The gay marriage of Figaro: Festival presents queer night

In opera parlance, the term is “pants role,” meaning male characters performed by female singers. Mozart wrote one for “The Marriage of Figaro,” Strauss for “Der Rosenkavalier.”

As Berkeley singer Leslie Hassberg notes, the opera repertoire also boasts a few skirt roles for men cast as women. Not to mention roles for women playing men playing women.

Gotterdammerung, that’s a lot of operatic gender bending.

Hassberg plans to bend it to the max with “A Queer Night at the Opera,” an off-coloratura evening of music, insight and on-stage fabulousness. She and her colleagues will perform the show at the 10th annual National Queer Arts Festival on June 29.

If Hassberg looks familiar to local Jewish opera fans, it may be that they saw her on the bimah at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel. For the past six years she has sung in the High Holy Day choir there (often as the only Jewish member).

She wrote and produced “A Queer Night at the Opera,” with help from director Yefim Maizel and fellow singers Elena Krell, Stephanie Lynne Smith, Jonathan Smucker, John P. Minagro and the Lesbian and Gay Chorus of San Francisco. Hassberg promises the show will appeal even to the most intransigent operaphobes.

“Opera has a large and overbearing reputation,” she says. “People think about the Wagner operas with people wearing horns. I did a show called ‘Opera for Lesbians and Friends,’ and a number of people came up and said, ‘I thought I hated opera, but I loved it.'”

The show starts off mildly enough, with a few arias for people who think they don’t know opera: Tunes from Bizet’s “Carmen,” Leo Delibes’ “Lakme” and other “things you might hear on commercials and ringtones. The second part is on gender-bending.”

That’s where the pants and skirt arias come in. “There’s a duet from Bellini’s ‘I Cappileti,’ a Romeo and Juliet [opera],” Hassberg says, “but Romeo is a woman.” The third part is a little historical survey of opera itself, and finally, most daringly of all, gay and lesbian composers, characters and situations.

Hassberg says the performers will sing excerpts from gay-themed operas like “Harvey Milk,” “Hand of Bridge,” and an unpublished opera, “Sorjuana,” by local composer Carla Lucero.

She closes the show with an audience sing-along of “Libiamo” from Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Think you don’t know it? You do.

A native New Yorker, Hassberg is the daughter of European Jewish refugees. Classically trained, she came to the West Coast in 1979, drawn by the burgeoning women’s music industry. She attended San Francisco State University to earn a degree in choral conducting, and later served as conductor of the San Francisco Lesbian Chorus. She also loves to sing folk, jazz and musical theater.

“The reason I’m not a world-famous opera singer is that I have so many other musical interests,” she says, laughing. “I gave up on being Beverly Sills.”

Among those interests is singing Jewish liturgical music, most notably at Sherith Israel. “It brings me back to my roots,” she says. “I don’t consider myself a religious person but I grew up learning about my culture and religion. There’s something about the holidays that’s evocative and meaningful. That people come together to sing these same words for thousands of years gives me shivers.”

The National Queer Arts Festival’s “A Queer Night at The Opera” takes place 8 p.m. Friday, June 29, at the SomArts Cultural Arts Center, 934 Brannan St., S.F. Tickets: $10-$18. Information: (415) 864-4124 or online at www.queerculturalcenter.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.