The tone is officially set for the 2023-24 English Theatre season at the National Arts Centre, thanks to a savvy pick by new artistic director Nina Lee Aquino. Teiya Kasahara’s loud, joyful, important solo show, The Queen in Me, arrived in Ottawa after making waves at both the Belfast International Arts Festival and the Canadian Opera Company. And the run of performances at the NAC’s Azrieli Studio was infused with fresh relevance – a reminder that art persists in the face of the anti-LGBTQ protests happening across Ontario.
The Queen in Me starts by dropping us into the middle of a bog-standard production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, specifically the Queen of the Night’s famed Act II aria, Der Hölle Rache. The queen, adorned in her usual finery – malicious-looking crown atop her head, spooky moonlit night projected behind her – looks stuck. Her eyes keep darting from side to side, her famously fiery vocal lines seem phoned-in. And just before she reaches the first of the aria’s five high Fs, she shushes her orchestra (in the deft hands of pianist David Eliakis) with a sharp “Halt!”
And thus begins a call-out of epic proportions, thrown at the feet of opera fans. Kasahara, who has sung the role of Mozart’s Queen of the Night in 14 different productions of The Magic Flute, creates an ingenious device out of the character: This queen speaks for all of the “fallen” women of opera – Lucia di Lammermoor, Violetta, Lady Macbeth, Salome – who have been reduced to two-dimensional decorations with aspirations limited to marriage or a noble death that makes the bosom heave.
It’s a wildly interesting, funny, poignant hour spent with one fictional character defending the true potential of other fictional characters. But what lands most about The Queen in Me is its deeply personal connection to Kasahara’s real-life experience trying to “make it” as an opera singer. Specifically, their experience as a trans non-binary, Nikkei-Canadian soprano who doesn’t present a style of femininity that the opera industry apparently prefers.
“Every time I tried to project that image – that persona – I felt like I was losing a part of myself in the process,” Kasahara writes in the program notes. “I didn’t know how to cope any more, let alone survive as the queer, mixed-race singer I was/am. I was literally putting on a mask every day and not knowing who would be left underneath when I went home at night.”
It’s enough to make an audience member wonder: Why did Kasahara try so hard to scale the walls of the opera world when it so obviously was not interested in letting them in? Or, as they put it: “What did it say about me that I was willing to put up with this industry’s long outdated beliefs?
And here’s where the joy comes from. Kasahara makes a vital distinction between the art form of opera, and the people (read: men) who have historically interpreted it. Though centuries of directors, conductors, critics and snobby fans have kept the medium white, Western and wealthy, “opera was and remains my life force and my greatest gift,” Kasahara writes.
Their obvious love for opera and all the societal power it has held reminds me of Maria Callas, the legendary soprano who had a certain reverence for the composer. Even during the cheekiest “angry lesbian” rant onstage – hilariously tinged with a bright German accent – Kasahara clearly holds the art very, very dear.
It’s a good thing, because The Queen in Me is not for any old performer. In a show bookended by one of opera’s most difficult arias, Kasahara delivers legit, top-tier singing of the best moments from Turandot, Rigoletto, Manon Lescaut, Macbeth and more. And there’s art in how these tunes are used; Lucia di Lammermoor’s mad scene persists like an earworm, and Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot” aria shows up precisely at the moment when the Queen of the Night finally busts free from her damned gloves.
Most arresting is the brief history of Kasahara’s experience auditioning as a coloratura soprano, backed by the eerily beautiful sounds of the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome. Re-enacted by Kasahara in their best opera-snob voice, we hear it all: They’re too loud! They’re exotic-looking! The tattoos shall be covered up! The “dyke ‘do” needs a wig! Listening to those criticisms rattled off like that was enough to feel almost as personally dejected as Kasahara must have felt when it happened to them.
The show is densely packed with problems the opera industry must address, questions to disrupt and ridiculous people of which to make fun. But the prevailing theme was utter joy.
Starting with those gloves, the Queen of the Night slowly breaks free of her prison – her costume, her pedestal, her plot points. I’m not entirely sure what was so utterly thrilling about hearing Kasahara sing Der Hölle Rache while pulling on a slick pair of black trousers, a starched white shirt and snazzy suspenders, but it’s going to be a difficult moment for me to forget.
The Queen in Me is a co-production by Theatre Gargatua, Amplified Opera, the Canadian Opera Company and Nightwood Theatre, and is co-directed by Aria Umezawa and Andrea Donaldson. Performances run at the NAC’s Azrieli Studio through September 30, 2023.
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