Artist Spotlight: John Taylor Ward

September 13, 2023
Author: Seeking Attribution

Huge hair, caked-on makeup, and snatched waists: we associate all these styles with drag
queens, and also with the over-the-top world of baroque opera. Like much of so-called
“Classical Music,” drag is, in some ways, a backward-looking artform. As Andy Warhol

“… drag queens are a living testimony to the way women used to want to be, the way some
people still want them to be, and the way some women still actually want to be. Drags are
ambulatory archives of ideal movie-star womanhood. They perform a documentary service…”

Drag finds a more concrete and quotidian expression in opera, too. From seventeenth-century
tenors playing Venetian female nursemaids, to virile Strauss heroes performed by mezzo-
sopranos in pants, gender-bending and opera have been closely linked since the genre first
emerged four centuries ago. When characters communicate through song rather than speech,
somehow we relinquish all kinds of other preconceptions and spend an hour or two (sometimes
much longer!) looking into an exaggerated mirror of our ordinary existence.
The Countess is a character that has been with me even before I consciously knew or named
her. She is an amalgamation of drag, classical music culture, and baroque performance practice.
She has the enormous hair and impossible waist (If I do say so myself) of a high baroque
aristocrat, the sensibilities of a grand twentieth-century diva, and the messiness of an after-
hours open-mic. And, with camp and decadence, she winkingly plays on both registers of the
parallel between opera and drag.

That definition has broadened considerably since Warhol’s day, but it speaks to a connection
between drag and baroque opera. Both seek to excavate something that is at once familiar and
distant. Drag exaggerates gender in order to comment on pervasive norms. And the operatic
canon is, itself, a statement of who we are: it is repertoire that addresses themes that matter to
us and styles we appreciate. Whether the goal is to present “movie-star womanhood” or the
gods and goddesses of a mythic pantheon, both take aim at something that is simultaneously
inside every one of us and larger than life.

This program sashays through different styles, languages, and centuries, but The Countess’
character bridges these divides. Think of yourself as an intimate group of friends gathered in
her drawing room, where, after protesting a bit too much (“don’t make me sing!”), she finally
relents and launches into what everyone knew was inevitable: an indulgent recital of her most
favorite airs and dances. With no choice but to sit and smoke your pipe or sip your sherry, I
hope you enjoy it half as much as she does.

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