What do you get when you cross opera, drag and verbatim text about gay sex? Why, Cocktales with Maria, of course, an intimate and very naughty cabaret act produced by Vancouver's Low-Rent Gutter Opera Performance Collective which plays in the Founders' Lounge at the Cultch through Friday as part of the rEvolver Festival (there is an additional show and "play party" scheduled for Saturday at Club 8x6 on Haro Street).
Cocktales was created by composer Isaiah Bell and singer Joel Klein, a tenor who has sung male roles for various opera companies across Canada (including the VOC), but who as Maria Toilette gets to play the diva. And what a diva she is! The performance actually begins in the lobby area as we observe Maria, clad in a gorgeous vintage peach ball gown and sporting an amazing orange wig the size of a nun's habit (though this is no Von Trapp, do-re-mi singalong kind of show), applying the last of her make-up (the show's stylist is Myles Laphen). Maria is helped in this regard by her pianist and "pain-artist," The Morekeys de Schade (Karen Lee-Morlang), and also by the long-suffering Vadge ("performative" stage manager and show producer Kristina Lemieux), who like Dame Edna Everage's mute and doleful bridesmaid Madge is always to hand to do her mistress' bidding, which is chiefly not to steal her limelight.
Not that that would be at all possible. Maria is an imposing and charismatic presence, and squeezed into the tiny (and, I must say, woefully underused) Founders' Lounge, it is impossible for audience members to take their eyes off of her. Following the opening number, an original setting of the Sky Gilbert poem "Bengali Tea," Maria explained the premise of her act to us. She and Bell interviewed a number of gay men from the West Coast about their sexual experiences--their wildest, wackiest, or just plain most memorable stories--and then used the edited text as the basis for the eight "cocktales" that Maria has chosen to sing for us. Because the text is verbatim, the singing of it comes across more as recitative than aria; however, Bell has provided a lush piano score for each of the tales, and combined with Klein-as-Maria's precise enunciation and wickedly impish way with the most incongruous of lines, one is transported by the weight and colour and emotional delivery of each song in a manner equivalent to the richly sustained final notes of "Nessun doma." Plus there are no surtitles!
The most moving of the tales for me was the final one, about a man raised in a religious family who details his encounter with an older boy at camp. Finding himself suddenly sharing a tent with this boy, our narrator recounts, via Maria, how he worked up the courage to reach across in the dark and begin touching the boy's body. His hand is not rebuffed, so the explorations become bolder. But the song is not about sexual consummation; it is about what precedes that--the impossible delirium of desire, discovery, want. Klein sings this narrative with a resonant vocal tremulousness that puts you inside that tent, that makes you feel the downy fur in the small of the love-object's back.
Indeed, I got the sense last night that part of the challenge for Klein and his collaborators with this show--especially played in such an intimate setting--is reigning in the operatic muscles. We got a taste of just how big Maria's voice can potentially be in her encore, a deliciously ribald take on "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." It was the perfect capstone to a wonderful set.