You Can Take the Girl Out Of the Regiment, But…

Photo by Dan Norman
Photo by Dan Norman

A chill February evening at the Ordway offered a bright and lively production by the Minnesota Opera of Gaetano Donizetti’s 1840 The Daughter of the Regiment. Opening on a background of lofty Tyrol mountains, a woman thrusts a basket-bound infant inside a cabin and departs. The infant, Marie (Vanessa Becerra), is next seen on these same slopes, an exuberant young adult, found and raised by the entire 21st Regiment, who’s become their vivandière–and daughter–under the special tutelage of Sgt. Sulpice (Andrew Wilkowske).

A cheerful tomboy, Marie is in love with a young Tyrolean peasant who’s been captured by her regiment. Upon learning Tonio (David Portillo) has saved her life, the soldiers spare his, unanimously agreeing he may marry her–if he joins the (French) army.

In the midst of this sun-dappled bliss, Marie’s mother (the lady who abandoned that basket), feigning aunthood, not her maternal title, La Marquise de Birkenfeld, arrives to claim her “daughter.” Whisked away to the Birkenfeld chateau, Marie is set to a grueling regimen of domestication; song, dance–the works. Marie’s soul-weariness and awkward ballet contortions belie the innate strength and grace of her former regimental life. She suffers, yet refuses an arranged marriage.

Resisting an aunt is one thing, but learning the Marquise is her real mother, Marie capitulates, agreeing to marry the odious nephew of La Duchess de Krakenthorp (Monét X Change). The Duke’s a human Slinky, filleted at birth (the fluid Brandon Siek, also Marie’s slithey dance instructor). These talented erformers broaden basic operatic skills to embody their characters’ virtues and vices.

Photo by Dan Norman

Not to worry. Sgt. Sulpice and Tonio arrive to subvert the lessons, and the entire Regiment marches to the rescue. A few arias, a hilarious clinch between Sulpice and La Marquise, the slithering off of the Duke, restoring sun-dappled bliss is.

Ryan Taylor, President and General Director of the MN Opera, noted later, “The Daughter of the Regiment is a perfect show for first-time opera-goers. It’s lighthearted, has sparkling and lustrous melodies, and is actually quite funny.” Daughter is unique in its heroine, Marie, Taylor added. “Unlike many pieces of the inherited repertoire, where a central character is beholden to societal or patriarchal pressures and customs, our female lead finds a way to stand up for herself and her trajectory and shape her own story.”

La Duchess de Krakenthorp, is a non-singing role previously used to showcase personalities, including actress-comedian Bea Arthur and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Of MN Opera’s choice of Monét X Change, Taylor explained, “You’re looking for someone with excellent comedic timing and someone who has a strong connection or understanding of opera. A lot of people know Monét X Change for her work on RuPaul’s Drag Race (double crown winner) but they don’t necessarily know about her operatic training and the influence that training had on her skills and ambitions as an artist. We’re delighted to showcase all of her talents, including her singing, in this production.”

Monét X Change spoke later with Lavender:

Monét X Change. Photo by Dan Norman

Q&A with Lavender and Monét X Change, production’s statuesque Duchess

How does it feel to follow RBG’s Duchess? Who wore the better gown?

You know, I once thought that I was going to run for public office, I was going to set my sights on the Supreme Court but I think I’m better than that, so I did not… but I think it’s right that RBG and I did the same role, I mean, queen recognize queen, game recognize game! And I have to confess, she had a better gown, I mean come on, RBG did that.

Is the part as enjoyable as it looks?

It is super enjoyable, I mean it’s the top of the second act and it’s so campy, it’s so over the top, and being able to play with Maggie [Margaret Gawrysiak, La Marquise de Birkenfeld], such a funny actress and clearly … a brilliant singer. I love doing the scene with her, and Jeremiah [Sanders] who plays Hortensius, he’s great, too. All the Duchess’ parts are with really great singers and actors and it’s fierce. Honestly, let’s take it on tour!

A few words about playing La Duchess in drag?

This is the first production I know of her being in drag. Obviously, drag is our bread and butter, so to come out there and to have that instantly recognizable face of, you know, Monét X Change, Miss Congeniality, winner of All Stars, and to do the little gag at the end and just to be in full drag–it’s a full-circle moment for me. Minnesota Opera thank you!

And a few words on drag in general? So many folks enjoy drag today, yet there are those…

Drag, in my opinion, is one of the highest forms of art that one can take on. In many other disciplines you just have to worry about one specific thing, where in drag you have to channel several things to be successful. Especially where I grew up in New York City doing drag, you are the director, the writer, the producer, the host, the comedian, the dancer, the singer; you are wearing all of those hats for the one show that you are producing.

So, that was me, I was all those things seven shows a week in New York City, so it really helped me build and cultivate lots of different aspects of my creativity and my

artistry, and I think it’s why, honestly, I can step in to so many different worlds, right? You know I’ve done TV and film stuff, I’m singing opera here, I’m working on an R&B album, I’m doing stand-up and I’m headlining major festivals around the country because of that discipline in my art that drag afforded me, the time to cultivate and create, and that’s why I think it is one of the highest forms of art and people can’t recognize it. People see drag and they automatically want to denigrate it to something that it’s not. I have no time for that.

And, on another note, a lot of this quote-unquote anti-drag legislation is really just anti- trans legislation that we are masking with drag. They’re very specific and they’re very particular with the language that they’re using to ostracize trans persons, and this is a fight that I am willing to have until the day I die, because trans folks deserve the same equality, the same civil rights as every living, breathing person on this planet, period.

What would you say to Lavender readers?

I want all of the Lavender readers, even if it’s not The Daughter of the Regiment, if you have any chance to see any opera in any city that you’re in, run and do it. I think that for a lot of us, including me when I was a young, spry chicken, you think that opera isn’t for you, or it’s too high-brow for you. That’s not true. The Daughter of the Regiment, honestly, is a perfect introduction into opera, it’s fun, it’s over the top, it’s campy, and a lot of opera is like that.

Now, of course there are serious ones, but I think people are [made to think] that opera isn’t for them, when it really is. Opera is for everybody to enjoy, not just rich, fancy people in their ballgowns and tuxedos. Baby, when I go to the opera, I go in some Uniqlo stretch pants and a T shirt, you know what I mean? Don’t feel like you can’t enjoy opera because you don’t have a certain outfit or the certain thing that you think is welcome at the opera. Do what you do, go enjoy opera, go out, live, love, laugh! Pose, darling!

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