Here I examine the operatic video drag act Casta Diva, created in 2002 with my artistic collaborator Aaron Pollard; together we work as the art duo 2boys.tv. Through the process of questioning and analyzing the various elements (scenography, gesture, projection, puppetry, the queer archive, drag and opera) along with the applied processes (storytelling, collage, spectacle, poetics, ‘availabilism’ and camp assemblages) I identified, many years later, that this creation laid the foundations for a series of future cabaret pieces, long format performances and installation works. This examination required a recursive gaze, one caught up in a conversation between the emotional and embodied experience of having created and performed something and the detachment required to scrutinize it. In what follows I will use this conversation to present a series of acts that speak to these states of interrogation with the stated aim to let the lip-sync speak.
I invite you to watch the 8-minute video documentation of Casta Diva, the cabaret performance to which I am referring. The performance was created in 2002 for the Kiss My Cabaret in Montreal, but the documentation is from 2003 when it was presented as part of the Studio 303 event projet/projo at the cultural centre MAI (Montréal Arts Interculturels.)
Now that you have seen the video, I invite you to move on to the interpretive postlude, arranged as a series of heuristic cabaret acts:
Casta Diva is an assemblage of various performance materials: a physical score, drag costume and makeup, an operatic aria, as well as the projection of clips from three different films, static drawings, and Aaron Pollard’s video archive and animation effects. The materials were gathered and put together instinctively, there was no pre-existing narrative or storyboard guiding the construction. Much of the work was to determine where the materials worked in a serendipitous union, either aesthetically, thematically, or affectively. At the same time, we sought out and embraced tension and conflict between elements to create a dialectic, a disturbing of the entertainment.
Here it is important to note that the sociopolitical context in which a collage is constructed and performed will also provide another avenue for the spectator to interpret what they are looking at. This is a pragmatic concern that can lead to some of the aspects of the performance being emphasized over other elements; it is what localizes the work at the time it is viewed, a somewhat unpredictable force that can alter the meaning. In the case of Casta Diva it was created for Kiss My Cabaret in Montreal, in the shadow of the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York City and the subsequent “Global War on Terrorism” declared by U.S. President George W. Bush that resulted in a rise in hate crimes against those perceived as the Middle Eastern “other” both in Canada and the USA. Although this particular conflict is not specifically and directly addressed in the performance it most likely, at the time, influenced the reading of the work by spectators, a further layer to the dialectical nature of the collage.
Furthermore, 19th century opera has traditionally used past conflicts as proxies to address contemporaneous issues related to the rise of European nationalism and the very concept of the European nation state. In the case of Norma, from which the aria Casta Diva has been excerpted, there is a modicum of ambivalence over national identity, as expressed through the words and actions of its protagonist. This is one reason why we chose this particular aria at this particular time.
Our Casta Diva emphasis poetic associations over direct political address to speak of queer desire/erotics and their power to transform violence into love. At no point in the work is the spectator given a summation as to what it is about and the images are never translated or spoken of in a literal manner. Instead it was intentionally created to emphasize the lyric and dramatic potential of the combination of elements (the music, the projections, the gestures of the performer) to lead the spectator away from the ravaged landscape of war and fear, and directly into the arms of curative queer affect.
This tactic of employing the poetic became both the political action (disruption of the entertainment into an atmosphere of the sublime and reflective) and a way of delivering political messages in many future 2boys.tv works. Scholar T.L. Cowan describes this 2boys.tv methodology as bringing “the solemnity into the cabaret space” as a way to transform and disturb audiences, to refocus the gaze and energies in the room, and to seduce them with the lyrical in order to introduce the underlying political commentary. In subsequent creations it led us towards the question “what is the role of the poet in an age characterized by fear?”, a conversation we continue within our creations to this day.
In order to reveal historical narratives of queer culture, it is necessary to look towards the shadows of popular culture within which it is embedded. Unraveling coded meanings, symbols and behaviours is a queer survival tactic generating an alternate shared knowledge system that is often indecipherable and hidden to the normative culture within which it hides. Examining the traces of queer histories necessitates an understanding that the evidence is fundamentally evanescent, only visible as a gleaning and transitory in its presence.
As a catalogue of queer expression within Hollywood film culture, The Celluloid Closet by Vito Russo, provided significant influence and inspiration for both myself and collaborator Aaron Pollard prior to the creation of Casta Diva. We admired his passion for bringing attention to enigmatic queer filmic constructions and his placing of historical value on these fragments. Inspired by this approach, in this operatic lip-sync we decided to sample moving images from classic Soviet revolutionary cinema, pre-code U.S. silent movies, and 1940s U.S. avant-garde films as a weird hypertext that would be of significance to the queer spectator.
Three different film sources were reconfigured to make a new narrative. The filmmakers are canonical homosexual artists, and the films are significant to queer cinema studies in the US and Canada: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), William A. Wellman’s Wings (1927), and Fireworks (1947) by Kenneth Anger. The repurposing of these films from the past was to bring momentary attention to their very existence, to bring the erotics of the gay archive into the present. This counter-honouring by dishonouring it (presenting the material outside its original cinematic context and remixing fragments within a collage) is a peculiar method we encountered in the creation of this cabaret work.
Within any work of traditional opera there is usually an attention to the shifting of a spectator’s understanding of the theatrical space. A series of spatial and scenographic manipulations draws the viewer from the micro narratives (solos) to the global (the chorus). Very often this is taking place within grand theatre spaces that can mimic this manipulation of scale, cathedral-like in their ability to place the spectator at one moment in singular contemplation and in another moment as part of a larger congregation. This is at the heart of what we call “spectacle”; one requires these contradistinctive placements of the self, these perceptual shifts, in order to feel and experience the grandeur of the operatic exultation.
In our Casta Diva there is an intentional shrinking and expanding of the theatrical space through the use of the projection, which in this case is also the only source of theatrical lighting. At certain points the eye must focus on particular details (moving images or performed actions) because the projected light is guiding them towards doing so. At other times the iris literally opens up with a flood of luminescent information as the projections expand and cover several surfaces exposing the background and foreground at the same time.
The cabaret space itself can rarely provide an architectural grandiosity like the one available in the spaces of opera. It is often much smaller and much, much poorer, and often breaks the proscenium in favour of different configurations where the action can be viewed intimately, sometimes even spilling off the stage and into the audience. Although our Casta Diva never breaks the proscenium ‘fourth-wall’ it does invite a spectator to pay attention to the expansion and contraction of the visible, drawing a parallel between the operatic and the cabaretic methods of spatialization and theatricalization.
My collaborator and I began with what we thought would be a simple premise: to make a dress that doubles as a puppet theatre. After several drawings and imaginings it became apparent that there was no time or budget for embarking on this idea. Instead we had to unravel the concept in order to understand how we could re-invent it within our means. We asked ourselves a series of questions: Could a puppet theatre be considered a theatre within a theatre? Can a lip-sync be interpreted as a puppet act of sorts, akin to ventriloquism? Is there a way to manipulate projected elements as scenography? Could there be a marionettist visible that conducts and carries out the story? Can a projectionist be a puppeteer?
Small red velvet curtains were filmed opening in the manner of a large proscenium opera theatre to reveal a bleak setting, one lone barren tree against a dark and ominous sky. A black cloaked figure enters from the wings, gliding slowly as a shadow puppet might, and opening up the cloth to reveal a ball gown with white sleeves that flow to the ground. The sleeves are manipulated by the drag queen ventriloquist, at times placed together in front to form a single screen, at other times opening up like wings to introduce other projection surfaces. The puppets exist in multiple forms, from the lip-sync performer to those introduced as characters in the projections (both singularly and as chorus). The dress is constantly in motion, opening and closing up the playing spaces, then settling back into a final form, the costume of the diva.
The puppet takes over the act.
A staple of the drag performance tool box, lip-sync is an art form that only becomes refined through excessive repetition. Lip-sync is not taught as a high-art form, and the performance skills required to master it are often misunderstood and sometimes even reviled within traditional performance circles. At the time of creating the piece Casta Diva there were no videos to consult on the internet about approaches to performing a lip-sync, and it was almost a decade before the drag artist RuPaul would popularize the phrase “lip-sync for your life” as part of his television show Drag Race. Lip-sync was something a performer watched others do, absorbing the various approaches and tricks and then applying one’s self to the task. Video recordings of lip-syncs were also unreliable sources of information because there is a difference between the precise nature of a recording and the imprecise nature of how lip-sync is received visually in a live setting (there is a cognizant lag at play, the result of many factors including but not limited to the size of the venue, the position of the spectator, the visual and sonic information that is being absorbed and the choreography of the performer).
Authenticity, a contentious territory in the post-post-modern cabaret, is questioned in this act. There is no pretense to asking the audience to believe that what they are witnessing is real; the irreverent sense of humour depends upon the spectator understanding that this is in fact not a trained soprano but a drag queen simulacrum, a conjuring, a reflection. And yet despite the obvious construction, this (re)enactment depends upon a drag art glamouring whereby the operatic voice is understood to not be coming from this body before us and yet - at the same time - it is emanating from this body.
Breath and gesture are important elements of the subscript
being performed, and without attention being paid to this, the illusion
would be incomplete. Furthermore a restrained emotional connection to
the material by the performer mimics that of the opera diva. Like the
soprano, a frisson between technical precision and the imagined and
embodied affective response to the material needs to be in play for the
mirage to be formed. The play with exaggeration and precision is a
battle between the aesthetics of excessive camp behaviour and minimal
There is also in this act an acknowledgement of the drag lip-sync that incorporates surprise and reveals; a certain “classical” approach to the short format drag performance whereby there is attention paid to the entrance of the performer, the introduction of a first element of surprise, leading to a final or dramatic reveal and the exit. Although this is not a strict scripting (the entrance, surprise and reveal can be manifested in many different ways), the basic structure is one that many acts have utilized, and it was intentionally employed here.
In the spirit of punk rock performance artist Kembra Phaler, “availablism” - literally working with what is immediately available to you - had to be employed in this creation. Strategies informed by the lack of our financial and material resources led to having to creatively work within the restrictions and find solutions.
It is easy to design performances towards something rich in resources and materials, where the imagination is untethered and open to excess. Availablism however is related to a particular approach to sculpture, or what the French term the “plastic arts”, where in active conversation with the (limited) materials at hand, an artwork is discovered. Anti-naturalism (another Phaler concept) works in parallel to this as a way to counter the instinct towards an excessive construction of or obsession with authenticity that requires access to material wealth (and to time). Embracing these two methodologies became a necessity with the cabaret work Casta Diva.
A major discovery for us, and a technique we would use repeatedly in future works, was to place the projector on the ground (or stage level) in front of the performer. Having borrowed a projector, with limited time to experiment with it and limited time to install it at the venue, this was the easiest and most direct way of working. A common practice when incorporating projection into a performance is to hang the unit from above, which creates a larger playing space without shadows in front of a screen at the back of the stage. Projecting from the floor brings the possibility to project on surfaces further downstage and free one up from only seeing the power of the projected image from within the framing of the cinema, as a backdrop to the action. The major schematic for the edit of the images was discovered in working live with the performer and the projector, using the depth of the playing space to place moving images on the costume and animated light fields on the performer. This also meant only one projector was used, a single beam as opposed to two or three, easily connected to a single data source.
In order for the performer (myself) to play within this single beam projection the cinematic production technique of spikes (taped markings on the floor) is used. Most importantly, I had to hit my mark exactly in order for the projected images to land correctly and (dis)appear magically. The choreography was discovered in conjunction with the projection, at times in the service of providing the projection surface, at other times indicating where the projection could go (or not go accordingly). Sound cues, moments in the orchestral score or in the sung text, cued movements that captured the projections on the costume even when it was difficult or impossible to actually see where the projected imagery was landing.
This brings us back to the beginning of this deconstruction, to the collage. The assemblage of the materials opens up the possibility to experiment with several narratives at the same time. Interwoven but not always beholden to each other to provide meaning, this trans-filtration is meant as a way to provide various lines of personal understanding. For the spectator that recognizes the opera Norma and the (con)text of the aria Casta Diva the performance can be read as a plea for peace. For those that understand the significance of the singer, Maria Callas, and the relationship she had to a gay fan base, there is the possibility for an interpretation of the work as a queer homage to the diva. A queer film scholar or fanatic might delight in the reframing of gay cinematic moments into one storyline, a creative archival reckoning. The spectator without any knowledge of any of the references can still interpret a narrative from the piece, and might be queerly affected as they are swept up in the spectacle.
And then... The End.
A projection in which a man dies in another man’s arms. A final kiss.
A defiant crescendo in the operatic voice, a climax to the soprano’s aria.
Temper thou the burning hearts,
The excessive zeal of thy people.
Enfold the earth in that sweet peace
Which, through Thee, reigns in heaven....
This is the moment of calm before impending war.
Norma, the high priestess, telling her people that if they wait, their enemy, their oppressor, will undo themselves by their own hand, it is their fate, it is inevitable.
But secretly, what is not told explicitly is that Norma is in love with this enemy. She is sleeping with the enemy, and desires the enemy. That the enemy is among us. That the enemy is us.
Maria Callas is the voice on the recording and she improvises within the structure of the bel canto. She seduces with her mastery of the coloratura ornamentations, a vocal sleight of hand to make one listen here in order to lead us there. The coloratura unleashes herself momentarily from the control and reveals an unpredictable counter voice, an excitable voice, the voice they are keeping contained. This is the queer voice of the subversive, the virus, the freak, the stigmatized, the two-faced, the other.
It points to a state of abjection, the pull between the seduction and repulsion of ‘peace’. It is within this tension that peace is delicately held, envisioned and desired. It is the unnatural, disquieting, disruptive possibility, the chimeric future where we make queer, where we settle peace.
Stephen Lawson is a transdisciplinary artist, performer, curator, and educator.