Feature Article

Interview:  Ira Siff of La Gran Scena Opera Company

August, 2004

Jason Victor Serinus

"La Gran Scena is UNBELIEVABLE! Ira Siff is the GREATEST artist in the world! Though they are calculated to be a spoof, they are the FINEST singers I have ever heard. They have EVERYTHING that is top-drawer in an opera ambiance. I JUST ADORE THEM!"

---Leontyne Price

From her very first night as prima donna assoluta of La Gran Scena Opera Company, a transvestite opera company formed in New York City in 1981 by Ira Siff and Mario Villaneuva, diva Galupe-Borszykh found herself abruptly thrust into the spotlight. Who would have thought that Bernard Holland, august critic for the New York Times, would not only show up but also write a short, formal review of Madames Vera Galupe-Broszykh and her arch-rival, mezzo-soprano Celestina de la Gluck?

Siff and Villaneuva formed La Gran Scena with the intention of creating parody homages of their favorite singers. Siff specifically wished to exploit his high falsetto voice, one that his voice teachers had discouraged him from using. Though he found inspiration in the late Charles Ludlam's famed Ridiculous Theater Company, he had no idea just how ridiculous Vera's initial tour de force (modeled after Callas' Monster Concerts) would appear.

For 22 years, Vera Galupe-Borszykh reigned as the world's only Traumatic Soprano. As an adjunct to La Gran Scena's international touring schedule, the Madame began giving annual Farewell recitals in 1987. These continued until 2003, when the great diva, no longer in possession of a high E-flat, delivered her final farewell (perhaps).

A hilarious performance, taped live in New York's La Belle époque in 2003, appears along with bonus material from Vera's early years on a hilarious DVD from VAI [review posted in July 2004]. Fluffed out by interviews with Siff discussing La Gran Scena and Madame Galupe-Borszkh's career, the 243-minute tour de force is filled with droll sometimes side splitting singing and repartee. A second DVD devoted entirely to La Gran Scena, a re-release of a VHS created in 1993, is due out shortly.

At the time he created Vera, Ira Siff was a self-described cabaret “starlet” and occasional off-Broadway actor who by day taught bel canto technique to Broadway and cabaret singers who wished to preserve their voices and tended bar at night. He currently directs and stages opera productions (including a spring 2004 Carnegie Hall performance of La Gioconda starring soprano Aprile Milo), operates a very active voice studio, works in vocal arts programs in Israel, Europe, and China, and writes CD reviews and major features for Opera News. He thus speaks with the authority of someone at the center of today's operatic world.

The following interview took place by telephone while Ira was in Sarasota, Florida mounting an opera production. But first, Vera's official bio:

"She defies description, crushes competition, transcends taste. In short, a born Diva!"

This quote from a recent review of Galupe-Borszkh's triumph in Traviata sums up the sentiments of a generation of opera lovers, spellbound by the awesome, yet modest, Russian soprano. She was born in Cernomorskoye, just across from the Karkinitskiy Bay from Odessa. For seven years little Verina swam the bay daily, to and from each voice lesson. This may account for her phenomenal breath control. After singing with various regional Slavic opera companies the young Vera Borszkh decided to go to Italy. She was weary of singing Aida in languages with no vowels. On her way to Rome she supported herself by performing wherever there was an offer, gaining particular attention as Bess in a production of Porgy and Bess sung in Serbo-Croation (Pirogi and Bess). Arriving in Rome, the young soprano met and later married the much older bel canto expert Manuel Galupe, rumored to have been the last living castrato ("I loved what was left of him")Galupe died on their honeymoon, but Vera - now Mme. Galupe-Borszkh - found the doors of every major opera house open to her after her Mad Scene from Lucia at Galupe's funeral. But it was Borszkh's startling underwater Tosca at the baths of Caracalla which put her on the map. Defecting from the USSR and moving to New York ("I am a defective Russian"), the diva founded La Gran Scena.For the past years she had led the troupe in more than three hundred and fifty performances. The video La Gran Scena Live In Munich is a favorite with opera lovers. Not one for pop "crossover" recordings, nor jet-setting, Mme. Galupe-Borszkh is one of the old school of singing actresses. In fact she may be the only one still registered at that school. As one critic described the "traumatic" soprano: "She reminds one of Maria Callas, but with Renata Tebaldi's hair!"


Jason Victor Serinus: Tell me Vera's origins on all levels, including in your mind.

Ira Siff: I can't spell the place Vera was born without all the literature in front of me, which isn't here where I'm directing this production for Sarasota Opera. Vera was born in Odessa, but she was born in my mind about 1981 when I was forming La Gran Scena. I needed a diva persona, and my falsetto dictated that it be Slavic, because that's the sound. So I made her Slovak.

I wanted her to be one of those hyphenated singing actresses. I also thought that the first part of her name should be something Italian or Spanish to imply the Latin influence, because I was intending to sing a lot of bel canto if I could manage to pull the company off. The second name should be one of those completely unpronounceable names made up of far too many consonants and not enough vowels.

When I started to sing, she was originally an odd combo of Zinka Milanov and Renato Scotto. Over the years, she became her own animal and took off in her own way.

She also began to look less frumpy. In the beginning she looked more like Zinka, with mountains of reddish brown hair and caftan-like gowns. Then I thought, oh shit, I've got a good figure. So she went on the Renata Scotto diet: light eating and heavy roles. She immediately lost all kinds of weight, so I stopped using the same kind of body pads and went to dresses that had waistlines.

I started with Traviata, Turandot, and Aida, all on the same program. I'd open with “In questa reggia.” That was how I discovered that La Gran Scena could be funny. The first night of the first show I sang the first line of “In questa reggia” with her Slavic accent. When I sang “Quwesta” the audience went berserk, and I thought “Oh my God.” I thought it would just be a sort of an arch, wry, entertaining evening that a few people would get, and now I'm going to have to hold for laughs during arias, which utterly delighted me, because it gave me a chance to rest. But I had no idea it would be that funny.

Then I did the Aida-Amneris duet with the guy I started the company with, Mario Villanueva, followed by the whole death scene from Traviata. That pattern of doing a lot of “energetic” scenes, shall we say, all in one show, just kept going even when we were touring and doing five or six shows a week.

JVS: It sounds like a Callas Monster Concert night after night.

IS: Exactly. That was the great role model. The Tosca scene we did was completely modeled after my pre-video memories of the Callas/Gobbi performance.

JVS: Let me get this right. When you were forming the company, what was your vision of what it would be, since you discovered on opening night that it was about to be something else?

IS: I worship Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater Company. My inspiration for starting Gran Scena was hisCamille, along with the idea of using my falsetto. I'd always had a falsetto, but my teachers told me not to use it. I thought we could do something really expressive with the falsetto voice that was incidentally funny, because we divas were guys. I didn't realize how funny it would be.

At our first performance, we were actually reviewed by the New York Times, which always make me laugh, because the last three years of twenty years of successive seasons in New York, I couldn't get a Times review into print even though we were very well known. They'd send a photographer and a critic and it would get bumped.

Our first night, without asking for him to come. Bernard Holland gave us a good review in the Times. People started to crawl down from the Met and City Opera with paper bags over their heads so they wouldn't be recognized. So we had our audience, and they found it hilarious.

We had paid enormous attention to text. We never used titles -- I only used titles once in all those years, and that was a parody of titles -- but the audience was filled with people who know the librettos enough to get all the visual and verbal and physical puns on the text.

We found our audience right away. Over the years a great deal of our audience died, and attendees became a more general theater and opera audience and older.

I was delighted it was that funny. I had a strong comedy background from cabaret. But it was the stage directors I asked to help out, Peter Schlosser and Jane Whitehill who were with me from the beginning, who helped me form the shape of what the company was going to do.

JVS: What do these people usually do?

IS: Jane left theater and became a biologist and worked in ecology. Peter is an acting coach and singing coach and teacher. He ran the Voice Department at SUNY Purchase and teaches acting at City College. He also teaches comedy and conducts choir. He's a very talented man.

I met him when we were both in the cast of The Hagadah at the Public Theater. We were both playing Jews. I told him I was starting the company and planned to do the Traviata death scene, and he said “Oh my God, I did that at the Actor's Studio. We spent six months evolving it, and I'd love to direct you.”

I had already asked my friend Jane to direct. So Jane did the whole first Gran Scena program and Peter did just the Traviata. The goals were identical: to make our characters vivid, and to then make me and Mario who were playing the characters in the scenes vivid.

Our Diva names were Vera and Celestina. Vera and Celestina were rivals of course, The characters they played were played the way the characters we created would play them. Certainly Zinka Milanov wouldn't play Aida like Callas or Rysanek. So Vera would play Aida like Vera.

I was very much the singing actress, and he was very much the elegant, Grande Dame Diva.

JVS: Were there times when you got confused as to whether you were Ira or Vera?

IS: I have no idea who that woman is. When I see her on video, it's not me; I see her. There might be little escapees of me -- occasionally, when I'd have allergy attacks, I'd clear my throat when singing and it would sound like Ira. But when I see and hear Vera now, year later -- I did two years of public radio performances of Vera opining every Sunday that VAI will eventually release on CD -- I have no idea who that is.

I feel very connected to doing the character. But when I watch the character or listen to it, I think “My god, what a creature!”

JVS: In 1981 you were . . .

IS: I was a voice teacher, a cabaret starlet (I had a following) in New York and I performed a cabaret show, and I would occasionally perform off-Broadway in more experimental stuff. I had also studied singing. But I wasn't an opera singer. I was teaching Broadway and cabaret singers bel canto to try to preserve their voices. But I wasn't connected to a Conservatory, so I didn't have a legit opera career.

My teacher was Randy Michaelson, who remains a very famous bel canto and baroque expert. He did the edition of Siege of Corinth that was prepared for Beverly Sills at the Met. He taught me very good Garcia technique, and I taught it to my students.

I was a hybrid. I didn't really have direction until the Gran Scena thing happened. I knew at the moment I saw Mario and his cousin do a little soiree in his apartment that I wanted to do this. His cousin was from the Dominican Republic, as he was, and going back.

I said to Mario, “Would you like to do this for real in theaters? We could form a little company and be the Divas.

We worked very hard. I was bartending at night while teaching voice during the day, and Mario was a translator.

JVS: That must have been great for your voice.

IS: All that smoke, and staying up until 5 AM was terrific, especially for the falsetto!

It was really a hard period, but it was worth it. And I also started late. I was already 35, and I had a higher falsetto when I was younger. So I realized it was now or never.

The Musical Director of my cabaret show was head of the Music Department at Hunter College in New York. When I proposed we do Gran Scena instead, he said great.

We auditioned other singers, and rented the Orpheum Theater on 2nd Ave and St. Marks Place for once a week Friday night shows. We were supposed to do four, but we ended up doing twelve because people just kept coming every week.

We got this great review in the Times, but Mario left right away. He was absolutely daunted by what real theater involved. I think he also felt a little bit crushed because the response to Vera was very strong from the audience. I found him a really endearing performer, and I think Holland preferred him.

But the audience liked Vera because I could sing more things. Nobody believed that a man could sing “In questa reggia.” For an encore, I'd do the Puritani Mad Scene, and I was deranged. Celestina was a more elegant persona; he felt he couldn't compete.

He was overwhelmed, and I was lost without him because he was a real go-getter. I thought, “What am I going to do?”

For a while we went to cabarets and performed at The Duplex where I used to do my cabaret act. Then someone saw us and put up some money. We moved into an 1100 seat theater called the Intermedia on 2nd Ave. and 11th St. We did two entirely different programs with wonderful costumes. We performed on the set of something called “Taking My Term.” It had closed, so we had this wonderful set with platforms we could give very different looks.

JVS: How many were you?

IS: We went up to what became our usual size. I got Phil Koch who played Philene Wannel, the main mezzo; Keith Jorasco who played a 105-year old Diva. We added characters until we became 11 or 12 people plus the pianist.

Then I invented Sylvia Bills, the narrator, America's most beloved retired Diva, who was played by my best friend Bruce Hopkins. He was a wonderful comedienne. Many people have played the role, but nobody really touched his achievement. There was this sweetness about him. Bruce died of two strokes in 1992 brought on by the juvenile diabetes he'd had since he was 13. He kept saying he'd be dead by 40. We didn't take him very seriously, but he died at 44.

I remember our audience in our glory days in New York in the mid-80s, before we toured Europe a lot. We would pack the 1500-seat Town Hall. They'd be screaming. But between 1985, when we started at Town Hall, and 1993, which was our last Town Hall until 1999 and 2000, the whole dynamic changed because so many people died. We couldn't get as big an audience, and we didn't get the 30 somethings any longer. So many of those men had died that it was just shocking.

When we came back in 1999, I actually dedicated the run in memory of our audience.

We performed in New York every season between 1981 and 2001. Besides Town Hall, I tried various venues of various sizes for various kinds of runs. For example, we'd do 40 performances at The Ballroom, a beautiful 200-seat cabaret theater. There was no smoking, eating was in a separate place. It was beautiful. But then I missed the theater so we started going back to Town Hall. We also did Symphony Space, and the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.

In 1986, I got really interested in Vera talking and singing and holding court. As a spin-off to the full company show, I began to recitalize in intimate cabaret venues. That's where Vera learned the word “dump.” I loved it immediately because I could sing everything that Divas should sing and shouldn't sing. A lot of it is on the DVD: lieder, chansons, Spanish songs . . .

JVS: You intentionally had Vera sing things that she never in her right mind should have sung?

IS: Exactly. Because they all do.

The biggest hit in the recital is “Les Chemins de l'Amour,” an absolutely gorgeous Poulenc song that was the big hit because no one laughs and everyone is astonished at how moving it is. The other big hit -- I never did a show without it -- is “Ride on Jesus,” a spiritual. People just peed; people died over how funny that is, including Leontyne. But it's just the sort of thing Divas do.

I do scat singing in it. Vera does a Gershwin number, “Swonderful,” and she scat sings. It morphs into the Mad Scene from Lucia accidentally during the scat singing.

The thing is, it's hard to be more ludicrous than the real ones are.

JVS: Did Vera consider doing a disco album?

IS: She's considered everything. The beat drives her crazy. It gives me a headache, even through the hair.

The recital was my great joy. Ross Balentine was our Music Director for many years. I had a field day putting the shows together, because I would get to do, back to back, the Mad Scene from Hamlet, the final scene from Roberto Devereux, and Azucena's big scena about burning the wrong baby accidentally. I could sing anything I wanted. We worked out many stagings, and we split the recitals between Jane and Peter as far as who directed what. But I had a lot of input myself.

It became this annual ‘best kept secret” in New York. I never advertised it except to our mailing list. It was never advertised in the Times like our full company shows. Instead, I did it year after year. I did it at the Covent Garden Festival in London, the Wexford Festival in Ireland, and even at the Metropolitan Opera Club's 100th Anniversary Dinner. I've also did parts of it at galas in Carnegie Hall.

JVS: I once performed for Opera Guilds International luncheon. There was reportedly consternation on Blanche Thebom's face when she heard I was going to whistle “Voi che sapete,” an aria in her repertoire. I'm told that when I finished, she was just beaming.

IS: That's a lot like what happened to our stuff. People hated it who had never been to it. Then they'd apologize once they came.

JVS: When Bernard Holland reviewed you, how did he call you by name?

IS: I was Madame Galupe-Borszkh, and Mario was Celestina de la Gluck. It was a very formal Times style about how we sang a falsetto and wore gowns. It was a very short review since were nobodies, but it's amazing that we got one.

He was never my favorite critic. He was always good to us -- we always got good reviews -- but he was not a huge fan of the prototype for Vera. He didn't like singing actresses in the opera house, so he wasn't about to like what I was paying tribute to. Vera's not just a spoof; it's a tribute. If he hated Scotto or Rysanek, he wasn't going to like Vera.

Throughout the years, I always tried to get someone else from the Times to come. We had over a dozen Times reviews. They were all good, but the smartest ones were by Alex Ross or Edward Rothstein. Holland's expertise wasn't in opera.

JVS: Did you ever do the final scene from Salome?

IS: Oh god, no. It's my biggest unfulfilled wish. Here was the plan. Ross and I looked at it for quite a while. He was very reticent because he thought a piano reduction of the score was not a good idea.

I wanted to stage it in Great Neck, a Jewish suburb on Long Island, because she was after all a Jewish Princess. I wanted it to be staged in the early ‘60s, and for her to ask for the head of Johnny Mathis. It would have been so funny.

The only Strauss we've done is the trio from Rosenkavalier. I staged a parody of Peter Sellars' staging, and I had supertitles that lied. They were not an accurate translation of the text, but rather what the singers were thinking about each other. It was staged in a shopping mall in Fort Wayne, New Jersey. The Marschallin was a Jewish matron called Marsha Lynn. She was coming from a Bar Mitzvah and still had the centerpiece with her that she'd stolen from the table.

It was a lot of fun. We did it for a number of years. It was one of James Levine's two favorite things of ours. The other was my Mad Scene from Lucia. I remember being told that he literally slid off his seat laughing and was on the floor.

JVS: The company retired in 2002?

IS: We went out in a blaze of something or other at the Liceo Opera House in Barcelona. We had a huge, wonderful success there. We won this medal from the city Cultural Council as “One of the Ten Best Cultural Events of 2002.” It was very exciting and lovely, and made me desperate to continue. Everybody keeps saying, where is it, why don't you do it?

You reach this age. I'm directing, I have a very active voice studio, I work in vocal arts programs in Europe, Israel in China, and I write for Opera News. At this point, schlepping it around and performing 5 or 6 shows a week with 3 to 4 week runs in Europe to break even is not possible for me at this age. And the same things have happened to my voice that happen to all singers when they get older. There's a certain amount of attrition. You become richer artistically and interpretively, but you have less resources in terms of agility and range.

JVS: Do you have a high E-flat?

IS: Not any more. Only a D now. I've started lowering things a half step or just cutting things. I don't do Lucia anymore and that stuff. But I figure so did Dame Joan at the end.

JVS: Absolutely. And Rossini and Bellini transposed accordingly if they loved a singer.

IS: Exactly. As Malibran did in Sonnambula.

JVS: There are some singers who, when they lose the shine on their voice, reveal that there's not that much else there.

IS: You got it. That's why my bent has always been theatrical and musical rather than just vocal. It became a really pretty voice in certain ways singing certain things. But I was not someone who woke up with a pretty falsetto and decided to become a baroque countertenor.

I had something I wanted to do, something I wanted to say. I went into it for that reason. On the way, the voice got prettier and better and richer just from doing it. But I'm so glad that it wasn't just about sound, because when the sound goes away, there's nothing. That would be very startling. There's someone in my company who lost his falsetto. He's a wonderful artist, but he wasn't left with a whole lot.

Now that I review for Opera News, people tell me I'm so nice and sympathetic. But I've had to do it, and I know. Critics often haven't been performers, and they don't have a clue. If you can get through Les Nuits d'éte sick, and the middle of the voice is probably the worst because that's where the cold hits, while the top can usually rid over it. If you haven't performed in that way, you just don't get it.

JVS: Your Opera News story on Caballé was an inspiration and revelation. I'm not part of a group where people tell all those Diva stories.

IS: It was a pity, because I had three times as many stories to tell that I to cut because of lack of space.

One of my favorites didn't make it in. When she was at Covent Garden her first season, she debuted in La Traviata. She brought her own gowns which were garish and brightly colored -- they were just appalling. When she was set to return the next season in the Visconti Trovatore where everything is black, they made her sign a clause in her contract that she would only wear the costumes of the production.

Before the performance, a Covent Garden official went into her dressing room to make sure that everything was in order. There was Montsy, sitting there dolled up for Trovatore in the bright purple gown that she had brought herself. He said, “Madame Caballé, you can't wear that. You signed a contract saying you were going to wear the costumes that belong to the production.”

And she said, “Oh, but I am.” She lifted the purple gown, and underneath was the black gown she was supposed to be wearing.

You just can't invent them. That's why the stuff I use for Vera is extreme but rings true for people. She's the world's only Traumatic Soprano. She was saved from a fatal plane crash by using her Aida wig as a floatation device. She made her debut at La Scala in the sequel to Menotti's The Medium entitled The Large.

All these running gags are in her bio. You hear it and it's funny. But at the same time, the outrageousness of these people makes you have to go that far for it to read as kind of a parody and homage.

Opera singers are this extreme themselves. The more I know them, now that I've segued into the legit opera world a bit, the more I know how crazy they can be.

JVS: Did Cerquetti really go crazy onstage?

IS: I don't know if she went crazy onstage But the pressure of replacing Callas in Norma while running around doing her own shows as well at about 26 to 28 years of age was a lot of pressure for her. She finally broke down and just couldn't hack it anymore. And I don't blame her.

JVS: But what a voice!

IS: What a voice. She'd rule the world now if she showed up now. I'd like to think that, but I don't know. I'm very good friends with Aprile Milo, whom I think has one of the most beautiful voices in the business, and I often see her Verdi roles cast these days with Russians who can't even pronounce the words. So who knows? It's a crazy business.

JVS: I heard her when her voice seemed to be falling apart, and now she's come back.

IS: That problem had to do with sinuses and bad medication -- stuff that was physiological. People were so unsympathetic and misguided in thinking it was a vocal collapse. I didn't know her at the time, but I remember hearing her in Lombardi in the Met when this was happening to her, and remember thinking “This woman has not lost her voice. This is a very beautiful voice. Something's going on here that's making it not function as she's used to.” And that turned out to be the case.

She went through some really bad sinus stuff and wrong choices from ENT doctors. It led to a big problem for her. She cancelled a lot because she was so frightened, which led to a career decline.

But she's resurrecting her career. The Met and Chicago are about to have her back, and I semi-staged Gioconda for her in Carnegie Hall in April. We did Adriana which was a big success, and next year we're doing Fanciulla.

JVS: Do you know Olivero?

IS: Not personally. I just worship at the shrine. I didn't get her at first. Then I heard her Tosca at the Met in 1975, a little before you heard her do it in San Francisco, and I was completely subjugated. A company in New Jersey also had her do Fedora, Mephistophele, and Adriana. There was nothing like it. It was like going back in time.

She was getting old. Some nights she would start out sounding like she was 90. By the end of the first act she sounded like she was 50, and in the second act sounded 35. It just took a while to get the engine going.

JVS: She was incredible here in Tosca. Save for a flatted high note in “Vissi d'arte,” she was flawless. And ever her breathing during the applause was dramatic; you could see her chest moving in and out from the balcony.

IS: From Callas it was the greatest and best sung Tosca I have seen. The “Vissi d'arte” was impeccable at the Met. It was so slow -- I modeled Vera's after that because it was always appallingly slow -- but she sustained it so exquisitely it was uncanny.

JVS: Caballé did a string of Toscas here. She seemed to have one stentorian tone until she came to “Vissi d'arte.”

IS: Yes.

JVS: People were laughing. The baritone was almost as large as she was, and the notion of rape seemed far-fetched. While people were giggling, she lay down on her belly and sang the most exquisite, breathtaking, perfectly controlled “Vissi d'arte” I have ever heard.

IS: It always impressed me how in her prime she could always do the climactic line in one breath.

JVS: With Olivero my hands were burning for a day and a half from all the applause.

IS: Absolutely. I screamed myself hoarse.

JVS: Does Vera have anything to add to your commentary?

VG-B: I'm flattened you would even ask me.

I am the last and only Traumatic Soprano, and I was married to the last living castrato, so my technique is wonderful. You can't have everything, but I loved what was left of him. For a Diva having a husband that's already castrated saves so much time.

I hope everybody will buy my DVD. It's as excessive as I am. Two hours recital, and two hours twenty minutes of bonus tracks from 1987 to 2001. Some of my greatest hits, and all my hits are great. I hope you my public still care for me. Even though I am in semi-semi-retirement, I will never stop.

- Jason Victor Serinus -


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