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Divas and Dirty Girls

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Jellinek’s favorite, Jai’s benefit and one raunchy broad

We are now living in a seriously diva-depleted world. Of the true Hollywood greats, there aren’t many left living besides Olivia de Havilland, her combative sister Joan Fontaine, Jennifer Jones and Deanna Durbin.

And now, with the recent passing of singers Renata Tebaldi and Victoria de Los Angeles, I fear that the Grim Reaper will turn to opera’s last Golden Age, forcing us to cherish all the more the still-extant likes of Giulietta Simionato, Risë Stevens, Regina Resnick, Birgit Nilsson, Joan Sutherland, Montserrat Caballe, Christa Ludwig, Janet Baker and all those others who helped so many of us first appreciate opera through the wonder of a turntable or a standing room ticket.

These thoughts ran through my mind at the Museum of Television and Radio’s evening January 17 with George Jellinek, whose long-running WQXR program, “The Vocal Scene,” was also so instrumental in our collective opera education. Jellinek is taking a “sabbatical” as he puts it, words to strike fear and desolation in music lovers, many of whom, including soprano Patrice Munsel, were in attendance, confessing to suffering “withdrawal” over his program’s absence from the air.

Callas queens will shoot me but I confess to preferring Tebaldi to her. Yeah-yeah, there’s no discounting Callas’ huge contribution to the art in terms of her musical versatility and sheer seriousness, heightened drama and championship of the Bel Canto repertoire. This is all highly subjective, of course, but that undeniably histrionic, yet undeniably secco quality of her voice has never been as aurally rewarding to me as Tebaldi who, simply, as Toscanini famously put it, had “the voice of an angel.”

I also find Callas insanely overexposed in terms of the endless print and media biographies, CD re-releases and even movies, including the recent and abysmal “Callas Forever.” She’s the Marilyn Monroe of opera, endlessly obsessed over, perhaps even more for her stormy, headline-making private life than artistic achievement. Would that a fraction of the attention Monroe gets be accorded the infinitely more talented and beautiful Carole Lombard, say, or, in Callas’ case and métier, Claudia Muzio.

Tebaldi was never acclaimed as the onstage emotive genius that Callas was, but I find, on video, in “La Boheme,” “La Forza del Destino” and even “Tosca” (despite the merriment provoked by her strolling final exit to her doom), her acting perfectly acceptable, graceful and in a lovely, perfectly apropos historical tradition which didn’t depend on scenery shredding. And, if you ever want to hear simple, unearthly beauty, play her rendition of Puccini’s “Senza Mama,” from “Suor Angelica” sometime. No matter how low one may be feeling, this simply makes you want to live.

If Callas was worshipped, Tebaldi was beloved, a fact proven by the hordes of fans who lined up to meet her when she returned for a special Metropolitan Opera bookstore appearance in 1996. I happened to be there as she entered that day and, as she stepped out of her car, spontaneous cries of “Brava Tebaldi!” rang out, something you definitely don’t get from jaded New Yorkers for anyone these days.

Jellinek got an interview with her directly after this event and recalled how genuinely moved she was by it all.

I asked Jellinek for his thoughts about de Los Angeles and was rewarded with the revelation that she was his favorite singer of all.

“I am wearing this tie with the Spanish colors, which I bought in Madrid, today in silent honor of her,” he told me. “This lady had a very difficult life––bad marriage, her son died tragically and she was literally forced in the later years of her life to sing to support herself. But she had a quality of joy that no other singer possessed. She didn’t sing repertoire that was beyond her limits and her limits were extensive. But she chose her repertoire wisely and no singer equaled her in this, and was also magnificent in zarzuela, which I happen to love.”

Jellinek fans will be happy to learn that 25 episodes of his program have been donated to the museum for anyone to come and listen to.

I recently ran into “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” star Jai Rodriguez, who dished me about his upcoming benefit concert for the Actors’ Fund of America (January 31 at 8 p.m. at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Frederick P. Rose Hall).

“Every gay person should see this show,” he proclaimed. “It’s about my personal life, being a born-again Christian on Long Island and being kicked out of my house when I got the role of Angel in ‘Rent’ because my parents were not approving. There’s that struggle and then moving to the city and coming into my own with my first relationship, drugs and sex, and then getting ‘Queer Eye.’”

Rodriguez will be backed by a “very hard” ten-piece orchestra, with Scott Cady as musical director, using “all top 40-songs, used as theater pieces.” Shoshona Bean, who replaced Idina Menzel in “Wicked,” stars in it and Priscilla Lopez will play Rodriguez’s mother.

I asked him what he made of being the butt of certain “Queer Eye” satires, like the one on “Mad TV,” which refers to him as “Useless.” He good-naturedly laughed it off: “I know, but I love it because I’m like, ‘That’s right. I can’t host for shit, but boy can I sing you a song on stage in a Broadway theater!’ You know what, they wanted me to do a Carson Kresseley over-the-top, really witty educational piece on culture, but the problem is the kind of thing I’ve been doing is very spiritually oriented, about who the particular person is as a person. And they don’t want it to be a Lifetime show, but I think it lends itself to be that. So I get edited down a lot, but they realized when they did the focus group that I was the second most popular to Carson. So they are beefing up my appearances now. I just did an episode all on my own––the voice-over for their ‘Best of” episode.”

I am not a big fan of fart jokes, but I must confess that singing comedienne Kim Cea had me laughing my proverbial ass off at her January 15 Studio 54 Upstairs appearance (now extended; for tickets call 212-307-4100). She began her routine with an account of a visit home to her mother, who, before she left for the airport, gave her a microwave snack. “And, believe me, anything that heats up in 90 seconds flies out of your ass in seven,” she said, before launching into a veritable ballet of flatulence as she simultaneously tried to hide the fact and board a plane.

Cea’s like a much bawdier, skinny cross between Bette Midler and Cher, whom she viciously impersonates, with all that diva’s lyric-incomprehensibility and challenging style.

“Cher no longer has a designer,” Cea riffed. “She just covers herself in glue, goes to a third grade art class and rolls around in the glitter, finger paint and pipe cleaners.”

She also laid mimic waste to the breathy affectations of Norah Jones (“I can’t afford to pick up my dry cleaning and this no-voice bitch wins 70 Grammies!”) and her favorite, La Streisand, who she says can wax insanely eloquent on any topic, no matter how trivial. ”Depilator!” shouted an audience member and, sure enough, Cea angled her head prettily, twirled her fingernails around her mike and got that crossed, faraway look in her eyes (aka “I and I alone exist”), as she crooned a sickeningly sincere ode to the importance of “always going positively forward but leaving certain, more negative, things behind.”

Cea’s musical choices are a little eccentric––she actually did a straight version of Streisand’s “Woman in the Moon”––but her voice, of an undeniably varied range, is pleasing. Her raunched-out, aggressive personality is definitely not for everyone, but if you’re into low yucks delivered by a performer who positively revels in them—her email address is 100yearoldwhore@aol.com—this broad’s for you.

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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