'The Island We Made': Modern Opera And High Drag In An Ode To Mothers : Deceptive Cadence Composer Angélica Negrón collaborates with 'RuPaul's Drag Race' winner Sasha Velour on a 10-minute film featuring original music, in a project for Opera Philadelphia.
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'The Island We Made': Lip-Sync Opera And High Drag Sing An Ode To Mothers

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'The Island We Made': Lip-Sync Opera And High Drag Sing An Ode To Mothers

'The Island We Made': Lip-Sync Opera And High Drag Sing An Ode To Mothers

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's an opera company supposed to do during the pandemic? Can't stage live shows. Opera Philadelphia started creating original works written for the camera meant to be seen online. It's part of an ongoing effort to bring more diverse, creative voices into the canon. And the company's newest project debuts today. Here's Peter Crimmins of our member station WHYY.

PETER CRIMMINS, BYLINE: "The Island We Made" is a 10-minute film set inside a middle-class home decorated in pastel pinks and baby blues. In the middle of it all, a figure in a buttery yellow sheath dress towers in platform heels. She delicately glides between the porcelain objects arranged on doilies, taking an ornate China tea set out of a glass hutch. This is Sasha Velour, known for her extravagant performances on "RuPaul's Drag Race" but here making a star turn in a decidedly understated fashion.

SASHA VELOUR: Making tea and smearing peanut butter on graham crackers, arranging it in a star - those simple, mundane tasks - it is a space that is about love and trying to truly see someone and understand them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ISLAND WE MADE")

ELIZA BAGG: (Singing) You made me. You fed me.

CRIMMINS: "The Island We Made" is a lullaby about mothers, an homage to the often unsung labor of child rearing. The music was written by composer Angelica Negron, who grew up in Puerto Rico in the 1980s. Her mom had many friends who were drag performers, so high glamour and high drama were normal parts of her childhood.

ANGELICA NEGRON: The immensity and the confidence of them - unapologetic, taking up space - for me was really impactful as a child to have around.

CRIMMINS: To some, this may not look or sound like opera. There's no storyline in the video, filmed by Matthew Placek, no aria when a singer belts out their feelings to the rafters. In fact, the character we see isn't even singing. In characteristic drag fashion, Velour is lip syncing to the voice of an unseen performer, Eliza Bagg.

DAVID DEVAN: Our focus was not doing a pandemic Band-Aid. We needed to make this artistic expression that lived in its own right digitally.

CRIMMINS: David Devan is the company's general director.

DEVAN: For that reason, we don't see it going away. We see it augmenting our in real-life performances.

CRIMMINS: Opera Philadelphia has been using its new digital channel to expand the canon of contemporary opera, featuring artists not normally heard in mainstream spaces, Black composers like Tyshawn Sorey and Courtney Bryan and Latina composers like Negron.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ISLAND WE MADE")

BAGG: (Singing) The dress that she wore.

CRIMMINS: One thing "The Island We Made" does share with more traditional opera is an enormity of feeling. Negron and Velour wrote the opera together around the theme of mother-daughter relationships.

VELOUR: We talked about our experiences with mothers and with care and with the way that relationships can be formed with gestures and with silence.

CRIMMINS: Velour keeps her head shaved and often performs without a wig in tribute to her mother, who lost her hair to chemotherapy before dying of cancer in 2015.

VELOUR: There's silence involved there because my mother has passed. I can't speak with her, but I do think about creating space still for that relationship in different ways. My drag is a part of that.

CRIMMINS: "The Island We Made" debuts today on Opera Philadelphia's website.

For NPR News, I'm Peter Crimmins.

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