Why everyone in the classical arts ought to be paying attention to Philly

There were familiar faces, too, like the revered, 73-year-old soprano Frederica von Stade, who co-starred with veteran mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson in the premiere of “Sky on Swings,” a deeply affecting work about Alzheimer’s disease. And there was cult soprano Patricia Racette, who sang and twirled through Francis Poulenc and Jean Cocteau’s 1959 “La voix humaine” (“The Human Voice”) with a desk phone to her ear the whole time. Mezzo-soprano Marietta Simpson, left, and Frederica von Stade in the new opera “Sky on Swings,” which premiered as part of Opera Philadelphia’s O18 Festival. (Dominic M. Mercier, Opera Philadelphia via AP)

Soprano Brenda Rae sang it with delicate precision, right on the line of lilting and looney. She started on the edge and ended up over a cliff, her white wedding dress covered in blood, yet her innocence as clear as black and white.

In fact, thanks to clever design work, the rest of the cast, chorus and all, wore only black for the entire production at Philly’s ornate Academy of Music.

At the other end, Von Stade’s Alzheimer’s victim showed no such resignation to her fate in “Sky on Swings,” the contemporary drama from composer Lembit Beecher and librettist Hannah Moscovitch set in a memory care facility and presented at the Perelman Theater. She’s a professional researcher ultimately defeated by memory loss, but she doesn’t go down without a fight.

Composer Lambert keenly gave von Stade and Simpson meaningful notes they could sing at this advanced stage of their of vocal careers, handing off the coloratura-powered moments to the skilled soprano Sharleen Joynt, who portrayed Simpson’s emotionally wrought daughter. For the chamber orchestra, he built a score that let the woodwinds, strings and brass float off on their own paths, only occasionally finding cohesion– just like someone who suffers from memory loss. It felt like a historic moment.

So did the staging of “La Voix Humaine,” with the larger-than-life Racette giving her all, dressed only in a black lace nightgown and pretending to be part of a two-way conversation as her lover dumps her. She worked that phone like a majorette with a baton on fire, twirling, lounging, pouting. For this intimate version, directed by James Darrah, she was accompanied only by a piano.

The production, at the nightclub-like Theater of Living Arts on Philly’s boho South Street, was embellished with a prologue and presented under the title “Ne Quittez Pas” (“Hold the Line”). The added first act was mostly spoken and revolved around four young people in a bar playing uninhibited games of sensual and musical dare. They also touch each other, often, and in intimate ways and, at one point, crossdress.

More off-the-cuff was a Monday night version of a drag-related series called “Queens of the Night,” which was to be presented three times during the fest with different casts. This one had heralded mezzo Stephanie Blythe in full beard and waxed mustache portraying an ego-driven tenor talking about his conquests and mixing classical samples into music by Queen and other pop acts. Brenda Rae’s character from “Lucia” showed up as a special guest at Stephanie Blythe’s “Queens of the Night” cabaret show. Rae wore Lucia’s famous blood-stained wedding dress. (Provided by Opera Philadelphia)

It was the kind of drag show you’d expect from an opera company, as opposed to, say, a legit gay bar, in that it never really got dangerous or bawdy enough to actually shock anyone. Blythe tried, dropping expletives. Opera crowds love Blythe even through this sort of wicked self-indulgence — and it helped that drinks were allowed in the theater.

The evening was terrific and not terrific; entertaining while a bit hard to get a beat on with so much happening. It was also only an hour-long, super fun and probably once-in-a-lifetime. And moving people about was brilliantly democratic. Opera houses are notoriously class-segregated places: The more you pay, the better your chair. “Glass Handel” dropped its own expletive on that idea.

It’s not just the opera doing this in Philadelphia. The city’s main orchestra has a new life with charismatic music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin. And dance is breaking barriers, courtesy of the exciting company Ballet X. It extends into the avant-garde, thanks to the Fringe Festival, which showcases, simultaneously with the opera fest, a well-curated lineup of unusual theater and more.