WORDS BY KATIE DOHMAN
When you think spectacle, storytelling, and strong identity when it comes to defining or describing arts disciplines, you may think of opera. Or you might think of drag. But you might not be thinking about them together in concert.
Kelly Turpin, the founder, executive director, and producer of An Opera Theatre (AOT), a small Twin Cities opera company, did. And now the group is presenting its second Divas & Drag (D&D), a collaborative performance that pairs opera soloists with drag artists to reimagine their respective arts—together.
The performances feature five opera performers—Victoria Vargas, Dom Wooten Embretson, Tracey Engleman, Justin Anthony Spenner, and Jordan Weatherston Pitts—alongside six Twin Cities drag artists: Damien D’Luxe, Victoria DeVille, Andre 1000, Rustina Phoenix Nuttz, Dick Von Dyke, and Kamaree Williams. Drag artists perform routines set to live opera performances.
Emi Nijiya, known as Damien D’Luxe onstage, is back for the second time, both in a performance and TK role. “Honestly, this has been a way of almost leveling up in my drag,” the 16-year veteran says. Nijiya admits they were initially hesitant and frequently frustrated as they overcame the opera learning curve: new language, singing live instead of to a track. But by the time the curtain went up, Damien D’Luxe and his opera partner were so in sync, he was able to cover for a lyrical flub at showtime without anyone the wiser, including the singer.
“[I’m grateful the artists] bring this creation to life and not only make it happen, but expand upon it and evolve it in ways beyond what I could think or dream of,” Turpin says. “For Divas & Drag, it’s a celebration of the authenticity of everyone in that space.”
Andre 1000, a drag king performing to Justin Spenner’s ‘Toreador’ from Carmen, says that he experienced the same learning curve and concerns as Nijiya but is very excited about the combination. “Without Divas & Drag, Justin and I probably would have never met,” he says. “But now we’re putting all of our ideas together to see what we can come up with that will be authentic to me but also authentic to Justin.”
“There’s a little bit of everything in this show,” says Nijiya, who is a trans/non-binary, half Japanese drag king. “We have trans, we have queer, nonbinary, gender bending kings and queens, our cast is BIPOC, we really made sure folks feel represented on stage. It’s cool that when it came to bringing this show to life, Kelly and Justin, a white cisgender heterosexual couple, had that kind of awareness to make sure who we’re hiring and making it equitable for the communities who need it.”
Turpin says the vision she once held is gladly no longer hers—it belongs to everyone working on Divas & Drag.
“We are very aware of the continued hate in this country for drag and different expressions of gender identity, but we will always celebrate this,” Turpin says. “You’re going to feel something different, and hopefully it’s wonderful and joyous and total unabashed, unapologetic celebration. Allowing people to choose to move through the world in whatever way they want—that’s a way of fighting. This is a space where the queer community can let loose, but everyone’s welcome who wants to join—we are protecting while we fight at the same time. We can’t leave it up to communities being attacked to protect themselves. We have to be a part of making that possible.”
WHEN YOU GO
June 16 – 18, pay as you are able
Historic Mounds Theater, 1029 Hudson Road, St. Paul