Tanya’s Secret

Tanya’s Secret, a queer-trans Onegin, is a new adaptation of Eugene Onegin by Opéra Queens, that opened tonight at the Betty Oliphant Theatre.

Let’s begin by remembering Tchaikovsky’s original: a piece full of beautiful melodies, a few wonderful arias, several glorious dances, that plays like a cautionary tale about relationships.

Tatyana (should we call her Tanya?) boldly comes on to Onegin, who doesn’t reciprocate and breaks her heart in the process.

Bored world-weary Onegin dances a bit too much with vivacious Olga, at least in the jealous eyes of Lensky her main squeeze: leading Lensky to challenge Onegin to a duel.

Onegin kills Lensky.

And then years later Onegin meets Tatyana, now married to Gremin. This time Onegin throws himself at Tatyana. While she does admit to feelings for Onegin, she loves her partner, breaking Onegin’s heart.

Yes the story comes from Pushkin, whose sexual orientation isn’t known (NB Google is inconclusive on the topic). But given that Tchaikovsky is usually understood as a gay composer, the opera is ideal for the kind of exploration undertaken by Mike Fan | 范祖铭 (they) aka Tanya Smania (she), Opéra Queens’ artistic director. I’m still trying to wrap my head around what I saw and heard in this new version.

What’s different from the usual Onegin?

For starters Mike aka Tanya undertakes the role of Tatyana, dressed physically as a girl / woman, but underplayed. It’s not “drag” as you might know from watching Too Wong Foo or Priscilla Queen of the Desert. This isn’t like Dame Edna, not over the top, not played for laughs. To do so would dishonour Tchaikovky and the credibility of the project. As made clear in the interview they did earlier this week, it’s almost a sacred project.

We’re given some time to get accustomed to the illusion: and it does work. While Mike aka Tanya don’t always manage the music Tchaikovsky composed for his young diva, the dramatic side is remarkable. This is the most vulnerable Tatyana I’ve ever seen, exposed because after all the illusion is not perfect, even as we watch Mike aka Tanya in p.j.’s, pouring their heart out in a love letter to Onegin. We’re in a very theatrical space where we compensate for what’s not quite there. While I’m not sure, I believe Mike aka Tanya is singing the role as a tenor, hitting some very high notes, and from my ignorant point of view at least, enunciating their Russian quite well.

Yes it’s in Russian except when it’s in French plus some added Ukrainian poetry / songs. I’m not sure about the language, but I would assume it’s authentic. The inserted Ukrainian content sung powerfully by Douglas Graham was an interesting bonus, a lovely gesture in response to current politics.

I will speak of the remainder of the cast, mindful that I might get their pronouns wrong. Mike aka Tanya is not the only one playing a part cross-gender from the usual.

Mike aka Tanya and Georgios Iatrou (Photo: Elana Emer, Lighting: Mikael Kangas)

Georgios Iatrou is Onegin, singing the role in the usual baritone register. Iatrou is a vocal standout, the music pouring out effortlessly, including lots of high notes. He is compelling, making me believe everything that he is doing, whether as the Byronesque object of Tatyana’s affections, the shit-disturber hitting on Olga, then duelling with & killing his friend Lensky, and finally when he is smitten with Tatyana in the last scenes. As you can tell I was very impressed.

Tonight’s Lensky was Christina Yun, putting a new spin on the role by singing it as a soprano. Watching the portrayal I felt the artificiality of this staging foregrounds the curious dynamics of the relationships we’re watching. We’re told Lensky is a poet, a romantic. And in such a modern emotional landscape Lensky seems to be an anachronism, a foolish relic over-reacting to what happens at the party. Of course that’s how the part is written, but he seems especially out-dated while Onegin was ahead of his time.

Another ingredient that’s a bit different is Olga, tonight portrayed by Corinne DeJong. Onegin responds to her at the party. DeJong made her vivacious and confident, which made Lensky’s reaction seem especially unfortunate.

There were several other performers making excellent contributions. Catherine Carew was Gremin, singing a part usually given to a bass, and sounding heroic going (I think) well below middle C. Prince Gremin seemed to be male but sung by contralto Carew. And on the other side, Carew was Madame Larina, the doting mom to Tatyana and Olga.

Filipyevna the nurse was portrayed tonight by Dr J Marchand Knight, always interesting to watch whether singing or not. I think they made everyone sharing the stage a little better, a little more confident and ready to enjoy themselves. Rain Senavinin made more out of Monieur Triquet than usual, interpolating some extra notes, and confidently winning our hearts in the Drag Ball that opens the last act. Every performance was improved by being put at ease, having huge fun especially in the shenanigans of the Drag Ball. It was the most entertaining version of that scene I’ve ever seen. I think Tchaikovsky would approve (privately!) even if he was usually constrained in his public statements.

I recommend this to anyone able to come to the theatre Sunday afternoon, where the roles cited as “tonight” will be undertaken by someone different. No it’s not exactly what Tchaikovky wrote. But it’s vivid, wonderful theatre. I recommend it. (click here for ticket info)

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