Campbell soup cans and his Marilyn Monroe posters also figured in the early scenes, triggering colorful ensemble numbers. We saw eight different Marilyns — one of them a bearded man — in a crazy rainbow of wigs.
The first act ended with the dramatic shooting of Warhol by one of his followers, Valerie Solanis (Kate Raines). This is a logical intermission point, yet it left the Popera with a weak second act in which the title character barely appeared. As he lay in a coma, a group of songs was devoted to the woman who shot him. The work regained focus to conclude strongly with a choral paean to Warhol and reappearances of individuals who received their 15 minutes of fame through Warhol. Before this work is produced elsewhere, the creators should consider making it a continuous one-act piece. Puccini, after all, improved his Madama Butterfly by turning the second and third acts into a single act after the opera’s opening run.
Mary Tuomanen was a near-perfect Andy. Her boyish figure and straight blonde hair captured Warhol’s look. Already known for impressive acting on legit stages, she here revealed a fine singing voice.
Malgorzata Kasprzycka made a robust impression as Andy’s immigrant mother, with a wide-ranging closing aria. Many of the minor characters, members of the Opera Philadelphia chorus, also had legitimate operatic voices.
Andy made questionable use of the groupies that Warhol liked to call his “Superstars.” The best-known, Edie Sedgwick, has a bit role, while great attention was given to the sickly Candy Darling, hauntingly played by Scott McPheeters. Her “I’m a bird that you can’t hold/You can be something too” was a highlight.
The coordination of forces was impressive. A live band was to the side of the stage while a dozen performers fanned out in all directions, mixing with audience members and popping up on raised platforms far from the main playing area with smooth synchronization. Some prerecorded high notes were smoothly added to the live vocals by the performers.
Video projections by Jorge Cousineau captured Warhol’s intentionally haphazard film technique and his desire to turn the observer into a component of his art, to draw us all into active participation.
Will they be back?
Forty percent of ticket buyers for the production had never bought Opera Philadelphia tickets before, according to the company. How many of them will return for mainstream operas? Conversely, how many regular subscribers will shun further excursions into unusual territory? How many contributors will increase their financial support, and how many will cut them back?
What, When, Where
Andy: A Popera. Music by Dan Visconti and Heath Allen. John Jarboe directed. Text by John Jarboe in development with Sean Lally and ensemble. Additional lyrics by Liz Worth. September 10-20, 2015. Presented by Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies at Opera in the City, 1526 North American Street, Philadelphia. Opera Philadelphia: operaphila.org or 215-732-8400. Bearded Ladies Cabaret: beardedladiescabaret.com. Presented as part of the 2015 Fringe Festival. fringearts.com or 215-413-1318.