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Rebuilding and reconnecting

Lesbian country singer Chely Wright to play the Birchmere

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Chely Wright

with Deep River

Tonight, 7:30 p.m.

The Birchmere

3701 Mount Vernon Ave.

Alexandria

Tickets: $25

Wright performs at last year's Capital Pride, her first such appearance since she came out last May. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Chely Wright is sick.

Nothing major but it’s her third day of a cold she picked up last weekend at a songwriter’s festival in Florida. It’s bad enough that a doctor’s visit is planned. She’s at home in Manhattan, where she moved nearly three years ago to finish her autobiography. She’s confident she’ll be recovered enough to play the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Friday night.

“Several of us were kind of passing it around at the festival,” she says sounding clear-voiced during a phone interview.

This is her first show at Alexandria’s Birchmere but she knows the venue from other singer/songwriter friends. Tickets were still available as of Blade press time Wednesday.

“It’s a very discerning audience there,” she says. “I’m excited.”

The venue doesn’t regularly book country acts but has hosted shows by Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, the late Johnny Cash as well as current acts like Sugarland and the Zac Brown Band.

Michael Jaworek booked Wright several times at the Alexandria country club Zed in the early years of her career and is excited to have her play the Birchmere where he’s been booking acts since 1988.

“Musically, her current work fits the club, plus she has an audience,” he says. “It’s made up of her old fans from her Top 40 country career and the new ones who have discovered her since coming out. The new album shows that she can write solid songs and is produced by one of the best songwriters today, or any day, Rodney Crowell. We don’t book many country acts but we do book those we think can fill the venue.”

It’s been, of course, a life-altering time for Wright, who came out last May with a high-profile media blitz that included the Crowell collaboration album “Lifted Off the Ground,” the aforementioned memoir “Like Me” and appearances on “Oprah,” at Capital Pride and more. She’s known for a string of late ’90s/early ’00s country hits that found her charting about 15 singles on the country radio charts including the No. 1 cut “Single White Female.” “Ground” is the 40-year-old Kansas native’s seventh studio album.

“I’m still having what Oprah calls those ‘a-ha’ moments,” Wright says. “Time is still revealing what this freedom brings even just in simple things like going to my girlfriend’s house for the holidays. I’m still in my first year of doing all those once-a-year things. The holidays are a stressful time for a lot of gay couples because they’re often split up. With my ex-partner, it was a stressful time.”

Wright has been dating someone since last summer but they don’t live together. She spent last summer pushing her book with in-store appearances to which she’d bring her guitar and sing a few songs. She spent the fall writing songs, touring some and doing behind-the-scenes advocacy work with several national LGBT advocacy groups. She says the chance to positively impact young LGBT people was one of the reasons she came out.

At one time suicidal herself, she says last year’s spate of teen suicides brought a bevy of mixed emotions.

“I felt incredibly thankful to be out. It would have really devastated me to be in the closet when that happened and know I was still locked into silence. It really galvanized my mission. This isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s happening every single day. America just paid attention this time and it got out of hand. Kids were feeling hopeless. And while yes, there has been an upside to it, dare I say that, in that people started paying attention, the downside is that the negative volume gets turned up to and out in the schools each day, gay kids are still being bullied.”

So what’s life like for Wright now that the initial coming out hoopla has calmed?

She says she’s found herself more “lyrically free” as a songwriter.

“I do have a liberty and a freedom that wasn’t there before. I don’t have to stop and think about how I can make this sound like it’s not about a girl.”

Wright enjoys living in Manhattan but since she’d spent lots of time there before, it wasn’t a big adjustment. She still has her house in Nashville and says she likes both cities.   One thing that hasn’t changed for her is her sense of style.

“That’s just the way I am,” she says. “I never wanted to have short hair and the way I dress suits me. I never felt any pressure. Sure, if I’m doing a show or a photo shoot, I dress up while I am perfectly comfortable in tennis shoes and jeans on other days, but I just happen to be a feminine lesbian.”

Wright, who’s said in other interviews that Mary Chapin Carpenter was the only other celebrity who made a public statement of support when Wright came out, says there have been some quieter statements of solidarity. She spent “a little time” with Melissa Etheridge, perhaps the most famous lesbian singer/songwriter in the U.S. who’s in the midst of a not-so-amicable split from Tammy Lynn Michaels.

She says Etheridge “had some great mentoring words and very supportive words — she was lovely.”

And she knows k.d.lang’s management team whom she says “reached out in support.”

She hasn’t spoken to Brad Paisley, whom she once dated briefly, since last year but says he made a donation to one of her LGBT charities, which she described as “a beautiful gesture.”

And in terms of other celebrity happenings she says seeing the backlash against the Dixie Chicks several years ago, especially on country radio, made a huge impression on her and, at the time, cemented her resolve to stay in the closet.

“Oh yes, I was definitely watching that situation and it had a huge effect on me,” Wright says. “Yes, it’s apples and oranges, but it’s all fruit. I’m very well aware of how our industry works. It’s commerce. It’s like McDonald’s selling hamburgers. You don’t want to anger your sales demographic. … I saw the repercussions and just thought, ‘Holy crap, I might get outed at some point, but I’m never gonna do it myself.’ I steeled myself against it then because I saw the nastiness they faced.”

Wright feels the support from the LGBT community — playing her first Pride date at last year’s Capital Pride was “very emotional” — but she knows that solidarity won’t necessarily translate into record sales.

“There’s a big difference between hitting ‘like’ on Facebook and coming out to a show, but that’s what rebuilding is all about and this is a time of rebuilding for me. I’d love it if they say, ‘I want to hear music that’s great so I’ll go hear her,’ if those dots connect, but it’s two different things. And we actually have a fairly robust LGBT following in country music generally though I certainly have been made aware of the new consciousness.”

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Music & Concerts

Madonna announces ‘Celebration’ world tour

D.C. stop planned for Sept. 2

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(Screen capture via YouTube)

Madonna announced a new world tour on Tuesday via video parody of her 1991 “Truth or Dare” in which friend Amy Schumer dares the pop superstar to go on tour and perform her greatest hits. Madonna accepts the challenge.

The NSFW video features Judd Apatow, Jack Black, Diplo, Lil Wayne, Bob the Drag Queen, and Schumer, among others. 

The 35-city tour kicks off on July 15 in Vancouver, BC with stops around the country, including Sept. 2 in D.C. The tour also heads to Europe, starting with the O2 Arena in London on Oct. 14 and ending in Amsterdam on Dec. 1. The tour is produced by Live Nation. Bob the Drag Queen was announced as special guest on all dates.

“I am excited to explore as many songs as possible in hopes to give my fans the show they have been waiting for,” Madonna said in a statement. She said the tour will feature 40 years of her greatest hits, something she has resisted in the past, while also paying tribute to the role New York City played in launching her career.

Madonna is the latest in a string of ‘80s icons to hit the road in 2023 after three years of COVID cancellations. Janet Jackson announced her “Together Again Tour,” which kicks off in April and stops in Baltimore on May 13 and Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, Va., on May 6; Bruce Springsteen’s tour kicks off next month with a March 27 stop in D.C.; and Billy Joel and Stevie Nicks last week announced a joint tour stop in Baltimore on Oct. 7. 

The 2023 Celebration tour North American dates:

July 15 – Vancouver, BC @ Rogers Arena

July 18 – Seattle, WA @ Climate Pledge Arena

July 22 – Phoenix, AZ @ Footprint Center

July 25 – Denver, CO @ Ball Arena

July 27 – Tulsa, OK @ BOK Center

July 30 – St. Paul, MN @ Xcel Energy Center

August 2 – Cleveland, OH @ Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse

August 5 – Detroit, MI @ Little Caesars Arena

August 7 – Pittsburgh, PA @ PPG Paints Arena

August 9 – Chicago, IL @ United Center

August 13 – Toronto, ON @ Scotiabank Arena

August 19 – Montreal, QC @ Centre Bell

August 23 – New York, NY @ Madison Square Garden

August 24 – New York, NY @ Madison Square Garden

August 30 – Boston, MA @ TD Garden

Sept. 2 – Washington, DC @ Capital One Arena

Sept. 5 – Atlanta, GA @ State Farm Arena

Sept. 7 – Tampa, FL @ Amalie Arena

Sept. 9 – Miami, FL @ Miami-Dade Arena

Sept. 13 – Houston, TX @ Toyota Center

Sept. 18 – Dallas, TX @ American Airlines Center

Sept. 21 – Austin, TX @ Moody Center ATX

Sept. 27 – Los Angeles, CA @ Crypto.com Arena

Oct. 4 – San Francisco, CA @ Chase Center

Oct. 7 – Las Vegas, NV @ T-Mobile Arena

European Dates: 

Oct. 14 – London, UK @ The O2

Oct. 21 – Antwerp, BE @ Sportpaleis

Oct. 25 – Copenhagen, DK @ Royal Arena

Oct. 28 – Stockholm, SE @ Tele2

Nov. 1 – Barcelona, ES @ Palau Sant Jordi

Nov. 6 – Lisbon, PT @ Altice Arena

Nov. 12 – Paris, FR @ Accor Arena

Nov. 13 – Paris, FR @ Accor Arena

Nov. 15 – Cologne, DE @ Lanxess Arena

Nov. 23 – Milan, IT @ Mediolanum Forum

Nov. 28 – Berlin, DE @ Mercedes-Benz Arena

Dec. 1 – Amsterdam, NL @ Ziggo Dome

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Music & Concerts

New opera chronicles beauty and power of trans liberation

Don’t miss ‘What the Spirits Show’ at Washington National Opera

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Kimberly Reed, Cecelia Raker, Jens Ibsen, Walken Schweigert, Carlos Simon, Silen Wellington, B.E. Boykin, Jarrod Lee, Kelley Rourke in ‘What the Spirits Show.’ (Photo by Caitlin Oldham)

The value of the support of family. The oppression of trans identity. The euphoria and spiritual power of trans liberation. These themes and more are woven into a poignant new opera, “What the Spirits Show,” by composer-librettist team Silen Wellington and Walken Schweigert.

Their collaboration is the product of the Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative (AOI). Now celebrating its 10th season, AOI pairs talented creatives to develop a short, one-act opera, performed by WNO’s Cafritz Young Artists. Along the way, the creative teams receive invaluable mentorship from some of the best in the business. 

This year’s AOI performance takes place on January 21, 2023 at the Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center. Also on the program are Oshun, with music by B.E. Boykin, and libretto by Jarrod Lee—a journey of sacrifice, self-love and redemption displayed in the face of those who would deny it. And Bubbie and the Demon, with music by Jens Ibsen and libretto by Cecelia Raker—a mashup of opera and heavy metal, which finds that Bubbie has filled the void of Covid isolation by solving as many word searches and crosswords as possible, but accidentally summoned a demon. 

The Washington Blade caught up with librettist Walken Schweigert and composer Silen Wellington, the co-creators of What the Spirits Show, to learn more about this short opera and its powerful themes.

BLADE: Congratulations on creating the original work, “What the Spirits Show.” Can you share more about the opera’s plot and musical style?

WALKEN SCHWEIGERT: It’s an opera about trans liberation, but also about friendship and the support of family. There are four characters: the protagonist, named Calamus, is a shape-shifting youth who takes a magical elixir to be themselves. Their shape-shifting is an allegory for transness. When you first meet Calamus, they have already been taking this medicine, so you meet Calamus in the fullness of themself. But then this politician enters the scene and he outlaws the elixir, claiming that it’s immoral. But the beautiful thing is that Calamus’ mother stands up for them, and because of that they both get thrown in jail. Since Calamus has stopped taking the elixir, they basically begin detransitioning. But then their friend, Sylvan, is able to sneak in some elixir to Calamus. And the strength and the power of Calamus coming back to themself is so powerful that it destroys the jail and traps the politician under the rubble, and Calamus and their mother are able to escape. It’s a moment of joy, it’s a moment of euphoria, it’s a moment of self-reclamation.

SILEN WELLINGTON: The characters themselves each have their own musical language. And musically, each scene is its own world. The first scene is all about Calamus and their shape-shifting. The music is very whimsical, beautiful and romantic. The second scene is all about the politician. His music is much more circus-like; almost like a lopsided march. In the third scene, when Calamus and Aurora are in the prison, the music is a little bit more restricted, but it still hearkens back to some of that fantastical and musical language from the opening scene. The fourth scene is really where it all comes together. Sylvan comes and helps Calamus break out of jail, so the music is more driving and rock-influenced, because in Walken’s words, Sylvan is Calamus’s “anarcho-punk friend.” And then finally, once Calamus returns to their power, we return to the fantastical music at the beginning. 

BLADE: Can you share why you wanted to write this opera? Have its themes affected you personally?

WELLINGTON: I wouldn’t write this opera if it didn’t affect me personally. That could probably be my artist statement! It’s the subtext of why I make art. I write about things that personally affect me and I always have. 

In my own journey to figuring out that I was trans and nonbinary, it took me a while to find self-acceptance and then find self-love. I wanted to write something that gave space for that love. I knew I was queer from a pretty young age, but I didn’t realize being transgender was an option. As a result, I had this unnamable sadness in me that made most things in my life feel wrong, and I spent most of my teenage years battling suicidality and depression because I couldn’t see a future for myself. 

I was 19 when I first met nonbinary adults, and that really started to turn things around for me. It sparked a journey of self-discovery. I feel like now I’m in a place of self-love and acceptance, trying to find words to express how spiritual and divine I find the experience of being trans to be.

The first time I read Walken’s libretto, I remember feeling this swell of emotion and recognition thinking, “I’ve been trying to find words for this all my life. And wow, now I get to say it with the music!”

SCHWEIGERT: When I first started making art, a lot of it was trauma porn, because of how I was raised in a religiously restrictive mindset. But now, I try to explore what gifts being trans has bestowed and bring those to light. I’m also interested in exploring why are we such a threat? Why are people so afraid of us? And I think it’s because we actually have something really powerful. There’s actual spiritual value and knowledge that comes from being trans.

BLADE: Why is this opera important now?

SCHWEIGERT: This opera was very much directly inspired by a letter the governor of Texas wrote last year to the Texas’ Department of Family and Protective Services re-interpreting the law to include trans affirming care under the definition of child abuse. Governor Abbott was trying to separate trans kids from their supportive parents. It made me think of how much it would have meant to me to have supportive parents, and then to have that be taken away, stolen by the state, was heart wrenching to imagine. I think of the relationship that I have with my parents now and imagine the pain that would be caused to them if I were young and they were being forced to separate from me.  

In this opera, there is a scene of Calamus and their mother Aurora in the jail, and they’re singing this song together, but they’re in separate cells and they can’t hear each other. Especially in that scene, I really wanted Aurora, Calamus’s mother, to say all of the things that I wish my parents had said to me when I was a teenager and coming out: “…my dear Calamus, I have to trust you know yourself better than I ever could. I love you more than I could ever say. And as long as I hold breath, I will not let them tear you away from yourself.”

It’s a powerful moment for me. My parents are Catholic and that was at the root of a lot of their own internalized and externalized transphobia. But now my dad is part of a group at his church that is drafting a statement of trans-inclusion. He wanted to contribute, hey, God actually doesn’t think that trans people are abominations, and also that there’s spiritual knowledge and spiritual value that trans people bring by nature of being trans. 

WELLINGTON: Beyond the gender and celebratory spiritual themes of the opera, this project has really given me space to process some of the hatred that’s been surrounding and sometimes feeling like it’s narrowing in on my world; the national uptick in LGBTQ+ hatred and anti-trans hatred specifically has gotten local and sometimes really personal over the last couple of years. Outside of music, I work in suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth. I’ve been I’ve been feeling the ripples of this hatred, both big and small on my community and especially on the trans teens that I that I work with. When advocating, I feel like I have to make sense of this hatred or try to bend and twist myself into something palatable to reach for the right words that will convince someone of our humanity. But in the artistic world, we take a different approach, one that leans into this divinity of our authenticity. Art helps us lean into the healing that I had been craving to reconnect with my own resilience. 

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Music & Concerts

Janet Jackson announces new music, tour

Baltimore show slated for May 13 with Ludacris

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Janet Jackson’s ‘Together Again’ tour kicks off April 14 in Hollywood, Fla.

Music icon Janet Jackson announced a new tour on Monday morning in a live Instagram video.

The “Together Again” tour kicks off April 14 in Florida with at least 33 dates announced so far, including May 13 in Baltimore. There’s no D.C. date as of Monday morning.

Jackson confirmed that she will debut new music in conjunction with the tour but didn’t specify if that means a full new album or when it might debut. She added that she would be joined by Ludacris on the tour.

Tickets are on sale Friday via Live Nation; pre-sale begins 11 a.m. Tuesday at ticketmaster.com.

Jackson canceled her previous tour, 2020’s “Black Diamond” due to the pandemic. She is expected to pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of her #1 album “Velvet Rope” during the new show.

Visit janetjackson.com for the full schedule.

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