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It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!

by Steve Desroches

The two opera stars take a deep breath and step forward in unison to the lip of the stage. The full house settles down after finishing a mid-show standing ovation for the previous performance by the towering opera diva who is now joined on stage by her co-star, half her height, but with a soaring voice. They begin to sing and the audience sighs with recognition as the duo performs the “Flower Duet” from the French opera Lakmй by Léo Delibes. But when the two turn and look at each other, the crowd begins to chuckle and the taller of the two turns and says, “Yes. This is that song from the British Airways commercial.” The audience lets go a full-throated laugh.

Jokes? Laughs? Site gags? At the opera? This was no traditional opera performance, but rather Classical Varla, a rare night of operatic performance by drag queen superstar Varla Jean Merman who on this night about 10 years ago was joined by real life opera star Marisol Montalvo at the Unitarian Universalist Meeting House in Provincetown.  While the ginger drag star wowed the audience, Montalvo stole the spotlight with her show-stopping performance of “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” often better known as the “Queen of the Night’s Aria” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  Of course Varla quickly grabbed back all the attention, reminding the crowd that she was the star of the show. But Montalvo made an impression on Provincetown, as did the town on her. And now she’s returning as the star of her own show as she presents Mad Scene! at the Art House, a show about her crazy life as an opera singer.

Montalvo’s journey from her hometown of Holbrook, New York, to the biggest and most prestigious stages of the world was non-traditional to say the least. How many opera stars can cite Varla Jean Merman as one of their favorite co-stars? She’s sung at the Opéra National de Paris, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Ravinia Festival, Deutsche Oper Berlin, and Theater an der Wien, earning rave reviews both here and across Europe. It’s not only hard work and dedication that propelled her to becoming an international opera star, but also a commitment to the love of art and continually pushing the boundaries, and herself. A self-described musical theater singer trapped in an opera singer’s body, Montalvo continues to pursue her career on her own terms, which has her reuniting with Varla (a.k.a. Jeffrey Roberson), who will direct her in this brand new show that shows how she battled the limits the opera world tried to place on her.

“There are so many straitjackets put on opera singers,” says Montalvo. “I really have always been about ripping up the straight jacket….I always wanted to do opera for the lay person. That’s me. I come from a working class family on Long Island. I couldn’t even read a note of music when I got to college. There can be this distance between the performer and the audience at the opera. I want to connect.”

Before singing with Roberson at Classical Varla, Montalvo was very familiar with Provincetown as she attended the Mannes School of Music at The New School with Mark Cortale, artistic director at the Art House, and would visit frequently. She would see show after show—be it drag, Broadway, comedy, theater—and marvel at how each performer could so quickly form a relationship with their audience. And then she saw Varla Jean perform, and then met Roberson, and her world changed, as she could now alternate between the fringe and the mainstream.

Early in her career Montalvo became particularly well known for her performances in German-language operas, taking her to the most revered stages in European cultural capitols like Zurich, Salzburg, Vienna, and Berlin (though she saved her first public performance of  “The Queen of the Night’s Aria” for Provincetown that night at the UU Meeting House). But she is perhaps best known now for her work in contemporary opera, which she loves, as there are no rules and no expectations. When you perform Mozart, everyone expects, and at times demands, a very specific performance. But with new work, Montalvo is free to create something new. And in partnering with Roberson, Montalvo is thrilled to take a Provincetown audience on a musical journey dotted with memoir-based monologues she hopes makes people laugh about the wild world of opera.

“I’m not going to take someone putting constraints on me,” says Montalvo. “Though they did try.  But Jeffrey understands the pressure and constraints. It’s been such an honor to work with him. He’s a genius. I’m excited by his excitement. I’m incredibly lucky to work with him.”

The list of venues Montalvo’s performed at is long and varied, but perhaps the one that most surprises people is Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where, as Miss New York, she was first runner up to Miss America 1992. She blew the roof off the enormous venue with her performance of “Tu che di gel sei cinta” from Puccini’s opera Turandot. She chuckles as she remembers classmates of hers would routinely watch the Miss America Pageant to poke fun at the amateur talent portion, especially the classical singers. After the broadcast she heard from opera fans all over the country wowed by her performance. While she earned a significant amount of scholarship money to help pay for her education, she also attracted patrons of the arts that helped further her career as well as one very important mentor. American operatic soprano star Kathleen Battle was a judge at that year’s pageant and saw something special on Montalvo.

“Kathleen Battle was absolutely pivotal when she came into my life during the Miss America time,” says Montalvo. “She absolutely set up auditions, gave me some tough love, and good advice. She came into my life for an important period of time and planted some good seeds.”

Marisol Montalvo presents Mad Scene! at the Art House, 214 Commercial St., Provincetown, on Sunday, August 27 at 7 p.m. Tickets ($30 general admission/ $40 VIP) are available at the box office and online at For more information call 508.487.9222.

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Ginger Mountain

Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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