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Of queens and minions

Washington National Opera features high-stakes and high-jinks in new season

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Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of ‘Anna Bolena.’ (Photo by Cade Martin, courtesy WNO)

 

‘Anna Bolena’
Washington National Opera
Sept. 15-Oct. 6
‘Don Giovanni’
Sept. 20-Oct. 13
Kennedy Center
2700 F St., NW
$25-$300
202-467-4600
kennedy-center.org

From epic royals to legendary libertines, Washington National Opera’s 2012-2013 season openers are a perfect fit for capital city audiences mired in a presidential election year.

First out of the gate is Gaetano Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena,” opening Sept. 14. Starring soprano Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role, the 19th-century opera follows the waning days of Anne Boleyn’s reign as Queen of England before being found guilty of adultery and beheaded.

“The opera is amazing dramatically,” says Radvanovsky, “and the music on top of it is just any soprano’s dream.”

Radvanovsky made a name for herself in the dramatic soprano repertoire of Giuseppe Verdi, but in recent years, she started branching out to explore other roles. Often compared to renowned soprano Maria Callas, who revived “Anna Bolena” from near obscurity in the 1950s, Radvanovsky’s voice possess a full-blooded timbre that’s matched by a riveting acting sense, according to her director for this production, Stephen Lawless.

“The intelligence which she brings to the playing of Anna is thrilling and moving,” says Lawless, who’s gay. “She always puts her abilities to the service of the job in hand.”

The opera culminates in a heartbreaking and defiant mad scene for Anna, yet both Lawless and Radvanovsky feel this isn’t the garden-variety hysteria portrayed in other operas, including the same composer’s calling card “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

“She’s emotionally naked,” Radvanovsky says of the queen. “The easy card to put down is to play cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs. Anna Bolena isn’t crazy; it’s just too much for her to handle, and I think that’s something that more people can relate to.”

“She finds inner resources that I suspect she never knew she had,” Lawless says about the doomed queen, adding that her death transforms tragedy into “something glorious.”

DESPITE THE TUDOR-ERA setting for the story, the opera’s themes bear striking relevance to today’s social and political climate. Donizetti contrasts Anna’s undoing with the ascendency of the social-climbing Jane Seymour, who has caught the eye of Henry VIII and will become queen after Anna’s decapitation. However, Anna’s betrayal of a true love from girlhood haunts her throughout out the story, reminding Jane Seymour and audiences that dreams of power can’t buy happiness.

“I started singing when I was 11,” says Radvanovsky. “When I was 18 years old, I said, ‘By the time, I’m 30, I’m going to be singing at the Met.’” This dream came true for the singer, as did her chance to sing with legendary tenor Placido Domingo. She sang with him during “Cyrano de Bergerac” on her 35th birthday, causing her to ask the older legend what she should do now that she’d accomplished her goals.

“He told me, ‘Oh, Sondra. You must go get a new dream.’”

Now in her 40s, Radvanovsky feels that anyone, from the American people trying to choose a president to a young girl aspiring to be queen of 16th-century England, needs to focus on the moment at hand instead of an unpredictable future.

“If [Anna] had lived in the moment, she would have seen that she wasn’t in love with [Henry], but she was looking a year ahead. We are looking into politics in the same way. We put so much hope in these dreams, hoping that Obama or whoever continues down the road we want.”

Lawless, a British native, sees the opera’s connection to today’s audience in a slightly darker hue, recounting how Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the United Kingdom during the recent Olympics. While there, he was asked about Pussy Riot, the female punk band who staged a protest act against Putin weeks before his recent election to the presidency.

“He said, ‘I hope the courts will be lenient with her,’” remembers Lawless, “and that’s exactly a Henry [VIII] statement. It’s that kind of abuse of power that gives this piece its ironic resonance. Henry’s abuse of power should make you as angry as the Pussy Riot thing.”

WASHINGTON NATIONAL OPERA’S next piece, Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” follows close on the heels of “Anna Bolena” and opens Sept. 20. The infamous womanizer of the title gets his karmic comeuppance by opera’s end, attended throughout by his long-suffering servant, Leporello, played by gay bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams.

“I have played it once before, where he was very dark,” he says of the character. “I’ve since come to realize that’s not right. It needs to be multi-layered. We need to remember that it’s a ‘dramma giocoso’ — a dark comedy.”

Paul (left) and Andrew Foster-Williams. Andrew plays Leporello in Washington National Opera’s production of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni.’ (Photo courtesy WNO)

The singer travels the world with his partner, photographer Paul Foster-Williams, who grew into an avid opera devotee because of his 14-year relationship with Andrew.

“I didn’t come from an opera background,” Paul says. “Now, I would do anything to go and see opera. It gives you the most returns in any art form.”

Paul compares opera with baseball, a realization he came to after going to see a Nationals game while staying in D.C. last spring for Andrew’s turn in “Werther.”

“I had no idea what was going on,” Paul says, laughing. “If you go to the football or soccer game and you don’t know the rules, you might not ever go to another game. It’s the same with opera. The more you experience, the more you get it, the more you will be come absolutely addicted to it, I promise.”

“The reasons people enjoy baseball is because they understand the rules,” Andrew adds. “They learned the rules, therefore they understand the skill of the players.”

The charming British couple hastens to add that opera is performed with translation surtitles projected above the stage, so no one need sit through hours of unintelligible bellowing.

 

THE FOSTER-WILLIAMSES are clearly a couple who have their own rules down pat. They say they’ve had to develop particular ways of living a life that’s eternally on the road.

“We land in a place,” says Paul. “Andrew goes out and gets provisions. I try to make the apartment feel like a home. We don’t speak to each other at least for a couple of hours.”

“If you’re going to have an argument, it’s then,” Andrew concurs.

“I think some people would end up killing each other,” says Paul. “We’re very lucky. Other people go to separate jobs, and they have separate things to share. What we’re sharing is the discovery of different places together.”

Some productions settle them in a city for a couple of months, while others find them hopping four continents in one week, as it did last spring. After finishing up in D.C., they went to London, Hong Kong and finally Sydney, Australia, which was locked in the grips of winter.

“We had to buy new clothes and leave some new clothes,” Andrew says.

Despite the chaos, the couple remains passionately committed to the arts. Paul’s photography has had to take on a new character, as long-term projects are out of the question now, so he ends up photographing the artists Andrew works with as well as the city locations Paul explores during his partner’s long rehearsal hours.

“Experiencing so much music traveling with Andrew, I think I understand singers well. Singers adapt to each evening, each audience, the atmosphere that evening. It’s so organic, it’s so alive all the time.”

Andrew sums up the role of the artist as an obligation to restoring the humanity to operatic characters.

“This is about making opera real again. The fate of it rests in the hands of the artists singing it.”

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Photos

PHOTOS: Jackie Cox and Jan at Pitchers

RuPaul’s Drag Race alums join local performers at gay sports bar

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Jan performs at Pitchers on Wednesday, March 29. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Jackie Cox and Jan performed at Pitchers DC on Wednesday, March 29. Other performers included Cake Pop!, Venus Valhalla, Brooklyn Heights, Jayzeer Shantey and Logan Stone.

(Washington Blade photos by Michael Key)

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Theater

Arab-American playwright delves into queer themes in ‘Unseen’

Mosaic production entwined with heartbreak and humor

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Mona Mansour at first rehearsal for Mosaic's production of ‘Unseen.’ (Photo by Chris Banks)

‘Unseen’ 
Through April 23
Mosaic Theater Company at Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H St., N.E.
$50-$64
Mosaictheater.org

New York playwright Mona Mansour is best known for exploring her Arab-American identity, but with her most recent work “Unseen,” now playing at Mosaic Theater, she delves into queer themes, shining a light on her own sexuality. 

“Doing a gay-themed play had been nagging at me for a while,” explains Mansour via phone from a cozy coastal town in Connecticut where she’s taking a short break from the city with her girlfriend, a children’s book author. “So, when I started writing about a woman with a camera, it just seemed to fit.” 

Entwined with heartbreak and humor, “Unseen” focuses on Mia, an American conflict photographer who wakes up in her off-and-on girlfriend Derya’s apartment in Istanbul with no idea of how she got there. In a cross-cultural, time-shifting journey, Mia, neither sanctimonious nor self-congratulatory about her work, wends through Istanbul, Gaza, Syria, and an art gallery in Philadelphia, confronting personal and professional challenges. 

At turns, the women’s relationship can be described as estranged, fiery, adversarial, sexy, and romantic. 

“With each rewrite I increasingly stacked the deck in Mia and Derya’s favor,” says Mansour “Early on, one might have said, ‘boy, I don’t know about these two.’ But now, there’s love along with the contentiousness.”

But will the women make it as a couple? Mansour suggests an after-play thing where the audience makes bets. 

“What’s clear is that Mia can’t keep going on as she has been, and though the play doesn’t take us to this, what I think personally is that we as a country can’t keep going in the way we have either. Those are things I think are around the play, but for me as writing, putting those ideas into a play into a character’s mouth, I feel like I shut down. It’s tricky. 

“Theater is a tough business and kicks your ass but there’s a reason we all do it,” she continues. “I’m a cynical person in a lot of ways, but I’m definitely not interested in writing plays that when the lights come up, the first thing people say is ‘where are we going for cocktails?’. Those are fine too, and I’ve done silly plays in the past, but just not now.”

Mansour likes a Washington audience. Her play “The Vagrant Trilogy,” a stunning piece about a displaced Palestinian family in exile, debuted at Mosaic in 2018 before moving to New York’s Public Theater last year. She credits the play with her having recently received the prestigious Arts and Letters Award in Literature from one of the country’s foremost cultural bodies, The American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Growing up in a Southern California suburb, the daughter of a Lebanese immigrant father and an American mother from Seattle, Mansour was obsessed with Patty Hearst’s kidnapping and battles of World War II. She says, “We weren’t the rich family who took off for a week in Tahoe, though sometimes I would have liked that. We had a stream of cousins coming to stay with us during the Lebanese Civil War.”

For Mansour, coming out to her parents shortly after meeting her first girlfriend in the mid-90s was a mixed bag: “It was a thing for my ‘moderny’ Lebanese dad,” she says. “But my mother accepted it instantly.” She recalls a gay friend at the time saying “I’m gay for 14 years and haven’t told my mom. You’ve been gay for five minutes and have already come told your mom and hugged it out.” 

Before writing, Mansour acted, including a stint studying at Second City Chicago and improvising with the Groundlings Sunday Company: “I was good enough to know when I wasn’t good. I write way above what my own punching ability was, but I always feel like someone else can do it.”  And with “Unseen,” she has written three meaty tracks for three women, here played by Katie Kleiger, Dina Soltan, and Emily Townley. Directed by Johanna Gruenhut.

“As the bringer of images, Mia is part of a system, a system that I, Mona, think about all the time. But you can’t address a system of endless wars in 90 minutes,” she says. 

Without spelling it out, Mansour’s work makes audiences think about the big questions. “That’s my hope,” she adds. “I want them to come to that same psychic space without literally leading them there and plopping them down in a chair. You know, even when I agree with someone, I don’t like to be lectured.”

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Travel

This Zurich bar was once a meeting place for a secret gay society

Barfüsser is now Kweer and attracting a new generation of diverse patrons

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Kweer in Zurich has a long history as a gay-friendly bar.

In 1942, as the Nazis were bombing their way around Europe, a quiet revolution was forming in Switzerland. The Swiss government decriminalized homosexuality that year, and the legal victory emboldened a group of gay men who had been secretly publishing a magazine. Der Kreis, a.k.a. The Circle, featured news, sexy stories and artwork, all about gay life in Switzerland, and most importantly there were details for upcoming parties at a nightclub in Zurich. With pages published in German, French, and English, The Circle was a lifeline for its subscribers, perhaps serving as their only glimpse of life beyond their oppressive reality. 

With the absence of anti-gay laws in Switzerland, and the social scene created by The Circle’s publishing team, Zurich became one of the gay capitals of the mid-20th century, where bands played for raucous parties and attendees dressed as their gender of choice. Just to the north in Germany, the Nazi regime arrested suspected homosexuals and imprisoned them in concentration camps, but gay Germans could take trains to Zurich and spend the weekend, dancing and drinking and engaging in taboo activities of the night.

Zurich’s police tolerated the publishers of The Circle, on the condition that members had to be at least 20 years old. But social attitudes in Switzerland were still predictably conservative, and any public exposure of a homosexual lifestyle was grounds for immediately losing your job and eviction from your home. The Circle’s parties were cloaked in secrecy. Attendance was restricted to registered members, and those registration lists were stored in a member’s home, in an oven filled with wood, ready to ignite should the police invade looking for evidence for blackmail. 

Those blackmail attempts began in the 1960s. Several gay men in Zurich were murdered by male prostitutes, but the killers claimed the “gay panic” defense, as if they had been coerced into being paid for sex by predatory older men, and the Swiss courts set them free. Mainstream press jumped on the story, also portraying the killers as the victims, and painted an image of Zurich as a pit of debauchery, which riled up the public. The police, embarrassed by the city’s distasteful image, interrogated The Circle’s publishers and threatened them with exposure if they did not disclose the names of their members. The publishers never caved to the threats, but the harassment led to the demise of The Circle, which ceased production in 1967, and those legendary parties disappeared.

All is not lost to history, however. In the 1950s, a bar opened in Zurich’s Old Town historic district; called Barfüsser, it was owned by a liberal-minded husband and wife couple who defiantly hired a waiter who had been fired from his previous job for being gay. That bit of gossip spread quickly, mostly among the waiter’s gay friends, and business flooded in, leading to Barfüsser quickly becoming one of Zurich’s first gay bars. Women sat in the front, and men congregated in the back room, and it was in that back room where The Circle held meetings, amid the antics of dancing boys and drag queens and other shenanigans occurring around them. 

Barfüsser soldiered on for decades and eventually closed in the early 2000s after the owners retired. The space was leased to a new business, a sushi restaurant, but in 2022 the restaurant moved out, and two local nightlife impresarios claimed the historic building. Marco Uhlig, who owns the nearby nightclub Heaven, a hotspot for Zurich’s twink scene, and Sam Rensing, who owns restaurants outside of the city, worried that “the space might be occupied by a big gastro-chain,” as explained by Rensing, and they wanted to return to its roots in European gay history. So they opened a bar there once again, now with the new name in the German spelling, Kweer.

The new Kweer is a beautiful lounge, with long serpentine couches and a small stage for shows, and the space opens early in the day as a coffeeshop, then changes to a posh cocktail bar in the evening. As progressive as it was in the 1950s when they hired their first gay employee, the bar is just as progressive now: instead of the self-imposed split of women in one room, men in the other, the crowd is entirely gender-friendly, with young patrons embracing their chosen pronouns and giving the place some fresh energy.

“We made sure to pivot the place as a queer space,” said Rensing. “We really thought that it was imperative, that this place became a thriving queer space again, as it had been in the second half of the last century.”

Kweer exterior (Photo courtesy of Dan Renzi)
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