By Carin P. Webb
If you can't stand opera, but like to laugh and appreciate good music and excellent singing, then "Stand-Up Opera" is for you. If you adore opera and coloratura, and don't mind at all having the absurdities of it poked a little fun at it, then "Stand-Up Opera" is for you. If you enjoy comedy or musical theater, then "Stand-Up Opera" is for you. If you know nothing about opera, but are open to new adventures, then "Stand-Up Opera" would be an excellent primer. If you enjoy and listen regularly to rap, then there's probably little hope for you, as you likely have a tin ear and will end up prematurely deaf or with a permanent loud ringing or rushing sound in your head. But that's just what I think.
"Stand-Up Opera" was born out of B.J. Ward's love of music and singing, and out of wanting to be vocally challenged. At first she only had the nerve to perform her arias in front of loved ones in her home. The first incarnation of "Stand-Up Opera" was entitled "Opera and Omelets," where she would provide the opera and her husband would rustle up the omelets.
This became a regular gathering, and a fifteen minute routine blossomed into one act, at which point she got booked into a local club where her husband no longer had to provide the omelets, but rather the restaurant did. After that, "Stand-Up Opera" pretty much took on a life of its own, and now not only is there a CD with the same name, but B.J. performs her hilarious act all over the country.
Which means that she may be coming to a town near you! On January 12th, she'll be in Arizona at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts. She'll be here in Los Angeles (where she lives) for four performances January 19th-22nd at the University of Judaism (and she isn't even Jewish!) Then in the middle of February, she'll be criss-crossing the country, starting off on the 16th where she'll be in Gainesville, Florida, the 18th will find her in Grove City, Pennsylvania, and on the 22nd she'll be in Houston. After that, who knows?
If those locales aren't within striking distance, then you can find an early version of her "Stand-Up Opera" routine on her CD, which was recorded live at the Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. It's available for thirteen bucks through www.summitrecords.com where you can also listen to some selections on the album (type Stand-Up Opera in their search engine). B.J. told me that she has been working on an entirely new routine, so I'm hoping that a "Stand-Up Opera, Part II" will be in the works sometime in the near future, 'cuz her first "Stand-Up Opera" release is a riot. Not surprisingly, B.J. has been compared to The Great Anna Russell and The Great Dane Victor Borge.
She realizes that for many of us opera can be quite intimidating, largely because most of it is in a foreign language. "In Italian, you could be singing that there's a bull on my balcony and my hovercraft is full of eels," she said. But in essence, it doesn't really matter because they're just pretty songs. And truthfully, many singers nowadays have such lousy diction in English, that they may as well be singing in Esperanto or pig Latin or something.
B.J. grew up in Wilmington, Delaware where she first started studying voice and was introduced to opera (because pop singing was not a sufficient enough challenge as far as her voice teacher was concerned).
She went to New York to pursue her dreams, and performed in many shows off-Broadway, including "The Fantastiks." While there, she worked with such notable composers as Stephen Sondheim. She gravitated to the West Coast and became comfortable performing comedy and improv in front of people in the mid-80s at The Groundlings theater where her fellow alums included Phil Hartman and Pee Wee Herman.
Then one day she returned to her roots and took up the serious end of singing once again. Not in the hopes that the Met would be calling her, but just because she wanted the challenge of undertaking such difficult repertoire, and also for the satisfaction of singing what she wanted to sing, and not what anybody else was telling her she ought to sing.
B.J. has done extensive voice work on animated films, and met her husband of twenty years, Gordon Hunt, doing cartoons. Gordon, a freelance director and father of Helen, has worked on an impressive variety of projects and also directs B.J.'s show. Somehow in her busy schedule, B.J. also finds time to volunteer at The Children's Hospital in Los Angeles.
Her immediate future plans include a vacation to Hawaii, which in itself is problematic for a singer of opera who needs to keep her pipes in good vocal shape every single day by doing warm-up exercises, scales and run-throughs. She wonders where in a luxury hotel she could possibly do this other than in the closet with her tape recorder. "Because what I do to start off with sounds like a buffalo being pushed up the hill, or something," she explained.
When asked how September 11th has affected her personally she replied, "Well, I used to be able to fly in to some of these dates the morning of, and you fly halfway across the country, and then you have to change planes, but I could still make it to the venue by three or four o'clock, do a sound check and then I did my show. I can't do that now, because there aren't as many flights, and then you have a lot of extra time you have to add going through all the security. It's all different and now I really have to go in the day before. And since I take two people with me (a stage manager and my pianist), it means that it just costs me more money to do the same thing."
She also recognizes that with the suffering economy, coupled with the fact that most Americans will be doing a lot of "cocooning" for the foreseeable future, that a result could likely be fewer bookings and lower attendance for an indefinite period. But she also allows that her job is not curing cancer, but to go out there and provide the vital service of entertaining the masses, if that is how they wish to be entertained.
And if at the end of the day she's made opera more accessible to somebody, or given someone the idea that opera is something they can understand and relate to, or encouraged a few folks to go to an opera who've never been before, then she can feel that she's accomplished what she set out to do. Which is a reward in itself.
For more information concerning B.J. Ward's CDs and concert schedule, visit her Webb Sight at www.standupopera.com.
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